The Ladies’ Paradise [1883/1995] – ★★★★1/2
In this French classic translated by Brian Nelson, Denise Baudu, a young woman from the Valognes countryside, arrives to Paris with her two younger brothers, orphaned and destitute, looking to get employment at her uncle Mr Baudu’s small drapery shop. However, the moment Denise arrives, she becomes entranced by The Ladies’ Paradise, a magnificent shopping establishment that entices its customers with its extravagant window displays, personalised service, constant sales and affordable luxury. Since Mr Baudu’s small shop is on the brink of bankruptcy and Denise has to feed and clothe her two brothers, she feels she has no choice but to attempt working at this glittering shopping monstrosity that has already devoured many small businesses in the area, shutting them down. The proprietor of The Ladies’ Paradise is “brilliant” and ruthless Octave Mouret, an enigmatic figure, whose money-making schemes are already revolutionising the city’s shopping space. Can Denise, with her innocence and simplicity, navigate this complex, often immoral, commercial world so that she and her brothers survive? Zola masterfully and perceptively captures the changing Paris of the 1850-1860s that starts undergoing drastic urban transformations and changes in customer trends, seeing the rise of the “temples to Fashion’s madness for spending”, that are huge department stores.
Zola created The Ladies’ Paradise and the character of Mouret after Le Bon Marché department store in Paris and its famous owner Aristide Boucicaut. Together with our main heroine, we step into this unknown world of commercial activity and dazzling displays that is The Ladies’ Paradise, whose only desire seems to attract and dazzle its “victims” with its elaborate displays, causing “sensations”. To be successful, the shop replaces the principle of supply with the principle of making customers buy things they did not even know they wanted or needed – selling a large number of articles cheaply, while also underpinning this activity with relentless advertising and having everything a customer may need in one store, including food services. This is the rise of a brand, and also of those salespeople who have “superficial” education, but who are also “effective” to the point of being pushy, while maintaining their politeness (as opposed to having honest people with integrity): “it seems that nowadays it’s thieves who make fortunes, while honest folk are starving to death”, complains Mr Baudu [Zola/Nelson, Oxford University Press, 1883/1995: 210]; “any counter-jumper who’s just beginning has a chance of becoming millionaire nowadays” [Zola/Nelson, OUP, 1883/1995: 66]. Moreover, Mouret has exclusive rights to the finest silk there is – supple Paris-Paradise, and also has plans to expand, razing to the ground small houses that stand in his way of him “owning” the whole block of Paris.
As Denise takes her position at The Ladies’ Paradise, she realises that everything is not what it seems at the store: “she felt she was a grain of millet beneath a powerful millstone, and she was utterly forlorn at feeling herself so insignificant in that huge machine” [Zola/Nelson, OUP, 1883/1995: 155]. There is overworked staff at the store, sacking is routine, and Dense feels a “dog-eat-dog” atmosphere, whereby workers are set against each other in the zeal to make money. Denise has to deal with bullying and jealousy (including from Mouret’s mistress Madam Desforges): “…everyone in the department, from the newcomer dreaming of becoming a salesman to the senior sales-man coveting the manager’s job, had only one fixed idea – to dislodge the colleague above them in order to climb a rung of the ladder, to devour him if he became an obstacle; and it was as if this struggle of appetites, this pressure of one against another, was what made the machine run smoothly, stimulating business and igniting the blaze of success which was astonishing Paris” [Zola/Nelson, 1883/1995: 161].
As in his book The Belly of Paris , where Zola provides wondrous descriptions of the Parisian food market Les Halles, which also stands for the greed of the bourgeois, in The Ladies’ Paradise, Zola also describes sumptuously the workings of one shop that is like one glittering Satan, promising the world in exchange of money, or like a new church, whose worshippers are shoppers making their pilgrimage. As in his masterpiece Germinal , Zola also underscores the human cost of ruthless capitalistic gains in his book, and we are introduced to a number of shop-keepers who suffer as a result of Mouret’s business. In some way, The Ladies’ Paradise is a Balzacian novel, at times showing very clearly just how competitive Paris can be, swallowing up innocence and kindness, and devouring anyone who is not sufficiently ruthless or self-interested, for example, salesman Henri Deloche complains: “You see, when you don’t know how to steal other people’s mistresses, and when you’re too clumsy to make as much money as they [other salesmen] do, well, the best thing is to go off and die in some corner” [Zola/Nelson, OUP, 1883/1995: 148].
In The Ladies’ Paradise, ruthless capitalism goes head-to-head with the last vestiges of personal integrity, honour, goodness and humanitarian goals, and the result may not be the one expected. It seems as though Zola succumbed to his own delightful invention that is The Ladies’ Paradise, providing a weaker ending than anticipated, over-stating his message and not presenting his main romantic relationship convincingly (see spoiler). However, in terms of the portrayal of the emergence of a new type of Parisian shopping experience during the Second Empire, the book is brilliant. The “little people“ and their small, old-fashioned shops are pitted against one giant capitalistic machine, and the result is impressive. Denise starts a “quiet revolution”, being resilient to both the workers’ abuse and the shop’s powers of seduction, while the store starts striking at the very heart of its customers’ desires, fulfilling emerging dreams, anticipating whims and, and in the process, stealing their hearts and minds.
As a novel that focuses on a symbol of capitalism, The Ladies’ Paradise is great, but it is very problematic as a story about a developing love relationship. No one expects Zola to write on this topic like Austen or Brontë sisters, but Zola does not even try to make his main romance believable. Denise’s love for Mouret is not only sudden in the story (introduced in one strange line), but it is also quite preposterous, illogical and deeply concerning.
Denise is described as having “kindness, good sense, a love of truth and logic, which was her great strength” [Zola/Nelson, 1883/1995: 157]. It then beggars belief how she could suddenly fall for a complete womaniser, for a ruthless, unscrupulous and power-hungry man who caused so much destruction to her own people (including through store sackings and closing businesses). There is no indication in the novel that Mouret changed his ways, apart from lustfully “suffering” and pursuing Denise, as well making some changes to the shop’s organisation. Then comes the most disturbing line in the whole book: “she [Denise] loved him for the grandeur of his [Mouret’s] achievement, and each time he committed some fresh excess of power, despite the flood of tears which overwhelmed her at the thought of misery of the vanquished, she loved him even more” [Zola/Nelson, 1883/1995: 389]. This suggests that Denise fell in love with Mouret because of his success and power over others that also destroyed many a family, and this “love” is akin to something like being infatuated with some powerful celebrity who also happens to be an abuser (and there is plenty of evidence of that). This certainly does not accord with Denise’s character as it was established in the rest of the book, and it is therefore worrying to leave Denise in Mouret’s hands when the novel ends.