Review: The Ladies’ Paradise by Émile Zola

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].

Bon Marché circa 1872 that provided the model for Zola’s The Ladies’ Paradise. Bon Marché was one of the first department stores, and, at one point, the biggest department store in the world.

As in his book The Belly of Paris [1873], 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 [1885], 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.

*SPOILER ALERT*

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.

16 thoughts on “Review: The Ladies’ Paradise by Émile Zola

  1. Here are Zola’s own comments on the Mouret and Denise relationship.
    In his notes in preparation for writing this novel, Emile Zola described Denise as thus:
    “Octave making a fortune through woman, exploiting woman, speculating on her coquetry and, at the end, when he triumphs, finding himself conquered by a woman who did it without trying, who conquered him by the sheer power of her femininity. Create her: a superb specimen combining grace and uprightness.”
    So Zola saw it as Denise conquering Mouret rather than Mouret conquering Denise.
    Your article is very fine. “I tried to “Like” it, but the system didn’t allow me even though I logged in via WordPress and was able to comment.

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    1. Thanks and that is interesting about Denise conquering Mouret. I honestly just wished Zola at least tried to put that in his book. *SPOILER* When we find out that Denise at least likes Mouret, the book has finished – almost, and Zola “dispenses” with that out-of-the-blue feeling from her in one line. And then the issue is Denise conquering “whom” exactly? Mouret is no Mr. Darcy and has no redeeming qualities whatsoever. I do not know how can anyone knowing Mouret and his history believe in his “true love” for Denise or for her strange “love” for him. Having said, if Mouret stands for the new commercial world and capitalism, like his shop, Denise did successfully conquer that and his world. What happiness or most likely – great personal (not financial) unhappiness that comes after that, of course, is for our own imagination.

      Btw thanks for recommending me plays by Eugene O’Neill, have just recently read and watched Long Day’s Journey into Night (the film), very interesting to compare it with Miller’s work.

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      1. Was Mouret “a good catch”? I don’t have quite the negative opinion of him that you do. He was the successful director of one of Paris’s finest department stores and well-liked by most of the store’s employees. As for his way with women, it was probably understandable for his time, him being rich and successful.

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        1. But, aren’t we constantly told in the book how money does not matter to Denise and she only wants it for her brothers and to survive, and how she values kindness, honesty, decency and her morality above money? How is it possible then that she suddenly “fell in love” with Mouret and wants to be with him because he is rich and successful? He is an abusive, even psychopathic “catch”, and will certainly cheat on Denise after their marriage. He was firing people on the spot, giving them dreadful food (“killing” and destroying many families indirectly) and never cared about other people’s lives. He never will. Zola equates “success” with this behaviour, but this is not necessarily true in real life. Where was Mouret’s journey of “redemption” in the story? Zola did not think to include it. The fact that Denise had to go back and forgive the shop’s abuses and Mouret’s atrocious and muddy past life and the way he has always treated women, is like a big slap in the face. Leopards don’t change their spots. His employees were in awe of him, and intimidated by him and his irresponsible lifestyle.

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  2. Fantastic review! This novel was assigned in one of my history classes – it was my first Zola and has stuck with me a long time. I was startled and enlightened by the information that many of the issues we see today (small stores going out, superstores taking over) are as old as Zola’s time.

    That said… THANK YOU for calling out the problematic nature of Denise and Mouret’s relationship. Oh, that bothered me so much. I had thought Denise was something of a Bronte-esque heroine, up until the point she seems to have fallen for Mouret’s charisma and status. Because what else does he have going for him? Will he really stop preying on his vulnerable female workers (bad enough, his female customers)?

    My thoughts from (oof) 10 years ago:
    https://classicsconsidered.com/2012/09/13/character-thursday-octave-mouret/
    https://classicsconsidered.com/2012/09/19/the-ladies-paradise/

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    1. Thank you, and thanks for agreeing with me! We are presented with one Denise for the whole book and then in one line at the very end of the book she suddenly becomes a whole different person, clearly. How can she admire in Mouret the very traits we are told she despises? It’s very strange and…unsettling. You are right, Mouret only has his status (and we are told Denise is not really interested in that) and charisma, well that’s his superficial charm only turned on when he wants something, and when he got that he would quickly get tired of that and jump on something else. Through the plot, it is obvious he’s got a temper, too. Yes, I have no doubt he would continue preying on vulnerable young women in his shop. Denise was clearly a challenge, but he must love beauty and is never satisfied.

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  3. This was adapted as a TV serial and set in Victorian Britain a few years ago, and you’d think it might work in that format, but I gave up early on as it soon started to have a soap opera feel to it. But as a critique of a ruthless capitalism which is still with us I suppose Zola’s novel just emphasises to us moderns tht there’s little really new under the sun.

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    1. Yes, the novel works well as that critique and resonates today. That’s interesting about the TV format. It reminds me of that Mr. Selfridge TV series about London’s department store and its owner that also had its run. I never watched it myself and don’t know how good it is, but my family did.

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      1. Yes, that’s the one, Diana, Mr Selfridge was indeed based on the Zola novel but transplanted to London. I couldn’t bear to watch any more than the little bit I did, but maybe that was just me!

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  4. So glad I discovered your blog due to your comment on my blog (RIPXVII) !
    I see I have a lot of reading to do in your “archive”.
    I read all of Zola’s books in French…it was a personal challenge a few years ago…and it took me 2,5 years! I remember this book…8th in the series…and found Denise Badu on of the strongest female character up until that point. I felt Zola can be a ‘run-away train” when it comes to descriptions, albeit they are beautiful…the book was 75% about the store (interior etc) and 25% about the characters. But still…the book is a great read! Your review was fun to read and remember the book again!

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    1. Thanks for the comment. It must have been incredible and fulfilling to read all of Zola in French. I did find some Zola rather dense reading in English, and I can only imagine doing so in French. I am also enjoying the “theatre” section on your blog. I did not plan it, but 2022 s proving a “play-reading” year for me, and I have so far enjoyed reading Williams, O’Neill, Pirandello and Dürrenmatt’s plays in particular.

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