The Ladies' Paradise by Zola

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The Ladies' Paradise by Zola

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Editat: gen. 11, 2013, 12:53pm

I just finished reading The Ladies' Paradise, which is the eleventh in the Rougon-Macquart series. It features Octave Mouret, the son of the Mourets in The Conquest of Plassans, and brother of Father Mouret in The Sin of Father Mouret.

This is my review:

The Ladies' Paradise can be approached on three levels: as a somewhat conventional 19th century love story, as a study of the inner workings of the retailing business in the late 19th century, and as an indictment of the rampant consumerism. First, the love story:

Denise and her two younger brothers have come to Paris, where their uncle, a small shopkeeper, had promised her a position in his shop after their parents died. When they arrive at their uncle's store, Denise finds that the store is suffering and her uncle is unable to offer her a position, primarily because a large and growing establishment, The Ladies' Paradise, is siphoning off his customers. Other small shops in the area are also in decline, and Denise feels fortunate to obtain a position at The Ladies' Paradise.

The owner of The Ladies' Paradise is Octave Mouret, who was featured in the previous Rougon-Macquart novel Pot Luck; however, none of the characters or events in that novel spill over to the current novel. In the interval between the two books, Octave has married the widow of the owner of The Ladies' Paradise, she has died in an accident, and he has succeeded to sole ownership. Octave is now a wealthy womanizer, seducing and discarding shopgirls on a regular basis. Initially he is not attracted to Denise, who is described as slight, and somewhat plain, except for a magnificent mane of hair. Denise overcomes a series of hardships, including the disdain of her fellow shopgirls, and Octave gradually takes notice of her and attempts to seduce her. She resists, focuses on her work and family, and is able to work her way into positions of greater responsibility and compensation. Denise gradually comes to love Octave, but doesn't want to be another of his throwaways. SPOILER SPOILDER SPOILER. She holds out for marriage, and in the end he marries her, and I guess they live happily ever after.

This story-line aspect of the novel is the weakest part of the book and the part I liked least. In fact, it was due to my recollection of this story-line that I almost skipped this one in my Rougon-Macquart challenge, since I had initially read it within the last 10 years. While I liked Denise's character, especially in the beginning when she felt something like Jane Eyre to me, after a while she began to grate on me as being too perfect. I found myself wondering what a Dickens heroine was doing in a Zola novel. And, as noted above, unlike any other Zola novel I've read, there's a sappy, happy ending.

Nevertheless, The Ladies' Paradise is a worthy component of the Rougon-Macquart series. It gives us an insider's view of the inner-workings of a major department store at the end of the 19th century, when surprisingly many of the retailing techniques we think of as modern were beginning to be utilized. We see the nitty-gritty mechanics of the business, including the living arrangements of the shopgirls (in dorms over the shop), how receipts are collected and counted, how inventory is controlled, how deliveries are made, even how shoplifters are treated. In addition, we watch as Octave institutes the innovations that allow him to drive the small shopowners out of business and maximize profits.

For example, he begins partially basing compensation of the sales force on their sales receipts: "To make people do their best--and to keep them honest--it was necessary to excite their selfish desires first." He begins a practice of heavy advertising, and begins catelogue sales. He adopts a policy allowing returns, on the theory that the belief that an item can be returned will induce a customer to buy more--will be the tipping factor for whether to purchase an item or not. He scientifically arranges the merchandise and the location of the departments so each customer will have to traverse a larger portion of the store and make impulse purchases. The grand innovation of course is the development of a store in which many categories of goods are sold, rather than just one--the "department" store.

Mouret exploits the greed of his customers. He lures them in with low-advertised prices on a particular item, knowing that the enjoyment of buyers "is doubled when they think they are robbing the tradesman. " He recognizes that if one item is seen as a bargain, other items can be sold at as high a price as anywhere else, and "they'll still think yours are the cheapest." He uses sales in order to expedite turnover of inventory: "He had discovered that she could not resist a bargain, that she bought without necessity when she thought she saw a cheap line, and on this observation he based his system of reductions in price of unsold items, perferring to sell them at a loss, faithful to his principle of continual renewal of the goods."

Throughout, the madness of consumerism is condemned. Many of the new retailing techniques are based on a low opinion of the customer. For the most part the customer is female, and as a woman she is implicitly compared to the victim of sexual seduction:

"Mouret's unique passion was to conquer woman. He wished her to be queen in her house, and he had built this temple to get her completely at his mercy. His sole aim was to intoxicate her with gallant attentions, and traffic on her desires, work on her fever. Night and day he racked his brain to invent fresh attractions."

Then, "...when he had emptied her purse and shattered her nerves, he was full of the secret scorn of a man to whom a woman had just been stupid enough to yield herself."

However, the woman is not excused:

"It was the woman that they were continually catching in the snare of their bargains, after bewildering her with their displays. They had awakened new desires in her flesh; they were an immense temptation, before which she succumbed fatally, yielding at first to reasonable purchases of useful articles for the household, then tempted by their coquetry, then deoured. In increasing their business tenfold, in popularizing luxury, they became a terrible spending agency, ravaging the households, working up the fashionable folly of the hour, always dearer. And if woman reigned in their shops like a queen, cajoled, flattered, overwhelmed with attentions, she was an amorous one, on whom her subjects traffic, and who pays with a drop of her blood each fresh caprice."

I found myself fascinated with these two aspects of the book, perhaps because, unlike Denise, the seductions of The Ladies' Paradise prevailed over the good sense of its customers.

feb. 6, 2013, 4:51pm

I've just finished this and wrote my review before reading yours, Deborah. However, it seems we are in almost complete agreement about the strengths and weaknesses of the novel. Here is my review.

The strength of this novel is its almost overwhelming depiction of the merchandise in the Ladies' Paradise, one of the first Parisian department stores, and of Parisian women's insatiable demand for the goods it offers. The weakness is the plot and the characterization; the usually brilliant story-teller Zola falls down on that aspect of the job in this novel. However, a less good Zola is still a lot better than a lot of other books!

At the beginning of this novel, an orphaned provincial young woman, Denise, brings her two younger brothers (one a young man, one a child) to Paris, hoping to stay at the home of their uncle, who owns a small store. His business is failing, however, because Octave Mouret, the protagonist of Pot Luck, has turned the small store he acquired by marrying Mme. Hedouin (who subsequently died) into a department store which is stealing business from all the shop-owners in the neighborhood. Despite the fact that everyone she meets hates the Ladies' Paradise, Denise is attracted by it and has no other option except to get a job there as a salesgirl; this entitles her to a small room in which to live as well as her meals. As the novel progresses, she encounters various problems, is fired and then rehired, and comes to the attention of Mouret, who is the creative genius and dictatorial ruler of the store. A ladies man, he somewhat unbelievably becomes romantically interested in Denise; although she resists, her prestige rises in the store. I found the character of Denise much too meek and good to be true, and I couldn't believe the romantic attachment between Mouret and her.

So much for the plot. Zola dazzles the reader, as Mouret dazzles the shoppers, with his descriptions of the displays and the merchandise and the ways in which the female shoppers almost swoon over it. He also brilliantly dissects the inner workings of a department store: how the goods enter, how they're sold, how they're paid for, how they're shipped out, how the finances work, how the different types of employees are encouraged to compete with each other and how, mostly cattily, they treat each other, how shoplifting works and is caught, and much more. Another aspect of the novel is real estate: the creation of the large boulevards of Paris (as described in other works in the Rougon-Macquart cycle) and the attempts to cash in on them, as well as Mouret's machinations to acquire the right parcels to create a store that fills the entire block. Although Zola also tries to show how this drives the other merchants out of business, this part of the story is less fully told. As a portrait of the growth of department stores, materialism, and commercialism, this novel is fascinating, if not horrifying, and a meaningful contribution to Zola's goal of giving readers a full picture of life of during the Second Empire. It just isn't a very good story.

feb. 6, 2013, 5:54pm

One of the fascinating historical perspectives in Zola's works revolves around this particular work especially IMO and that's Baron Haussmann's reconfiguring of the streets and avenues of the Paris of the day without which the modern department store might have had to wait another decade or so and Zola forthrightly portrays the human cost of that project--more or less a case of eminent domain--people having their livelihoods destroyed in the modernization process--old ways give way to the new ways--it's the same as ever today. Those who can't or refuse to keep up get left behind. A cutthroat aspect of western human society--there are always people getting rich off the misery or destruction of others.

Editat: ag. 19, 2013, 7:05am

Oh, it's definitely the same as ever today, and the whole Haussmanization of Paris is treated in more detail in The Kill where, then as now, it's the poor who get moved in the name of "urban renewal."

feb. 6, 2013, 7:42pm

And in The Kill, the insiders who make off like bandits.

Rebecca--great review. It's nice to have my opinion of the book validated by such a perceptive reader as you! And I agree, even a "bad" Zola is well-worth reading.

ag. 18, 2013, 1:38pm

Here is my review:

The Ladies' Paradise by Émile Zola
First published 1883 as Au Bonheur des Dames
English translation by Brian Nelson 1995


“The silk department was like a huge bedroom dedicated to love, hung with white by the whim of a woman in love who, snowy in her nudity, wished to compete in whiteness. All the milky tones of an adored body were there, from the velvet of the hips to the fine silk of the thighs and the shining satin of the breasts.”

In such sexual terms, Émile Zola repeatedly describes the merchandise on display in Paris’s first and greatest department store, “The Ladies’ Paradise,” or simply “The Paradise.”

The fabrics and articles of clothing are designed to appeal to all the erotic senses. A pair of leather gloves smells “like an animal in rut which has landed in a girl’s powder box.” Women plunge their hands into bales of silk and piles of lace, their rapture reaching an orgasmic intensity which translates into a frenzy of spending. The shop floor, seen from above, was a “sea of bosoms bursting with life, beating with desire.” And at the end of big sale “the customers, despoiled and violated, were going away in disarray, their desires satisfied, and with the secret shame of having yielded to temptation in the depths of some sleazy hotel.”

The setting is Paris in the 1860s during the extravagant, materialistic years of the Second Empire. The owner and manager of The Paradise, Octave Mouret, is one of the two principal characters of the novel. An ambitious young widower of modest origins, he has built The Paradise up from a simple draper’s shop to become the marvel of Paris through his audacity and his merchandising genius.

The other principal character, Denise Baudu, appears on the scene as an orphaned teenage girl from the provinces throwing herself and her two brothers unexpectedly upon the charity of her uncle. But the uncle, the owner of a small fabric store across the street from The Paradise, is in the process of being driven out of business by competition from the monster store and can barely feed his own family. Facing starvation, Denise winds up working as a shopgirl in the very store that is ruining her family. Here the pretty teenager soon attracts the eye of the lustful Mouret, a man as accustomed to manipulating women into his bedroom as he is to enticing them onto his sales floor. But Denise, he finds, does not share the casual sexual attitudes of many Parisiennes. Instead he discovers in her a strength and intelligence that both frustrates and inspires him.

The Ladies’ Paradise is a novel in Zola’s “Rougon-Macquart” series. The series relates the fortunes and misfortunes of an extended family during the Second Empire period. Many of the titles focus on the influence of heredity and environment on the character of family members, but that is not so much the case here. Octave Mouret, the Rougon-Macquart descendant in this case, is not as much the subject of the novel as the institution he has created. (He actually first acquires The Paradise in Zola’s previous novel, Pot Bouille, translated most recently as Pot Luck.) The Ladies’ Paradise is actually rather short on plot and character development compared to Zola’s other novels.

A major theme in the novel is the effect The Paradise has in driving out of business the small, family owned competitors, which can’t complete with The Paradise’s low prices and sex appeal. One constant contrast is between the brilliantly lit interior of The Paradise and the dark, dingy spaces of the other stores where “the dark shadows were falling from the ceiling in great shovelfuls, like black earth into the grave.” The misery into which the small shopkeepers descend is often depicted melodramatically, yet Zola never suggests that the large department store is evil or unfair, but rather that we are witnessing a natural stage in the evolution of commerce.

It is fascinating to see in this novel the beginnings of retail practices with which we are now quite familiar. The physical arrangement of departments within a store is done for psychological, rather than logistical purposes. Traffic flow in busy aisles is deliberately impeded to create the illusion of bigger crowds and more excitement. A generous return policy encourages impulse buying. With a staff growing into the thousands, the store becomes a community of its own with dormitories, dining halls, and recreation rooms. Cutthroat employment practices are softened in the interest of employee loyalty, and we see the emergence of employee benefits such as onsite health care, maternity leave, and education programs. On the outside there is a new business/government partnership for further development, and we see the buying power of a large retailer begin to control its suppliers.

Octave Mouret explains at one point that he has built his success upon “the exploitation of Woman.” Is the novel demeaning to women by depicting them as so easily exploited--so readily seduced into an orgy of spending? Not necessarily, because what we also see is the increasing power of women in the marketplace as independent consumers. Inside the store Zola shows them growing in power and responsibility as managers, department heads, and buyers (though we still never see a woman supervising a man). Behind the scenes they have additional influence as key investors.

The Ladies’ Paradise is a fascinating and enlightening look at the birth of an institution which is still a dominating force in retail. It can be seen as a critique of materialism and greed, but as such is not as forceful as some of the author’s other works. Nor is the novel particularly strong in plot or character. But Zola’s immense powers of description are on full, sensuous display.

ag. 19, 2013, 3:14am

Thanks for the reviews, I've been carrying the book around on three holidays now without opening it. I think I finally will.

ag. 29, 2013, 5:18pm

PBS TV will be showing an 8-part BBC series called "The Paradise," based on The Ladies' Paradise, on Masterpiece Classic this fall. Their schedule often varies by region; in my area it will be starting on October 6.

ag. 30, 2013, 9:07am

Thanks for that info, Steven. I'll have to look for it, although it's hard to see how they could drag it out to eight parts!