Review: The Ladies Paradise

The Ladies’ Paradise (Au Bonheur des Dames) is my first ever Zola, but since I wrote a paper on women and consumption, it seemed like a good time to give him a chance. And I am so happy I did, Zola perfectly captures the dramatic changes in consumer culture in the 19th century, most importantly the department store. If you are even a bit interested in that, read this book, and even though it’s a bit of a chunkster (to me at least), it’s a page-turner.

The Ladies’ Paradise is the eleventh novel in Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series and was first published as a novel in 1883. Though the representation of the consumer revolution is what makes this novel so fantastic, don’t worry, there is also a love story at its center. Orphaned Denise Baudu arrives in Paris with her two younger brothers, hoping to find a home at her uncle’s shop. The uncle however is not faring too well since the first department store in the area, Mouret’s Ladies’s Paradise is looming over all the other shops, including uncle Baudu’s. Finding work as a shopgirl in the Ladies’ Paradise, Denise is caught between the her uncle and the shopkeeper movement, and modern mass consumption embodied by Octave Mouret.

Mouret spends all his time thinking of new strategies to lure women into his store and spends his time outside the store surrounded by women as well. The only woman who resists him is Denise and you can imagine how that bothers him. He is distracted with chasing her but does not notice how this changes him, blabla. Honestly, I wasn’t very interested in this aspect of the novel. Denise is just such a good person (e.g. she’s the only one not having sex and is always sacrificing herself for her brothers), and her goodness seems to be infectious. Much more interesting is that through her character we get to learn something of the situation of the shopgirl in the 19th century, the clash of class and gender ideology. Shopgirls were obviously from the lower classes but contact with the upper and middle class required their manners and looks to change, yet they should not adapt too much as they were essentially servants. Also, the shopgirls were often regarded as something akin to prostitutes. They were working and handling money, but only if they successfully served and charmed customers. Zola gives a vivid account of the hard work and living and working conditions of the sales personnel, but he also looks at the figure of the consuming (upper and middle class) woman. These shopping women of the 19th century have often been constructed as complete victims of the rising consumer culture, which completely disregards women’s place in society and denies them all agency. Zola’s novel is a work of its time and has to be read that way, but I was pleased that while he described fanatic crowds, he also presented different types of shopping women. There is the lady who only buys certain goods at the department store, has a look around and has the rest of her clothing special-made, the middle-class woman who puts her family in debt because she cannot resist temptation, the mother who only takes advantage of the sales, but remains level-headed, and the shoplifter. So yes, there are clichés and stereotypes but I like to think that Zola’s look at 19th century consumer culture is not that simple and if you are at all interested in the intersection of gender and consumption, this novel will be worth your while!

Zola based the department store in his novel, the ladies’ paradise on the Bon Marché, and if you want to dive into non-fiction about the rise of the department store, let me recommend Miller’s The Bon Marché and Cathedrals of Consumption (edited by Jaumain and Crossick), both excellent works and very accessible.

Other thoughts:

A Striped Armchair

Have you reviewed this book? Let me know and I’ll add a link!

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19 thoughts on “Review: The Ladies Paradise

  1. Oh I’ve been wanting to read this one, it sounds fascinating. I’ve read The Kill by Zola, the second book in this series, it again develops the women are bad for having sex line, as he seems to do in Nana too, from what I’ve read of it. But I like the Second Empire in France, so his books are a great look into that time.

    1. I’ll just have to read everything else he’s written 🙂
      I think that Denise is represented as the good and thus ‘pure’ woman, but he also writes about women having sex is pretty much the norm, and many shopgirls take a richer older lover to afford better food and clothes. So his view is more complex I’d say.

  2. Wonderful review, Bina! I didn’t know that there was a 19th-century novel about consumer culture and Zola wrote it! This is really wonderful! Zola seems to be an awesome writer, looking at society from different perspectives. I will add this to my ‘TBR’ list.

    1. I didn’t know either, thankfully I had to research for my paper 😀 This is basically THE department store novel and I think the best work (of fiction) on consuemr culture in the 19th century. Hope you’ll enjoy it 🙂

  3. Wow, Zola must have been a really alert man to spot the rising consumer culture already at that time! It sounds fascinating that he gives descriptions of the different kinds of shoppers (and makes me wonder where he spent his leisure time.;-))
    I have bought this book already, as you know, and after reading your review, I am even more looking forward to reading it.

    1. Consumer culture was a long process and really took off with the industrialization. So it was a phenomenon during Zola’s time :)And he did lots of research for this novel (hanging out in the stores, too, I guess ;P)

      Hope you’ll love it as much as I did! 🙂

  4. Bina, what an interseting review of what sounds like a fascinating book! (Though I read your first sentence as referring to your having written a paper on women and tuberculosis! Wrong kind of consumption!)

    I read Therese Raquin MANY years ago (I’ll never forget it!) and have The Earth (as yet unread). I think I would enjoy this one. I hope I can get it free for my Kindle! 🙂

    1. Hahah, so confusing the many kinds of consumption 😀

      I’ll just have to read everything else by Zola now, probably starting with There Raquin 🙂 Hope there’s a free ebook version!

    2. You can browse here at Project Gutenberg for Zola eTexts. They are available in numerous formats, including Kindle. Unfortunately The Ladies Paradise (Au Bonheur des Dames) is only available in French.

      A word on the English translations at Project Gutenberg. They are mainly Victorian translations. With some books it does not matter, but some of Zola’s novels are so bowdlerized that they are almost unrecognizable.

  5. Zola did a lot of research for this novel (as he seemed to for all his novels). The winter before he completed it he went every afternoon for a month and stayed five or six hours in one of the large department stores.

    According to the Introduction in the Penguin Classics edition, Zola had three main sources for his information:
    “Leon Carbonneaux, a head of department in the Bon Marche, Beauchamp, an employee at the Louvre and Mademoiselle Dulit, a sales assistant at the store Saint-Joseph.”

    In Zola: A Life, Frederick Brown wrote:
    “Zola’s month of afternoons at Le Bon Marche and Le Louvre yielded a dossier that might have served quite well for helping someone administer department stores, or rob them. To comprehend the organism under study was to let no fact, however trivial, go unrecorded, and in almost one hundred closely written pages he describes its odor as well as its anatomy, its window displays as well as its security system and fiscal organization.”

    1. Thanks for stopping by! 🙂

      I know, he did so much research, and made a lot of history scholars happy 🙂

      I think there’s a book of his notes on writing and researching for this novel, hope I can find a copy.

  6. This has been on my TBR on for awhile and I’m glad it is also a pretty good read. It also sounds like a pretty unique book seeing there aren’t many classics dealing with consumerism! I can understand why shopgirls were regarded as akin to prostitutes but it’s pretty amazing how far our perception has changed although to be fair, the world has changed considerably!

    1. It’s really a great perspective on the rising consumer culture and a page-turner as well 🙂 Hope you’ll enjoy it!

  7. Sounds like a classic read… will hit this one when I finish my stint with the review books. Another amazing review Bina. Hope you’re excited with summer coming in. 🙂

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