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