‘Au Bonheur des Dames (The Ladies’ Delight)’ by Emile Zola – aka ‘The Ladies Paradise’ – Part I

 

‘Au Bonheur des Dames (The Ladies’ Delight)’ by Emile Zola (1883) – 421 pages    Translated from the French by Robin Buss

 

Part I:  The Department Store Itself

Once you have the women on your side,” whispered he to the baron and laughing boldly, you could sell the very world.”

In this novel, the Ladies Paradise is one of the grand department stores in the middle of downtown Paris during the 1860s, that prosperous time of the Second French Empire. The merchandise the store has on display are the silks, the woolens, the ready-mades, “the lace, the shawls, the furs, the furniture, the under-linen, and winding up with dresses”, and all fashions and colors are on dazzling display.

Octave Mouret is the fairly young man in his early thirties who is the top executive of this department store operation. Mouret is a ladies man.

Mouret, on the contrary, affected to worship them, remained before them delighted and cajoling, continually carried away by fresh love affairs; and this served as an advertisement for his business. One would have said that he enveloped all women in the same caress, the better to bewilder them and keep them at his mercy,”

He has visualized this huge store and successfully brought it into being. The store provides jobs for hundreds and soon thousands of people, many of them women. Unfortunately the store has also put out of business many of the small family-owned shops in the neighborhood who specialized in only one of the many products the department store sells such as draperies or shoes or lace.

Each day Octave Mouret makes the rounds of the various departments that make up the department store: mail ordering, the financial, the silks, etc. Being the top boss, Mouret is genial and has a kind word and a smile for everyone. On these trips through the store he brings along his “executioner”, Bourndocle who does all the heavy duty disciplining and firing of store personnel after Mouret has left the area.

Denise is a 20 year-old young woman who travels to Paris with her two younger brothers in tow after their parents died. She makes her way to her uncle’s home who owns one of those small shops. Her uncle is facing hard times and has no job for her. Denise has already been swept away by the brilliance and excitement of the Ladies Paradise store, and soon she gets a lowly job there.

Zola captures that festive feverish atmosphere at the department store on the Day of the Big Sale when hundreds of women descend upon the store to capture all the bargains, and the harried sales persons vie with each other for the largest sales and thus the largest commissions.

Before one of the store’s big sales, Mouret has the brilliant idea of putting some items for sale below cost at the entrance to the store. This causes a shopping frenzy among the ladies and girls as they try to get into the store and purchase these bargains. The constables are called in to control the crowd.

We shall lose a few sous on the stuff, very likely. What matters, if in return we attract all the women here, and keep them at our mercy, excited by the sight of our goods, emptying their purses without thinking.”

Most fiction writers are content with sending their small number of characters through their narrow if sometimes intense paces. However Emile Zola goes after the Big Picture. In ‘The Ladies Paradise’, Zola captures the inner and outer workings of a grand department store. In ‘Germinal’ it is a coal mine. In ‘Nana’ it is the life on stage for an actress. In ‘The Dram Shop’, it is a liquor store operation. ‘L’Argent’ focuses on the financial world. In each of the twenty novels in Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series, he presents a different facet of Parisian life.

In ‘Au Bonheur des Dames’ Zola covers everything, and I do mean everything, relating to the operation of the department store from the financial arrangements, to the gossip among employees, to the delight of the women shopping at one of the big sales events to shoplifting to inventorying the merchandise as well as every other facet of the business. He surely did a lot of painstaking research into the department store operation. Zola displays a profound understanding of human nature from the lowliest clothing sorter to the chief officer of the department store.

Emile Zola wrote novels in which you can fully immerse yourself, novels which contain an entire world. ‘Au Bonheur des Dames’ is a fine example of one of them.

 

Grade:   A

 

 

 

7 responses to this post.

  1. Interesting account – it’s typical of Z to point out the disastrous effect of the new dept stores on the small specialist shopkeepers – a phenomenon that still persists, not so much with big stores, which are past their time, but online retailers. Benjamin’s Arcades Project (among other texts) also highlights the cultural/political impact of the new stores in Paris (among other things).

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    • Hi Tredynas,
      Somewhere I read that the department stores didn’t really put the small shops out of business. Some of the small shops started selling their wares to the department stores rather than directly to the customers, and others kept their customer base.
      The Amazon effect is probably even more disastrous to the small shops as well as the department stores. There are very department stores left.

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      • What it definitely did, was to change a way of life, in the sense that small shops and their shoppers create a sense of community. There is no sense of community that surrounds big shopping malls, and #BleedingObvious even less so with online shopping.
        But on the plus side, by making shopping quicker and more efficient, it freed up women’s time. Zola notices that the department story brings women to a new public space where before they were restricted to church and the theatre, but he does not explore what women could do once they were not tied to the time-consuming routine of daily shopping.

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        • Hi Lisa,
          I did notice it was small groups of women – 2 or 3 or 4 – who do shop together at the department store. And of the thousands of women who did shop at the store, Zola necessarily only had a few shoppers as characters in the novel. The few he did have represented types. One spent all her husband’s money and couldn’t resist any bargains, another only bought items for her children, another whose husband would not let her buy anything was caught stealing an item.

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          • Yes, and that’s part of Zola’s over-arching theme of corruption among the moneyed classes, and also the emergence of shopping as a hobby (which it still is today.) But that doesn’t alter the fact that the department store freed women to do other things besides shopping.

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