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


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


Part II:   Octave and Denise

Poster of Emile Zola by Manet

Octave Mouret designed every feature of the department store Au Bonheur des Dames as an “amorous seduction” of its female customers. First there are the dazzling displays to put the merchandise in the best possible light. Then certain items are put on sale below cost to get the women into the store. The departments are arranged so the customers must traverse through many tempting displays to get to the merchandise they actually came for.

He made an absolute rule that no corner of Au Bonheur des Dames should remain empty; everywhere, he demanded noise, people, life…because life, he said, attracts life, breeds and multiplies.”

Then there is the liberal return policy because “you can always return it to us if you don’t like it”.

Octave is not ruthless or predatory but uses his charm and good looks to captivate women.

And the dresses were in this sort of chapel raised to the worship of women’s beauty and grace.”

Into this tremendous shopping emporium comes lowly Denise Baudu, the young woman just arrived in Paris from a small French town. At first she is not allowed near the cash registers and thus gets no commissions. Her job is to straighten and rearrange the clothes after the customers have messed them up. She is not particularly attractive, but there is something about her that Octave can’t resist. 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.”

When Octave begins to take an interest in Denise the other envious employees begin to gossip, “they still chattered, because of the itching of the tongue that ravages any meeting of men and women.”

One of the joys of reading Zola is how accurately he comprehends the way the various people within an organization deal with their jobs. This is true for the women as well as the men.

I probably should have read Pot-Bouille (recently translated as ‘Lesson in Love’) first, since that novel in Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series tells the story of Octave Mouret during his early days. However ‘Au Bonheur des Dames’ works just fine as a stand-alone novel itself.


Grade:    A



7 responses to this post.

  1. I think they all work perfectly well as standalone books.
    BTW Did you see the TV series, BBC I think?

    Liked by 1 person


  2. This has been on my To Read list for so long! Time to order a copy for myself, methinks!

    Liked by 1 person


  3. I love Zola, and I am enthralled by the quote: “speculating on her coquetry”! There’s something about a department store. Germinal, though great, is kind of a slog, but I will willingly return to the shopping world.

    Liked by 1 person


    • Hi Kat,
      “Coquetry” is a word that is not much used any more. I just looked it up in Merriam-Webster, and it gives as synonyms “coyness, flirting, kittenishness”. .I do believe coquetry still exists.

      Liked by 1 person


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