Posts Tagged ‘Emile Zola’

‘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



‘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




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