The Ladies’ Paradise (Au Bonheur des Dames), by Émile Zola (French classic)
“The novel tells the story of Denise Baudu, a 20-year-old woman from Valognes who comes to Paris with her younger brothers and begins working as a saleswoman at the department store Au Bonheur des Dames. Zola describes the inner workings of the store from the employees’ perspective, including the 13-hour workdays, the substandard food and the bare lodgings for the female staff. Many of the conflicts in the novel spring from each employee’s struggle for advancement and the malicious infighting and gossip among the staff.
“Denise’s story is played against the career of Octave Mouret, the owner of Au Bonheur des Dames, whose retail innovations and store expansions threaten the existence of all the neighborhood shops.”
I found The Ladies’ Paradise to be interesting on several levels and incredibly thought-provoking. My thoughts went down a couple of different lines while reading this novel, both figurative and literal, and I’ll try to capture some of both lines in this post. The figurative one gave me a glimpse of Babylon that was unsurprisingly—yet disturbingly—modern. In this description of The Ladies’ Paradise from Chapter 9, Zola compares the department store to a church or temple:
Madame Desforges was at last reaching the first storey, when a still greater surging of the crowd forced her to stop once more. She had now, beneath her, the departments on the ground-floor, with the press of customers she had just passed through. It was a new spectacle, a sea of heads fore-shortened, concealing the bodices, swarming with a busy agitation. The white price tickets now appeared but so many thin lines, the promontory of flannels cut through the gallery like a narrow wall; whilst the carpets and the embroidered silks which decked the balustrades hung at her feet like processional banners suspended from the gallery of a church. In the distance, she could perceive the angles of the lateral galleries, as from the top of a steeple one perceives the corners of the neighbouring streets, with the black spots of the passers-by moving about. But what surprised her above all, in the fatigue of her eyes blinded by the brilliant pell-mell of colours, was, when she lowered her lids, to feel the crowd more than ever, by its dull noise like the rising tide, and by the human warmth that it exhaled. A fine dust rose from the floor, laden with the odour of woman, the odour of her linen and her bust, of her skirts and her hair, an invading, penetrating odour, which seemed to be the incense of this temple raised for the worship of her body.