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, Zola compares the department store to a church or temple:
The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett (Children’s classic)
“Born in India, the unattractive and willful Mary Lennox has remained in the care of servants for as long as she can remember. But the girl’s life changes when her mother and father die and she travels to Yorkshire to live with her uncle. Dark, dreary Misselthwaite Manor seems full of mysteries, including a very special garden, locked tight for 10 years. With the help of Dickon, a local boy, Mary intends to uncover its secrets.”
The House of the Seven Gables, by Nathaniel Hawthorne (American classic)
“Built over an unquiet grave, the House of the Seven Gables carries a dying man’s curse that blights the lives of its residents for over two centuries. Now Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon, an iron-hearted hypocrite and intellectual heir to the mansion’s unscrupulous founder, is attempting to railroad a pair of his elderly relatives out of the house. Only two young people stand in his way–a visiting country cousin and an enigmatic boarder skilled in mesmerism.”
As soon as I learned that The Secret Garden would be on my book group‘s schedule for 2015, I thought it would be nice to re-read The House of the Seven Gables also and comment on both novels. On the surface, these books appear quite different, but I knew they were similar in at least one respect—both stories show gardening as being an activity that nourishes both the body and spirit. By the time I was finished reading the books, I realized that they are even more similar than I had remembered; they both address the healing of emotionally diseased individuals and families in old manor houses that symbolically take on the sickly qualities of the families that inhabit them. One of the characters in The House of the Seven Gables describes this relationship between the families and their generational homes:
I’ve just uploaded updates for two important files on my web site. The first, “Wholesome Literature—A Realistic Choice,” is a rewrite of the essay previously entitled “Wholesome Literature—the Intelligent Choice” for a general religious audience. The original essay began as a literary spotlight to a group of women in my church almost twenty years ago. Of all my literary essays, it was the one with the most potential for revision to a more general audience. After several attempts over the past decade to make that revision, I finally produced something that satisfies me!
The second document I updated was “My Favorite Clean Fiction.” I now provide a link for each author who has books in the public domain to his or her list of free ebooks on Project Gutenberg‘s web site. I also simplified my list and added descriptions for almost all of the titles.
As I collected descriptions, I couldn’t help but notice how many of them weren’t written to draw a popular audience, particularly those describing the classics. That seems a shame to me, because so many of the classics really are great stories. If the descriptions were written to capitalize more on the story and less on the meaning, the books might find a wider audience. For example, here’s a boring description of The House of the Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne: