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:

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.

Chapter 9

In the last chapter of the novel, Zola declares that the genius behind The Ladies’ Paradise has created a new religion:

And Mouret continued to watch his nation of women, amidst this shimmering blaze. Their black shadows stood out vigorously on the pale ground-work. Long eddies divided the crowd; the fever of this day’s great sale swept past like a frenzy, rolling along the disordered sea of heads. People were commencing to leave, the pillage of the stuffs had encumbered all the counters, the gold was chinking in the tills; whilst the customers went away, their purses completely empty, and their heads turned by the wealth of luxury amidst which they had been wandering all day. It was he who possessed them thus, keeping them at his mercy by his continued display of novelties, his reduction of prices, and his “returns,” his gallantry and his advertisements. He had conquered the mothers themselves, reigning over them with the brutality of a despot, whose caprices were ruining many a household. His creation was a sort of new religion; the churches, gradually deserted by a wavering faith, were replaced by this bazaar, in the minds of the idle women of Paris. Women now came and spent their leisure time in his establishment, the shivering and anxious hours they formerly passed in churches: a necessary consumption of nervous passion, a growing struggle of the god of dress against the husband, the incessantly renewed religion of the body with the divine future of beauty. If he had closed his doors, there would have been a rising in the street, the despairing cry of worshippers deprived of their confessional and altar.

Chapter 14
Book cover for The Ladies' Paradise, by Emile Zola, translated by Ernest Vizetelly
The Ladies’ Paradise

The story revolves around the seduction of women as a group into this “new religion,” and Zola develops this theme by comparing this process to the seduction of individual women. Mouret says this to his assistant:

“You know they’ll have their revenge.”

“Who?” asked Mouret, who had lost the thread of the conversation.

“Why, the women.”

At this, Mouret became merrier still, displaying, beneath his sensual, adorative manner, his really brutal character. With a shrug of the shoulders he seemed to declare he would throw them all over, like so many empty sacks, when they had finished helping him to make his fortune. Bourdoncle obstinately repeated, in his cold way: “They will have their revenge; there will be one who will avenge all the others. It’s bound to be.”

“No fear,” cried Mouret, exaggerating his Southern accent. “That one isn’t born yet, my boy. And if she comes, you know—”

He had raised his penholder, brandishing it and pointing it in the air, as if he would have liked to stab some invisible heart with a knife. Bourdoncle resumed walking, bowing as usual before the superiority of the governor, whose genius, though faulty, had always got the better of him. He, so clear-headed, logical and passionless, incapable of falling, had yet to learn the feminine character of success, Paris yielding herself with a kiss to the boldest.

Chapter 2

I say I saw a glimpse of Babylon and not an all-out vision of it, because although nearly every character in this enormous cast engages in extramarital sexual relations, nothing was detailed as it would have been in a modern novel of this type. The heroine of the novel, Denise Baudu, is the one woman who avenges all of the others, and her power lies in her virtue. Her virtue doesn’t overthrow Babylon, but it does begin to transform it in positive ways. She, too, is seduced, but she ingenuously holds out for the ultimate price. Because she does, in the end, choose to bind herself irrevocably to Babylon, I question whether virtuous acts done, ultimately, for the expansion of Babylon can ever result in building Zion. My gut feeling is that no, this isn’t possible, and yet we live in a material world, and acts of virtue, no matter what their motivation or ultimate destiny, make life more bearable for all of us, and that leads to my more literal train of thought about this novel.

As compelling as The Ladies’ Paradise is as a symbol of Babylon and its cult of materialism, it is only a department store—a place of commerce—and that fact never left me as I was reading the novel. Denise, herself, recognizes that Mouret’s way of doing business benefits the consumer. When defending The Ladies’ Paradise to a competitor, she says cheerfully, “The public does not complain.”

Zola portrays The Ladies’ Paradise as a gigantic machine that rolls through Paris and crushes all of the small shops that stand in its way. Zola describes this process in terms of death, and the reader feels great sympathy for the characters as they die and, at times, communicate their hatred of The Ladies’ Paradise. As I was mourning the death of these shops, however, I couldn’t help wondering why their owners couldn’t muster the gumption to do anything more than lie down and die. Some fought, but they struggled using ineffective, outdated methods, or they tried to use Mouret’s methods against him, which never worked. I recognize that Zola wrote this novel as a type of parable for the modern age and that to depict the small shop owners as showing any spark of creativity or inventiveness themselves—or even a desire to retire and live a life outside of the world of Paris commerce—would have diluted his theme, but I still found the attitude of these characters frustrating.

I speak from experience on this issue. When I was a girl, my grandfather owned a small neighborhood grocery store in Topeka, Kansas, and my father worked as its manager. I have many fond memories of doing inventory, stocking shelves, and stacking cases of food in the back room as they came off the truck. When the butcher went on vacation during the summer, my grandfather took his place and invited me to be his assistant. He butchered the meat, and I wrapped it and put it out to sell.  I remember patrons of the store (including some of my relatives) stopping by the meat department and recognizing me as “Glen’s little helper.”

Photograph of Highland Park Market  in Topeka, KS in the 1950s.
Highland Park Market in the 1950s. My father is the boy.

I can’t imagine going into any grocery store I now patronize and seeing a young teen wrapping meat for the butcher, and that’s the point. Business evolves and changes. While I was having these productive childhood experiences, supermarkets were opening in the city and taking much of the business my grandfather and father had long enjoyed. They made the decision to sell the store and embark on new paths. My grandfather retired, and my father, who had intended for that grocery store to be his life’s vocation, was forced to find another career. He found a job for a manufacturer selling new products to grocery stores, and in the beginning, this career appeared promising. After about a year, however, he realized that the opportunities for promotion weren’t as good as he had been led to believe, so he decided to look for other employment.  He began delivering bread to grocery stores, a job that was physically demanding.  He had to be at work at 4:00 in the morning, and he didn’t get home until about 3:00 in the afternoon.

About this time, my father began to work toward a college degree.  For years, he drove a bread truck for those long hours every day and went to night school, all the while volunteering in our local church congregation.  After many years, he graduated from the university with a bachelor’s degree in accounting.  After graduation, he began working as an auditor for the state of Kansas, but almost immediately after he was hired, the state froze all promotions indefinitely.  After about a year of constant travel and no hope of promotion, he took a job with the Internal Revenue Service, which is where he remained until he died.  After years of discouragement, dead-end jobs, hard work, financial strain, and study, my father finally obtained the career he desired. We learned shortly after he died that he had passed the arduous exam required to become a certified public accountant.

My father’s determination and desire to improve himself and his family’s situation never ceases to amaze and inspire me, and with that, I received my glimpse of Zion. With his example as an anchor to my own worldview, it’s no wonder that The Ladies’ Paradise struck a nerve in me. It presents a vision of commerce and change that I believe is fundamentally  flawed, because it doesn’t account for the adaptability of those human beings who, in difficult circumstances, find wholesome new paths and work to thrive.

I think this quotation from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables fits well here:

Clifford could hear the obstreperous howl of the steam-devil, and, by leaning a little way from the arched window, could catch a glimpse of the trains of cars, flashing a brief transit across the extremity of the street. The idea of terrible energy thus forced upon him was new at every recurrence, and seemed to affect him as disagreeably, and with almost as much surprise, the hundredth time as the first.

Nothing gives a sadder sense of decay than this loss or suspension of the power to deal with unaccustomed things, and to keep up with the swiftness of the passing moment. It can merely be a suspended animation; for, were the power actually to perish, there would be little use of immortality. We are less than ghosts, for the time being, whenever this calamity befalls us.

Chapter 11
Book cover for The House of the Seven Gables, by Nathaniel Hawthorne
The House of the Seven Gables

The drawing “Au Bon Marché” comes from Wikipedia and has a CCO license.