87. The Ladies’ Paradise by Emile Zola
Publication: Oxford University Press (September 1, 2008) originally written 1883, Paperback, 480pp / ISBN 0199536902
Rating: 5 birds
Read: April 7-8, 2010
Summary from Amazon:
The Ladies’ Paradise (Au Bonheur des Dames) recounts the spectacular development of the modern department store in late nineteenth century Paris. The store is a symbol of capitalism, of the modern city, and of the bourgeois family; it is emblematic of consumer culture and the changes in sexual attitudes and class relations taking place at the end of the century. Octave Mouret, the store’s owner-manager, masterfully exploits the desires of his female customers. In his private life as much as in business he is the great seducer. But when he falls in love with the innocent Denise Baudu, he discovers she is the only one of the salesgirls who refuses to be commodified.
No, I’m not actually doing this month’s Classics Circuit— I had to read this for a class. And since I hadn’t managed to finish any of the books I was supposed to read for this class because they were boring, I thought this too would be a dud. But it’s not! Imagine how surprised I was to love The Ladies’ Paradise, how happy I was that it was funny and sad and romantic and enthralling.
The Ladies’ Paradise is centered around a department store, something that’s commonplace to us today but was horrifically new in late 19th century Paris. Within and outside that department store are the characters that move the story along, and together they make a story that’s really fun to read.
One of the best things about The Ladies’ Paradise is that it does tackle the advent of consumerism, and how it changes Parisian society and commerce. The people in the book are slowly becoming ever more entangled in the world of the department store, when you can find whatever you need all in one (huge) building for cheaper prices than anywhere else. The majority of the women in the book– the rich/noble women, that is– are completely obsessed with The Ladies’ Paradise (the store), even to the point of making their husbands bankrupt. Watching them get sucked into the machine of the superstore is both comedic and horrific, especially when you compare these women of the late 1800s to the women of today’s Western world.
I also found it really fascinating to see how Parisian society was changing from pre-Industrial Revolution to post-Industrial Revolution, especially under the effect of consumer capitalism. A lot of the people in The Ladies’ Paradise are almost mercenary in their capitalist dealings, even when it comes to getting “sugar daddies” or mistresses. Money is king, in The Ladies’ Paradise, and morals have fallen somewhat to the wayside. It sounds depressing, but actually it’s quite funny, as is most of the book. It’s sort of like gallows humor, maybe, especially the situation between the big stores and the independents.
I have yet to talk about the characters. I’m less enamored of them than I was of the rest of the book, which is unfortunate because the characters are such a large part of the story. Denise starts out somewhat like a Victorian orphan heroine, which I hate (think The Little Princess). In fact, she spends most of the book being in dire situations, having no friends, and constantly on the verge of dying. (Again, this sounds depressing, and it is, but not as much as you’d think.) Mr Zola could have milked Denise’s sad situation for all it was worth, turning her into a poor little match girl or something, but instead Denise is rather stoic (erratic bouts of crying notwithstanding), sort of stiff-upper-lip thingy. I admired that in her. And I also admired her sticking to her guns and not doing what everyone else was doing to get more money– namely, getting a rich boyfriend.
Denise’ morals are of course the foil to everything else in the book, and it is her morals that get her through the tough times. And she’s rewarded at the end for keeping them! Yep. It’s one of those kinds of books– but it’s not annoying. This is one of the least annoying books I’ve ever read, which is surprising because it uses so many of the Victorian lit stuff I hate, but it uses them in a way that slightly twists whatever you were expecting, and then it makes it fun.
I did want to say something about Mouret, the hero (kinda), but I think this post has gotten long enough. I’ll just say one thing: I wasn’t expecting to like him, especially if he didn’t do what I wanted him to do at the end re: he and Denise’s romance. But if I liked any character in The Ladies’ Paradise it was Mouret, and I’m not entirely sure why since he’s the most mercenary character in the book. But he’s a good complement to Denise, and he DID do the thing I wanted him to do at the end of the book, so he won my heart after all.
The Ladies’ Paradise is such a great book. It’s got nearly everything you could want in a French book: romance, humor, social commentary, and fun. The only thing it’s missing is a swordfight, but I can forgive Mr Zola that because the rest of the book is fantastic.
My translation is the Brian Nelson version, which I found to be very good, though of course I can’t compare it to the original French version (because I can’t read French). It sounds really modern, if you know what I mean, though that might just be Mr Zola’s writing.