by Emile Zola
Oxford World Classics, 2008
(originally published 1883)
translated by Brian Nelson
Novel, social commentary, business manual... however you classify The Ladies' Paradise by Emile Zola, this 125 year old classic possesses a surprisingly contemporary feel as it chronicles the rise of the modern department store in Paris.
The novels opens with Denise, a recently orphaned shopgirl from the country, arriving in Paris with two younger brothers in tow hoping for assistance from her Uncle Baudu. Baudu, owner of a small family-run business, operates his shop literally in the shadow of The Ladies' Paradise and balances precariously on the brink of failure. He is full of anger and resentment toward the store and it's owner Octave Mouret, "master of the terrible machine".
In the old days, when trade was trade, drapery meant materials and nothing else. Nowadays their only aim is to expand their business at the expense of their neighbours and to eat everything up. (page 24)
Denise, however, is "bewildered and attracted" by the giant shop, while feeling an "instinctive repugnance for [her uncle's] icy little place where the old-fashioned methods of business still prevailed." Since her uncle cannot offer her a position, she secures employment at The Ladies' Paradise.
Mouret employs surprisingly modern and sophisticated marketing techniques to build his "machine" (huge sales, dazzling displays, publicity and marketing gimmicks, a return policy) in an attempt to attract the women of Paris.
Of supreme importance... was the exploitation of Woman... It was Woman the shops were competing for so fiercely... They had awoken new desires in her weak flesh; they were an immense temptation to which she inevitably yielded... And if, in the shops, Woman was queen, ... she reigned there as an amorous queen whose subjects trade on her, and who pays for every whim with a drop of her own blood.... and, behind her back, when he [Mouret] had emptied her purse and wrecked her nerves, he was full of the secret scorn of a man to whom a mistress has just been stupid enough to yield. (page 76-77)
Zola is a master of description. There are many gorgeous, almost sensual, passages detailing the wares at The Ladies' Paradise.
In the middle of the department an exhibition of summer silks was illuminating the hall with the brilliancy of dawn, like the rising of a start amidst the most delicate shades of daylight - pale pink, soft yellow, clear blue, a shimmering scarf of all the colours of the rainbow. There were foulards as fine as a cloud, surahs lighter than the down blown from trees, satiny Peking fabrics as soft as the skin of a Chinese virgin... (page 252)
As the department store grows, small businesses suffer and die. Zola skillfully portrays their struggle through the Baudus. Simultaneously, thousands gain employment at The Ladies' Paradise. The store provides housing, meals, and social activities for its employees, thus promoting the formation of a "vague" new social class.
From their daily contact with rich customers, nearly all the salesgirls had acquired airs and graces, and had ended up by forming a vague class floating between the working and middle classes; and often, beneath their dress sense, beneath the manners and phrases they had learned, there was nothing but a false superficial education, picked up from reading cheap newspapers, from tirades in the theatre, and from all the latest follies from the Paris streets. (page 155)
Underneath the social commentary and marketing strategies, intriguing story lines can also be found - competition and gossip among the salespeople, the decline of the Baudus and other small shopkeepers, love affairs, Denise's struggle to provide for her brothers and advance her career, and, most importantly, Mouret's growing fascination with Denise.
The Ladies' Paradise is a fabulous book and will likely be among my favorites this year. Therese Raquin was a favorite last year, and Emile Zola has earned a spot on my "favorite authors" list.
This review is part of The Classics Circuit: Paris in the Spring Emile Zola Tour. The entire schedule can be found here. Visit the Classics Circuit website for information on upcoming tours and links to previous stops.