Monday, February 7, 2011

"Rentafoil" by Emile Zola

Everything is for sale in Emile Zola's Paris, and beauty, as a commodity, is no exception. After moaning for years that no one can make money out of ugly girls, the old businessman Durandeau finally hit upon a way to market ugliness.  His company, Rentafoil, allows a moderately pretty girl to rent an ugly one as a 'suitable embellishment', or foil, in order to enhance her own beauty as the pair stroll the streets, gaze in shop windows, talk, and laugh together.

Durandeau, like Zola, knows human nature and realizes
"...only pretty women have the courage to make a false confession of ugliness.  The ugly ones would never admit of their own free will that  their mouths were too big and their eyes ludicrously small.  You could put up notices all over Paris offering ten francs to every ugly woman who cared to apply without the slightest risk of becoming impoverished."
His advertisements are of no use, so Durandeau searches the city himself, and with great finesse, is able to find enough women willing to act as foils.  The business became a huge success boasting many regular beauty/foil pairs.

But what of the life of the foil?
"They spend all day in a whirl of gaiety. At night, they fret and fume and sob. They've had to take off their fine dress which belongs to the agency, they're alone in their attic, sitting in front of a bit of broken mirror which tells them the truth. Their ugliness is staring them mercilessly in the face and they're quite aware that nobody will ever love them. They may help to excite desire but never will they know the joy of being kissed themselves."
And in the end,
"Mankind marches on. Durandeau will be blessed by future generations because he created a market for a hitherto unsaleable commodity and invented a fashion article which makes love easier. "
One again, Zola provides another startling look at human nature, warts and all. "Rentafoil"maybe not a pleasant read, but it is remarkably perceptive.

This story appears in Dead Men Tell No Tales and Other Stories by Emile Zola (1840-1902).  It may also be read online.
Short Story Monday is hosted by John Mutford at The Book Mine Set.


  1. could you imagine being the "foil"??? This is a very interesting sounding piece!

  2. Staci - Pretty amazing, isn't it? Once I realized that was the premise, I couldn't NOT read the story.

  3. You know what? I didn't even know Zola had written short stories. I have never been attracted to his writing (from exerpts read at school), but I might try a short story...

  4. Interesting. I should give it a go. Though I thought you were going to say he simply paired up two people who came looking for a foil. Both would think the other was the ugly one. That could also be interesting.

  5. I had mixed feelings as I read this story. I've joined the Feminist Classics Challenge this year so I'm afraid I'm a little sensitive right now. On the other hand, I liked the story premise. I could imagine all sorts of other things that could happen. I really wanted it to develop into a reverse romance. It would have been more fun, in my opinion.

  6. I am definitely going to have to see if I can find a copy of his short stories!

  7. Em - I discovered Zola almost two years ago with Therese Raquin and have read a couple other novels and stories. Why not give the stories a try?

    John - Ha... I thought of several variations, but that one never entered my mind. Very clever!

    Margot - This was definitely not a pleasant read. What struck me was how 'real' it could be. Zola 'gets' human nature.

    Amanda - Not sure how easy the collection is to find in stores. I knew I had to snap it up when I came across it in NYC last year. Reading the stories makes me want to pick up another of his novels!

  8. JoAnn-I just finished this story and put in link to your great post-I thought this was a really funny story and great social satire-imagine the reaction of women when they realized what they had been recruited to be!
    "Rentafoil" is social satire worthy of Swift-

  9. Mel U - Thanks for linking to my post! I had a hard time seeing much humor here, but really enjoy Zola's writing.


Thanks so much for taking the time to comment! Be sure to check back, I always respond. Due to a recent increase in spam, all comments are moderated.


Related Posts with Thumbnails