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The Ladies Paradise by Émile Zola — shopping secrets revealed

The Ladies Paradise takes us to a time before there was Selfridges and Harrods, Nordstrom and Maceys or Galleries Lafayette and KaDeWe.

Look around any large city centre today and it’s difficult to imagine that we once managed to exist without those gleaming glass edifices of department stores.  Yet there was indeed a time when shopping was done via small stores and boutiques, often family owned, that dealt in a limited range of merchandise. Buying an umbrella, a new coat and a pair of curtains on the same expedition would mean an inconvenient visit to three separate shops.

The New World of Retail

All that changed in the mid 19th century with the creation of the first department store in Paris, the Au Bon Marché, quickly followed by Samaritaine, Printemps, and the crème de la crème, the Galeries Lafayette. With their Art Nouveau architectural styles forged from glass and iron and lavish decorations they quickly attracted as many customers as museums or palaces attract daily visitors today.

This is the world brought to life by Émile Zola in The Ladies Paradise, one of the 20 titles in his Rougon-Macquart cycle. 

He gives an insider’s view of the inner-workings of this fictional major department store (even down to the detail of how cash handed over by customers is transported through the store to a counting room) re-creating the magnetism these new edifices held for their customers. The stores were places designed to entice shoppers (particularly women) and persuade them to part with their money using techniques that we think of as twentieth century commercial practices.

Heavy advertising, a ‘no questions asked’ returns policy, rapid home delivery,  ‘pile them high’ displays of specially procured merchandise and seasonal sales. All techniques used by the proprietor of The Ladies’ Paradise, Octave Mouret, to turn a fairly modest shop into the biggest, boldest, most successful Emporium Paris, and indeed the whole of France, has ever seen.

Competition for Trade

His ambitions have repercussions. As his business thrives, the small, family owned shops around the city find they can no longer compete. They can’t store the range of products nor get the volume discounts from manufacturers needed to match Mouret’s low prices. Customers begin to shun their dark little places in favour of the spectacles of The Ladies’ Paradise where each new season brings another joy to the senses.

One year it’s a writing room and free cold drinks to help customers re-charge their batteries before their next foray into the displays; another season brings balloons for every child. And every year another new department is opened within the store. No matter the crush when the sales are on – it’s all part of the fun and appeal of the store.

Old Versus New

Zola constantly contrasts the brilliantly lit magnificence of The Ladies Paradise with the darkness and dinginess of the more traditional stores. At the Paradise “there was an explosion of white bathed in flames…. a blinding white light in which every tone of white was dissolving, a dusting of stars snowing …” but the old shops “….dark shadows were falling from the ceiling in great shovelfuls, like black earth into the grave.” The small traders desperately try to hold out but seek deeper and deeper into debt and squeezed out physically by the expansionism of Mouret’s store.

The demise of the independent trader isn’t the only aspect of this rampant consumerism to be exposed by Zola. He shows how Mouret uses the mechanisms of seduction, transforming everything for sale into an object of desire. The store becomes a machine that causes women to lose their heads. Driven to euphoria by the sheer range of delights on offer and the bargains, they buy what they don’t need, spend far beyond their budgets, and resort to shoplifting. Even when they know they are out of control, they cannot stop.

The crowd had reached the silk department … At the far end of the hall, around one of the small cast-iron columns, which supported the glass roof, material was streaming down like a bubbling sheet of water. … Women pale with desire were leaning over as if to look at themselves. Faced with the secret fear of being caught in the overflow of all this luxury and with an irresistable desire to throw themselves into it and be lost.

At the end of one of the grandest of his sales  “the customers, despoiled and violated, were going away in disarray, their desires satisfied, and with the secret shame of having yielded to temptation in the depths of some sleazy hotel.”

Mouret is depicted as the grand despoiler and exploiter, luring his customers with ever more exotic displays. His understanding of the psychology of his female customer provides critical.

He had discovered that she could not resist a bargain, that she bought without necessity when she thought she saw a cheap line, and on this observation he based his system of reductions in price of unsold items, preferring to sell them at a loss, faithful to his principle of continual renewal of the goods.”

Women as Commodities

The Ladies Paradise portrays women as much as of a commodity as the goods on offer in the store. Zola often shows them as fragmented, distorted parts of the body that merge with the fabrics and objects in the shop. As they pass through the various displays mirrors reflect their faces in reverse and bits of their shoulders and arms while headless mannequins are used to line the central staircase and as a window dressing.

Mouret himself is the great Seducer, a man with a low regard for women’s ability to resist temptation .

[his] unique passion was to conquer Woman. He wished her to be queen in her house, and he had built this temple to get her completely at his mercy. His sole aim was to intoxicate her with gallant attentions, and traffic on her desires, work on her fever. Night and day he racked his brain to invent fresh attractions.”
Then, “…when he had emptied her purse and shattered her nerves, he was full of the secret scorn of a man to whom a woman had just been stupid enough to yield herself.”

He more than meets his match however in the shape of Denise Baudu, a young orphaned provincial girl who arrives in the city with her two younger brothers. She is taken in by her uncle but he cannot support her because his shop is hemorrhaging customers to the Ladies’ Paradise. Her uncle detests Mouret’s establishment and he, and his family, rail volibly against it every day but Denise finds it mesmerising. She gets a job there as a lowly salesgirl and moves into the dormitory provided for staff.

As the novel progresses she encounters hostilities and animosity, is derided for her shabby clothes and untidy hair and her inability to make a sale. She is fired and then rehired. She comes to the attention of Mouret but she resists his advances, refusing to become another notch on his belt; refusing in essence to be commodified.

Weak on Romance

This romance strand was the weakest aspect of the novel for me. Although I could relate to the early parts of the novel which portray her sufferings at the hands of some spiteful sales girls and male assistants, I found it harder to believe in the attraction she held for Mouret. Further lacking credibility was that Denise, with little commercial experience to her name, is able to persuade him to introduce some innovations that improve efficiency and result in greater sales.

As a novel which shows the emergence of the department stores with their attendant materialism as a symbol of progress, this is an outstanding piece of work. Zola depicts this new form of retail as an ambiguous development. Department stores gave women power to express themselves more fully; freed from the constraints of the parlour and the small show they could throw themselves enthusiasically into a public space. But the cost was loss of self restraint when faced with objects designed to appeal to their erotic instincts. A pair of leather gloves in the Ladies’ Paradise for example smells “like an animal in rut which has landed in a girl’s powder box.” They are caught up in a gigantic dream machine against which they have few reserves.

The Ladies’ Paradise can be read on multiple levels. First as a romance between a lowly shop girl and a successful wealthy businessman. Second as an exploration of social change with the birth of consumerism. And finally as a portrayal of the physical transformation of Paris through the influence of people like Haussmann. If you love luxuriant prose, the long paragraphs that describe in minute detail the architecture, store layout, customers’ apparel and merchandise, will delight.  If you prefer a plot driven novel, be aware that this is one of the weakest aspects of The Ladies’ Paradise.

The Ladies’ Paradise (Au Bonheur des Dames): Footnotes

The Ladies’ Paradise was published in 1883 under the French title of Au Bonheur des Dames. As with many of the other novels in the Rougon-Macquart series, it features characters who make an appearance in other titles. The protogonist of The Ladies’ Paradise, Octave Mouret, appears in Pot -Bouille, as an ambitious philanderer in fact.  My edition from Oxford World Classics is translated by Brian Nelson who has also written the excellent introduction to the text.

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