“She had been obliged to assist to the bitter end at this invincible work of life which requires death as its continual seed. She no longer struggled, she accepted this law of combat . . . she herself had been caught in the wheel-work of the machine.” (Ch. XIII, 393)
Zola’s 1883 novel that chronicles the life and extravagant growth of a fictional department store feels very modern, bearing a striking relevance to our consumerism today. Although it’s a love story, the book is quite a treasure trove for feminists and cultural critics, as it captures the social psyche of French people, women in particular, in their reception to the ambitious capitalistic endeavor of a department store, which drag the women out of their home into the public space.
Doesn’t Paris belong to the women, and don’t the women belong to us. (Ch. XI, 318)
The novel starts out conventionally enough, with a country girl’s arrival in Paris at the age of 20, with two younger brothers in tow. Denise Baudu’s parents are dead; she hopes her uncle, a draper, would provide work for her. But his business, as well as other small shops, have suffered tremendously from the opening of a large store across the street, the Ladies’ Paradise, which continues to expand and drive others out of business by cutting down prices. Denise accepts a probational, commission-only position as a saleswoman in the dress department, where for months other girls gang up to deprive her of sales, and ridicule her for her mild, submissive manner, and her lack of sophistication.
As one might have imagined, Denise’s career in Ladies’ Paradise is one from hell. It’s your Cinderella story set in retails. Life and trade, economic disaster and triumph teem about her. As small shops’ attempt to compete with the ever-expanding department store proves a dismal failure, Octave Mouret’s emporium has so captured the imagination of Parisian women that that take up the place by a storm, camping there as if they are in a conquered country. They even believe Mouret’s goods are more superior. To shop at Ladies’ Paradise has become the quo status. Amid all the commercial competition, the treachery and rivalry of saleswomen, the schemes of salesmen to oust their boss, Denise remains true to her values.
The Paradise is a rich tapestry of Parisian life in a period when the idea of a department store is a far-fetched idea that the banks are not willing to invest. There’s also the mandatory upstairs-downstairs struggle through the newcomer Denise, who against all odds manages to conquer the entire staff with her tenderness and modesty. In lavish detail and myopic vision Zola captures the greedy customers, the gossiping staff, and the vain obsession with image, fashion, and gratification.
438 pp. Penguin. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]