Zola knew what he was talking about when he wrote page after page of busy and boisterous narrative about a department store, based on the first such store in Paris and the biggest in the world for awhile – Bon Marché. He was there for the hedonistically bourgeois times of Napoleon III, for the redesign of the Paris streets, for the establishment and growth of of Bon Marché. According to Nelson, Zola researched his subject and his notes say he wanted to present all of Parisian society within the model of a department store. The Ladies’ Paradise was to be a ” ‘…poem of modern activity… conclude with its continual labour, the power and gaiety that comes from its productivity … a century of action and conquest.’ … The Ladies’ Paradise is a hymn to modern business, a celebration of the entrepreneurial spirit.”
And it makes for a fascinating and brilliant work, a classic, about the workings and impact of a massive department store. Brian Nelson’s introduction is wonderful – developing some historical, biographical, social and literary background for the reader.
Above is a photo of the neighborhood prior to Hausemann’s renovations – this was Zola’s model.
But it’s the store itself, The Ladies’ Paradise, which is certainly the main focus, or perhaps theme (might I suggest character?) of the book. The plot is secondary and weaves its way through chapters which involve the physical plant, the staff organization, the economics, marketing, advertising, display, and real estate innovations of the day as well as the social and personal impact. The whole capitalist dream and the society in which it functions portrayed within a department store -joyously. The characters and their little plots, although interesting, are almost beside the point.
The Plot: Denise Baudu, a very young woman from the countryside, comes to find work in Paris because she and her two younger brothers have become destitute orphans. They’ve come to Paris hoping their Uncle Baudu, a shop owner there, will help her. But he is not well off because there is fierce competition in town now. A huge department store named The Ladies’ Paradise has opened up almost across the street from where Uncle Baudu runs his business. The owner, Octave Mouret, a widower with some money, is planning to take over business in Paris selling fabrics and trims and rugs and even furniture. His establishment is a marvel of scientific organization, ingenuity and marketing – worthy of any department store in the world back in the days – like a mall inside it. And yes, the ladies love it.
As expected, Denise gets work in The Ladies’ Paradise where the other employees form a diverse cast of characters from the money-grubbing salesmen, the ruthless managers and the smooth womanizers. The women employees are, for the most part, snobbish and mean. Only Delouche, a very junior salesman, Pauline, a saleswoman and Robineau, a wanna-be competitor, are at all friendly to Denise – for their own purposes. Olctave Mauret, the owner, is intrigued but too busy. And the plot goes from there with those threads. Denise has her ups and downs at work, her brothers are not easy, friends are few. Etc. She has her eye on a charmer, a womanizer, but he has no use for her really. And Denise is morally upright – seriously morally upright – Pauline would say “uptight.” How in the world will Denise make it through the tangled maze of personalities and ambition in The Ladies’ Paradise?
But that’s just a little skeleton holding the bulk of the work together, the reader is made privy to the workings of the store, the merchandising and personnel techniques used, the pay and the concerns of the staff, the interests and ideas of the shoppers who are, after all, the focus of the store. After awhile time, layoffs put Denise back on the street where she is rapidly becomes destitute, but lands a tiny room and job with Bouras. And then Robineau decides to launch his competition. While a woman named Henrietta decides that Denise may be competition for Mauret.
In some very surface ways this novel has a number of Dickensian elements but the realism of Zola (French Naturalism) was, in part, a response to the “romance” of Dickens and his times. That said, Zola had lightened up a lot by the time he wrote “The Ladies’ Paradise.”
But both authors wrote social novels about poverty in which a pure girl from the country facing the ambitious and greedy big city folks would be comfortable – and of course she has kind uncles and friends. But where with a good Dickens novel you know this will all end well for the good guys, with Zola you don’t get to know that – at all. Very sad – Dickens is comforting.
The other difference is that where Dickens’ works were meant to be social criticism, Zola was infatuated with the industrial revolution, progress, entrepreneurship and capitalism. Huge difference.