The Ladies' Paradise
Back in graduate school I read Zola's novel Nana and completely fell in love with the French realist. Then I didn't pick up another Zola novel for years. You know how that goes. Even though I am chipping away at my list all too slowly The Classics Club gave me the impetus to pick up The Ladies' Paradise (number 41 on my list). This novel has been giving me the stinkeye from a certain book shelf that I can see from my kitchen table.
While I am just a little more than halfway through The Ladies' Paradise, I am finding the novel completely enthralling. It is surprisingly modern, even contemporary. Zola tells the story of Denise, a virtuous shop girl, who goes to Paris after the deaths of both her parents. She is responsible for supporting herself and her two younger brothers, and when she and the boys arrive at her uncle's doorstep in Paris, she finds little help from her family. Across the street from her uncle's shop (he is a draper, which means he sells fabrics) Denise sees the glittering palace of consumerism that is The Ladies' Paradise. She ends up working there, and falling desperately (and quite hopelessly) in love with the brilliant owner, Octave Mouret.
Denise suffers privation, poverty, cruelty, and bullying by her co workers. And yet this gentle, innocent, and tenacious shop girl endures.
Zola brilliantly dissects the seduction of the consumer, and the birth of modern consumerism. Mouret's innovations (creating a sense of confusion in the customer, luring customers with bargains, even giving away balloons) are easily recognizable techniques still being used by retailers. Zola gives the reader a sense of the entitled bourgeoisie and the greed of the overspending housewife; in The Ladies' Paradise, there is both sexual seduction and the seduction of the customer. And the shop girls and counter men are like so many cogs in a wheel. Zola shows how near starvation wages and intense competition set the workers against one another as they plot for commissions and promotions.
Reading this novel has satisfied my desire for intense social and economic analysis, and provided a history lesson on the birth of the modern department store. Mostly, though, I'm just caught up in the story. I'm looking forward to finishing The Ladies Paradise in the next day or two (a full review to follow).
The paintings below are by Swiss painter Felix Valloton. They depict Le Bon Marche, a Parisian store on which Zola based parts of his novel.