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The Ladies' Paradise
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B+ : lively, entertaining portrait of rapidly changing times
See our review for fuller assessment.
(* review of a different translation)
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The complete review's Review:
The 'Ladies' Paradise' of the title is a Paris department store -- and is, even more than any of the characters, the centerpiece of the novel. It is the brainchild of Octave Mouret -- familiar from Zola's Pot Luck -- whose rise is quickly summed up here:
A lad from the Midi who had turned up in Paris possessing all the attractive audacity of an adventurer; and, from the day he arrived, there had been nothing but affairs with women, an endless exploiting of women, a scandal which is still the talk of the town, when he had been caught in the act; then his sudden and inexplicable conquest of Madame Hédouin, which had brought him the Ladies' Paradise.Madame Hédouin has conveniently been disposed of since the previous novel -- dramatically, too, as the Ladies' Paradise was being expanded:
Yes, on this building site ! One morning, when she was looking at the works, she fell into a hole. Three days later she died. A fine, healthy woman, who had never had a day's illness in her life ! There's some of her blood under the foundations of that shop !Mouret, meanwhile, has dedicated himself entirely to his grand vision -- and grand it is. It is a time of large-scale change in Paris; among the characters in the novel is Baron Hartmann, closely modeled on the real-life transformer of Paris, Baron Haussmann, and Mouret makes a considerable effort to get Hartmann on board with his incredibly ambitious plans.
Already at the beginning of the novel, the Ladies' Paradise is a wonder. The story opens with twenty-year-old Denise Baudu -- the novel's main (human) character -- arriving in the big city from small-town Valognes with her younger brothers in tow, and finds her almost immediately transfixed by the sight of the store: "this building which seemed so enormous, brought a lump to her throat and held her rooted to the spot, excited, fascinated, oblivious to everything else." From the first, she is captivated by this undertaking -- around which her life will soon enough revolve.
Denise's parents are both dead, and while she tried to manage as a salesgirl in Valognes, the opportunity her sixteen-year-old brother has for an apprenticeship (with an ivory-carver, of all things ...) leads her to take up her Uncle Baidu's vague offer from when her father died that there would always be a place for them in Paris. Uncle Baidu owns a small, dark shop in the shadows of the Ladies' Paradise and is just one of the neighborhood shopkeepers whose livelihoods and business are slowly being eclipsed by the grand and growing department store. The contrast between his gloomy shop and the Ladies' Paradise couldn't be starker.
Baidu's is a drapery shop -- as also the Ladies' Paradise once was, but Mouret's vision was of something much, much bigger, a shop not limited to a single specialty but one in which everything could be found. Even a man steeped in the business and commercial activity of the day, Baron Hartmann, has his doubts about Mouret's novel, outsized concept:
Wasn't it a fantastic, rash speculation, this gigantic shop ? Wouldn't he risk certain ruin in wishing to expand the drapery trade beyond all bounds ? In short, he didn't believe in it; he refused.Ladies' man Mouret knows exactly who his customers are and will be: as in his private life -- as a widower he is known for his casual conquests among the store sales staff and beyond; as is clear to Denise (and everyone else): "He was seduction personified" --, Mouret understands it's all about, as he very bluntly puts it: "the exploitation of Woman". Indeed, it's striking in the novel how completely dominated by women the store's customer-base is. This is a world in which women do the shopping -- and Mouret knows how to lure them in (bargains help: "He knew they were incapable of resisting a real bargain") and cater to them:
That was how it was; at the Paradise it was as if they were at a private party; when they were there, they felt constantly courted with flattery and showered with adoration which entranced even the most virtuous. The shop's enormous success came from the seductive way it paid court to them.While men dominate the management of the store and its departments, the serving staff is overwhelmingly female as well: the atmosphere in The Ladies' Paradise is principally and thoroughly feminine. So also, even though it is Mouret's vision, and he is both guide and puppet-master in the running of the store, he is, for long stretches, more of a background figure in the story, Zola, for much of the novel, much more focused on the women customers, and the staff that serves them. Mouret knows what women want, and he provides it -- but one of his strengths is also his willingness and ability to step back and let them have it, without additional interference; among the novel's many powerful shop-scenes is one that has the lord of this commercial palace he has built: "still looking down at his nation of women".
The concept of Ladies' Paradise -- and of the other department stores being established at the time (which get some mention but aren't too much direct competition) -- is revolutionary. Until then, shops specialized in one kind of item -- and, indeed, all the small shops, like Baidu's, in the vicinity of the ever-expanding department store still do, but they can't compete with the Ladies' Paradise, which is able to undercut any price. From the first, Denise understands -- and approves of -- this new model; she sees it as the way of the future: "the logical development of business, the needs of modern times, the magnitude of these new creations, and finally the increasing well-being of the public" (which benefits from lower prices). So also:
While pretending to joke, Denise produced sound arguments: the middlemen -- factory agents, representatives, commission agents -- were disappearing, and this was an important factor in reducing prices; besides, the manufacturers could no longer exist without the big shops, for as soon as one of them lost their custom, bankruptcy became inevitable; in short, it was a natural development of business, it was impossible to stop things going the way they ought to, when everyone was working for it, whether they liked it or not.Her Uncle Baudu doesn't see it that way:
It's all illusion. Business is business, you can't get away from it ... Oh ! They're successful, I grant you that, but that's all.It is indeed an entirely different way of doing business, and those struck in the old ways, unable to adjust to changing times, are doomed to fade from the scene -- a familiar picture in retail even in modern times, with first the collapse of Main Street and the rise of superstores and malls and, more recently, the rise of online-selling (most notably the juggernaut that is Amazon.com).
The Ladies' Paradise's success is transformational, on a previously unimagined scale. It changes the whole commercial scene. As Mouret expands his empire over the course of the novel, with extensive new construction (having gotten Baron Hartmann on board), the construction work literally shakes the whole neighborhood, foundations and all. One would-be hold-out is Bourras, who has a long-term lease on a house that stands in the way of Mouret's store taking over the entire street; Bourras refuses to sell out, despite the increasingly generous buy-out offers Mouret dangles in front of him; he says he'd rather the house collapse and bury him before he gives way. Denise's uncle, by then, sees things more clearly, knowing that none of the local shops -- not his, not Bourras' -- can withstand the competition from the Ladies' Paradise:
'Our houses are already falling down, neighbour,' said Baidu with a gloomy air. 'And we'll all be buried in them.'The sheer size of the Ladies' Paradise and its operation dwarf everything around it. Eventually:
His staff would now have peopled a small town: there were fifteen hundred salesmen, and a thousand other employees of every kind, including forty shopwalkers and seventy cashiers; the kitchens alone kept thirty-six men busy; ten clerks had been assigned to publicity; there were three hundred and fifty porters all wearing livery, and in twenty-four resident firemen.The employee-kitchen is filled with oversize gear -- "colossal cooking-pots, which four men could not have lifted" and: "grills big enough to roast martyrs on, saucepans in which a whole sheep could be cooked [...] stone sinks that seemed like swimming pools" -- while an extensive delivery-service means they maintain no less than a hundred and forty-five horses to draw the sixty-two vehicles used to deliver purchases.
The key to Mouret's success is turnover, a constant churn of articles of every description sold that make for an enormous cash flow. He shows a willingness to sell at a loss, whether to crush competition or to make way for next season's fashions -- and can afford to do so, unlike the smaller shops. Mouret can be satisfied with a smaller profit margin -- as long as the volume is sufficient. And it is always sufficient: Mouret knows how to sell.
With her uncle's business already in terminal decline when she arrives in Paris, Denis must look for employment elsewhere -- and the Ladies' Paradise is the obvious alternative. She begins there as a salesgirl, working for room -- attic rooms are provided for the girls who didn't have lodgings elsewhere -- and board but no salary, earning only a commission. She's an outsider, a country girl, and throughout the novel is often the subject of gossip; she remains apart from most of the other girls, simply trying to do her work. The workplace is a cauldron of petty jealousies, gossip, and sniping -- though over the course of the novel, which covers several years, there is an evolution not just in the way of doing business, but in the employees: as to the salesgirls:
There were all sorts, hussies as well as decent girls. What is more, the moral standard was rising. In the past they had had nothing but the dregs of the trade, poor distracted girls who had just drifted into the drapery business; whereas nowadays families in the Rue de Sèvres, for example, were definitely bringing up their little girls for the Bon Marché. In short, when they wanted to behave properly, they could; for unlike the working girls of the Paris streets, they were not obliged to pay for their board and lodging: they were lodged and fed, and their existence was assured, though doubtless it was a very hard existence. The worst thing of all was their neutral, ill-defined position, somewhere between shopkeepers and ladies. Plunged into the midst of luxury, often without any previous education, they formed an anonymous class apart. All their troubles and vices sprang from that.Zola does a good job of presenting the girls at work (and, to some extent, at play) and their interactions, with each other and the customers. Indeed, throughout, the descriptions of the bustling activity at the Ladies' Paradise -- almost always incredibly crowded and busy -- are excellent: the department store is presented as a practically living (and ever-expanding) being.
Eventually, Denise rises in the hierarchy, and has the ear of Mouret. She is able to influence him, and is behind numerous improvements that benefit the staff -- from a games room for them to relax in to educational opportunities (lessons in everything from English and German to riding and fencing). They even install a ten-thousand (!) volume library for the staff -- intriguing also because, despite selling almost everything, the Ladies' Paradise apparently does not deal in books.
This brief description of improvements provided by the employer seems rather hastily squeezed in by Zola, part of his vision of the advances large-scale commerce as Mouret envisions it should allow, and is not entirely convincing. So also in some fundamental changes in employment itself: mass dismissals -- long a regular occurrence:
were replaced by a system of leave given during the slack seasons, and there was a plan to create a mutual aid society which would protect them against forced redundancy and would guarantee them a pension. This was the embryo of the vast trade unions of the twentieth century.That's a lot to claim, and it's unsurprising that Zola doesn't mention it again, much less go into any more detail. There seems to be a lot of wishful thinking here. Zola does acknowledge the suffering of the tradespeople who cling to the old way of doing business whose lives and livelihoods are destroyed as a consequence of the new model becoming dominant, but he presents it as both inevitable and, ultimately, a force and change for the good. Mouret's relentless pursuit of growth -- from the size of the store to turnover -- is not just defensible but practically a necessity; as Zola puts it, "he was merely carrying out the task of his epoch".
Interestingly, Denise is completely on board with this, from the beginning. Sympathetic to the plight of her uncle and his family with their small store, and then others she works for or whose roof she lives under for a time, she nevertheless wholeheartedly endorses and believes that Mouret is doing what is right. She is in awe of his vision -- and, from early on, she is also in love with him (as The Ladies' Paradise is also something of a romance), in no small part, it seems, because of his vision and how he puts it into practice:
she loved him for the grandeur of his achievement, and each time he committed some fresh excess of power, despite the flood of tears which overwhelmed her at the thought of the misery of the vanquished, she loved him even more.The love-story is a peculiar one. From early on, Denise is taken by Mouret -- and he is attracted to her. Knowing his reputation, she refuses to let herself in for a fling with him, and does not even acknowledge her feelings for him. Meanwhile, Mouret falls more deeply in love with her, and, so used to conquering any woman he wants at will, finds himself frustrated by her unwillingness to yield. It becomes the subject of a great deal of gossip, too -- especially when Denise receives one of Mouret's notorious invitations to dinner -- but she holds out -- despite being so desperately in love. The back and forth continues for the entire novel: Denise is fired early in her career, and has to make do elsewhere for a while, but she comes back into the fold; Mouret tries to win her over, but fears that -- as gossip has it -- there are other men in her life. A resolution only comes with the conclusion of the book -- so abrupt that it doesn't even feel very romantic; The Ladies' Paradise isn't particularly satisfying as a romance-novel. But then the romance is really just almost incidental: The Ladies' Paradise is about the Ladies' Paradise, about business and commerce and the great, rapid changes they're undergoing, and the ripple effects of that throughout society.
Some of the secondary storylines are more successful on the personal level, running in parallel to the larger saga. For example, the plan has long been to marry off Uncle Baudu's daughter, Denise's cousin, to his shop assistant, who would then take over the shop; the wedding keeps getting pushed off until times improve -- which, of course, they won't -- while the assistant is tempted by one of the Ladies' Paradise shopgirls; naturally, these best-laid plans are destroyed by cold, hard reality. There's also Bourras and the house he clings to; as sympathetic as he is in his insistent holding out, it can not end well for him either. Yet there are also some brighter fates -- though only within the Ladies' Paradise family, as for example Denise's only close friend there marries and settles down with her beau, and is even allowed to continue working there, when previously employees had not been allowed to be married to each other, much less be pregnant.
The Ladies' Paradise neatly balances old and new -- if all too obviously siding with the new. Zola sympathetically describes all those who: "from morning till night, were going under, being knocked over and swept away on the tide of disaster" -- but, like the ocean-tide, it is presented as an unopposable force. (A few do have a go at competing with the Ladies' Paradise -- dramatic little scenes of business-competition --, but none stand the slightest chance.)
Among the many scenes hammering home just how hopeless the situation is for the old guard is a funeral, Bourras accurately observing:
We're burying the whole neighborhood with this child ... Oh ! I know what I'm saying, the old way of business might as well go and join those white roses they're throwing on her coffin.Denise is sympathetic, but she knows which way the wind is blowing and from the first understood that the new had to be embraced. To her, Mouret and his methods -- or at least the larger vision -- are right, and she feels more comfortable in this system rather than the outdated older one. She's something of a born modern business-woman as well:
She could never do anything herself, or watch a task being carried out, without being obsessed with the need to put method into it, to improve the system.Denise does try not to leave the old behind, reaching out and trying to help where she can; indeed, she tries to more or less save both her uncle (if not the rest of his family, for whom it is too late by then) and Bourras -- but neither shows themselves willing or able to be saved, not at the personal cost Denise's solutions demand.
Parts of The Ladies' Paradise feel a bit flimsy -- not least Denise's two brothers. She is devoted to them, but they mostly flutter as odd appendages in the story. The older one makes constant annoying appearances begging Denise for money before eventually getting serious and settling down -- but, for example, his wedding barely rates a mention. Meanwhile, the younger child has to be taken care of while Denise works, mostly by others -- a constant worry for Denise, but one which doesn't really prove terribly problematic.
The central love story, too, isn't really very convincing or romantic -- though Mouret's otherwise determinedly bachelor-lifestyle and the consequences of some of that make for a solid foundation for some of the goings-on. So too the incidental romances, romantic pining, and jealousies both petty and writ large -- all of which there's a lot of throughout -- make for good noisy proceedings in the background of the larger story.
The Ladies' Paradise is a busy, crowded novel -- like the store itself. In its enthusiastic descriptions of activity and grand ambition it is among Zola's most Balzacian works, even if he can't quite let himself go to the extent Balzac could. Still, the novel is at its most successful when describing the bustle and business of the department store -- which does take up a lot of the novel. The many well-observed details -- from the handling of shoplifters to the daily haul of cash brought to Mouret to inventory-taking -- add good color.
Zola does somewhat weaken what dramatic tension he might have developed between old and new by so completely siding with the new -- and showing it so easily emerging victorious --, but he still captures the scenes of decline of the old way of doing business well.
The Ladies' Paradise is also a strikingly contemporary novel: anno 2021, it's hard to read without constantly seeing Jeff Bezos in Mouret, for example.
It makes for a good and thoroughly entertaining read -- a novel almost carried away, for better and worse, by its enthusiasm for its central character, the store.
- M.A.Orthofer, 25 April 2021
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French author Émile Zola lived 1840 to 1902.
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