Book Review: The Ladies’ Paradise

The details:

Title: The Ladies’ Paradise (Au Bonheur Des Dames)
Author: Émile Zola
Genre: Fiction (first published in 1883)
Pages: 480
Where to buy: Barnes & Noble

After the death of her parents, Denise Baudu arrives in Paris with her two brothers, Jean, who will be starting an unpaid apprenticeship, and Pépé, who is very young and dependent on Denise. She goes to her uncle, who wrote to her that he would help her if she ever needed it merely as a matter of form, not because he truly meant it. Business is not going well with him, and he cannot afford to support his niece and nephews. With no place to stay, Denise gets a job at the Ladies’ Paradise, a department store, as a salesperson in the ladieswear department. Her uncle is unhappy about this; the department store threatens to put him and the other small shops out of business.

The Ladies’ Paradise by Émile Zola is a novel about business and change. The setting is Paris during the mid-19th century, the Second French Empire of Napoleon III, as buildings are being torn down and wide boulevards are being paved. Baron Haussmann is reconstructing the city with his plans for urban renewal, which is still responsible for much of what is considered iconic Parisian architecture today. The small shop owners see change as a hindrance. They see it as the thing which will destroy them. But the owner of the Ladies’ Paradise, Octave Mouret, takes advantage of all of this social change to grow his store into twenty-eight departments and thousands of employees and even more as the novel progresses. He recognizes that, by selling a larger volume of goods, he can sell them more cheaply. The small shop owners specialize and cannot keep up with his pricing, and the customers will go where they can find the least expensive items. Chapter nine particularly has a good description of the way the store is set up, in such a way that it always looks very crowded and so that customers have to walk through other departments to get what they need. Further, Mouret would sell at a loss to get rid of slow-selling inventory and offered returns, so that shoppers wouldn’t hesitate to buy something, thinking they could always bring it back later, concepts still very familiar to modern shoppers.

Denise agrees with Mouret’s business practices and does not hesitate to tell her uncle and his neighbors so. She feels compassion for them and their situations, as their businesses slowly fail, as their shops are taken over by the noise of construction, and as they fall more deeply into debt. However, she thinks that it is only rational for the larger businesses to be successful and for people to buy cheaper goods. She understands business strategy and has ideas of her own. Denise is clever and hardworking. She is thwarted at times by jealous coworkers, rivalries between departments, and by her brother, Jean, who is always getting into scrapes involving women and asking her for money. Perhaps her biggest challenge is that Mouret, who believes that anyone can be bought, is pursuing her. Refusing to be commodified, Denise turns away his advances. Although she loves him, she will not share his affection with others.

I have to admit that I watched the TV series before reading the novel. The characters in the TV series, The Paradise, are kinder and not quite as desperate, the store is smaller, and Denise is more modern and less hesitant to form a relationship with the British Moray/Mouret. The TV series also changes Moray/Mouret by making him largely faithful to his dead wife (a plot point which mysteriously disappears in the second season) and less of a womanizer. Unlike his novel counterpart, he doesn’t view women as merely a group that can be manipulated to buy anything and who can be bought in turn. In that way, the TV series had more likable characters, but the novel was more compelling and complex. It has much to say about business practices, which makes it a fascinating read even today. Denise’s personal courage, her determination to stay true to herself even as others are urging her to accept Mouret, make this a novel that is not just about business but about the importance of differentiating between personal worth and the cost of goods. As parasols and ready-made coats are being sold and the salespeople collect their commissions, Denise refuses to make herself into a commodity. She is not a trinket to be bought with promises of wealth. Instead, she stays true to herself, and that is what I most enjoyed about this novel.