I actually loved the history and literature courses that were compulsory in order to graduate… I just didn’t care for 10 pages essays. I mean, who didn’t. However, I was enamoured with this one novel by Émile Zola, Au Bonheur des Dames (translated into The Ladies Paradise by Brian Nelson). The French version took me time to get through, but I voraciously read thought the English version, turning page after page until my eyes could bare no more. I just had to finish; the need to complete it outweighed all else. Finding out more about Mouret and his widely successful department store, The Ladies Paradise, and all the other stories weaved into this remarkable novel became an obsession… (Note: I am such a nerd). But beside the point, I couldn’t stop talking about this novel, I just couldn’t. I’m sure I annoyed some people, but I didn’t care! I wanted to get everyone to read it, and I meant everyone. When writing “ma dissertation”, I focused on the undeniable presence of capitalism woven in and out of this novel. Of course there were other interesting themes which lay just beneath the surface, like for instance the carefully installed references to Exoticism, (an art and design movement influenced by the “ethnic groups and civilizations during the 19th century” (©Wikipedia)), or Darwinism and survival of the fittest. But I couldn’t write about all of them now could I.
It was really only a matter of time for this novel to grace my blog and it is probably safe to say that I could have gone on writing about this novel, filling up pages and pages about the various themes and quotes … but I’ll spare you. My intention is not to write a thesis paper, but to make you add this book to your reading list.
So let me begin.
The basic synopsis, stripped to the bare bones, goes like this: Mouret, a rich business man builds The Ladies Paradise, a department store for women. It’s cheaper prices and Mouret’s amazing business strategies dominate all else, pushing the surrounding smaller stores towards poverty and despair. Aka, Mouret steals their customers. The first characters we meet are Denise and her two brothers Pépé and Jean, the niece and nephews of Baudu who is the owner of one of the small shops. The first thing they see while making their way to their Uncle’s store is The Ladies Paradise, blinded and in awe of its bright and inviting aura. Then, they reach their Uncle’s store which is the exact opposite; dark and dreary. It really does foreshadow his ultimate demise. This novel accentuates the gears of the well oiled capitalist machine of a department store and its affect on humans and other small businesses. Yes, The Ladies Paradise brought out the worst and the best in people, it just depended on who’s side the characters were on. But, I must stop here or else I’ll ruin the entire story… this synopsis really does the novel no justice.
I must say that it is exceptionally written; the metaphor-rich text compliments the characters, buildings, and situations that the characters find themselves in. This style paints a vivid picture of the world this novel creates, giving us insight on these characters without being so obvious.
“Mouret’s sole passion was the conquest of Woman. He wanted her to be queen in his shop; he had built this temple for her in order to hold her at her mercy. His tactics were to intoxicate her with amorous attentions, to trade on her desires, and to exploit her excitement”. (p. 234: ©World’s Classics Paperbacks)
“Mouret avait l’unique passion de vaincre la femme. Il la voulait riene dans sa maison, il lut avait bâtis ce temple, pour l’y tenir à sa merci. C’était toute sa tactique, la griser d’attentions galantes et tranfiquer de ses désirs, exploiter sa fièvre”. (p. 281: ©Éditions Gallimard)
That sneaky devil. The sheer material gluttony, obsession, and fervor flew off the pages like ripples in a pond. It was truly remarkable. When it came to the description of the department store, I felt overwhelmed; piles of different types and colours of materials scattered the floors and tables, and the crowds of people became suffocating. It’s almost as if being on a carousel spinning so fast, everything becoming a blur till nausea almost sets in. Then, before it becomes too much, this carousel of a novel slows down, giving you time to regain your balance… and then it starts back up all over again.
Z. Émile. “Au Bonheur des Dames”. Éditions Gallimard. ©1980
Z. Émile. “The Ladies Paradise”. World’s Classics Paperbacks. Translated by Brian Nelson. ©1995
Wikipedia. “Exoticism”. ©2012