by Émile Zola
The advent of big-box book stores devastated small independent booksellers. The big shops (among them i.e. Barnes & Noble, and Borders) had the advantage of big money behind them. They had vast volume, near-infinite selection, and many amenities to attract book buyers, like cafés and clean bathrooms. Despite their loyal and sophisticated urban customers, small bookshops started to fail all across the country. Bookshops became a belwether of big corporate stores putting mom and pop out of business. The big glitz murdered the small and cozy. But, then things changed. On-line sales and e-books began to put a dent in the big-box stores' business. Borders went under. Barnes & Noble receded. Somehow, there was a recovery of many small bookshops. The customers who didn't go to scAmazon began to return to their old haunts. The vast trend had somehow been reversed, at least somewhat. The triumph of big and impersonal did not seem so inevitable.
These are useful thoughts when sitting down to read Zola's polemical and romantic novel. Set in the late 1860s, during the advent of massive department stores in Paris, this book wanders the aisles of The Ladies' Paradise (Au Bonheur des Dames, modeled on le Bon Marché, Printemps and others). Starting as a big fashionable fabric shop, the store expands and mutates, eventually consuming a city block and containing fifty seperate departments of everything from gloves to furniture. The store is presided over by Gustave Mouret, a rakish and brilliant young businessman who was previously seen in Zola's Pot-Bouille. Mouret knows how to pander to the desires of Parisian women. He is, after all, a relentless womanizer. He manipulates their sense of need and desire in lavish commercial scenes described by Zola with erotic relish. It is the early days of intense consumerism, and the reader will see many early examples of sales techniques still common today in shopping malls and (what's left of) department stores. Along the way, the monstrous success of The Ladies' Paradise crushes the small independent shops in its neighborhood and across a swath of Paris which is also being plowed under by the works of Zola's proto-Baron-Hausmann urban developer.
But the story centers around Denise Baudu, a young woman from the country who arrives in Paris on page 1, with her orphaned brothers, broke and homeless and looking for help from their cousins who own a fabric shop across the street from Mouret's great department store. The Baudus' place, indeed, is described as dark, collapsing, and quickly going bankrupt in the shadow of The Ladies' Paradise. The reader could be forgiven for thinking Zola approves of the march of progress here, except that that isn't such a happy place, either. Driven by circumstance, Denise goes to work a the big box store, and begins Zola's devastating descriptions of its employees and owners, their affairs and petty competitions. Indeed, Mouret drives his employees to compete against one another for customers and commissions. They're kept in near poverty and increasing dependence on the big store, in some cases for food and lodging. More than once, Zola refers to the community of employees as a phalanstery, and the workers' dormitory does indeed resemble the communal efforts of the Fourierist Utopian experiments of his day. Denise goes to live in the rafters, and defends herself against relentless gossip, innuendo and scheming.
It should be said that a big part of this story is the sexual morés of its era. Men are expected to have mistresses. Women are expected to serve as mistresses if they wish to attain certain comforts and possessions. Women are easily manipulated by the store's advertising and structure. Their position in this society is clearly beneath men, despite their control of household spending and being the focus of the shop's mission. In today's #MeToo era, the reader may find oneself deploring these cultural expectations. The sexual freedom, such as it is, is startlingly modern. Yet the women have no real power except by granting or denying sexual favors in return for material rewards. Denise maintains a resolute purity throughout the story, driving the men around her to distraction over her inperturbability. Mouret, an accomplished womanizer, falls into unhappy love. Everyone figures her rectitude is merely an act to win a battle of wills with Mouret, get him to marry her, and assert her control over the store. Denise's intention or not, that is how this sort of thing plays out in this cultural setting. Zola seems to fall on the side of Denise's honorable purity, but he is nevertheless a man of his time, and in that time, the woman's power is still essentially sexual and corrupts a man's world. There is yet no real understood underpinning of capability or intelligence. As modern as he is, Zola still has a lot of ground to traverse if he expects us to think he appreciates Denise's equality with Mouret.
(This novel has been adapted into two television series, one called Paradise on British TV, and an Italian production Il Paradiso delle Singore. In 2019, the nearly city-block-sized Macy's in San Francisco's Union Square hosted a promotion called "Journey to Paradisios". The phenomenon of big time department store marketing may have begun in mid-19th-century Paris, but it thrives in 21st-century corporate consumption.)
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Also by Zola: [Nana]