Saturday, February 16, 2013

Emile Zola - 'The Ladies' Paradise'

It's been seven months since I read my last Emile Zola novel, but I have not given up. I'm still working my way through the twenty novel Rougon-Macquart cycle. The Ladies' Paradise is the eighth book in the series (reading them in the order Zola desired), and its most notable aspect is its happy ending. I'm so surprised by this that, at first, I half believed I'd completely missed some critical thematic element of the book! "If only I'd caught what he really meant, then I'd realize how terribly things ended." But, no, it truly does have a happy ending.

The Ladies' Paradise picks up a few years after the end of Pot-Bouille, the previous novel in the cycle, and focuses on the same member of the Rougon-Macquart family: Octave Mouret. Octave is creating an innovative retail business, a department store called the Ladies' Paradise, that crushes all the small family shops around him. Zola uses the story to delve into the rise of the modern department store, including sharing with us all the various (often underhanded) tricks of the retail trade. As with other novels of his that explore an aspect of Second Empire French society, his adherence to the school of Realism means that the book is like a trip into Professor Dumbledore's pensieve.  Zola provides such detailed descriptions of Octave's store and its operations that you feel like you are getting see a fascinating slice of the past unfold before you!

While this is a tremendous strength of Zola and makes for fascinating reading, this time out it also can be a bit of a weakness. Zola's descriptions of the Ladies' Paradise recur so often and in such similar style that it slows down the advance of the plot. And the novel operates on a fairly thin plot, despite the vast scope of characters and plotlines Zola weaves into the fabric of The Ladies Paradise. Of course, for a Naturalist like Zola, these observations would probably be seen as a sign of success. The novel is not boring by any means, and I found it to be a very quick read. Some readers may just want to skim through a few of the descriptive sections, although keep in mind that it is in these sections where Zola often surfaces his themes...almost like he's a closet Symbolist (sorry, Emile, I know you're probably rolling in your grave at that jab!).

Mouret remains an interesting character. In him, his merchant father's meticulous attention to detail and his mother's overactive imagination fuse to create an innovative retail genius who has "Paris yielding in a kiss to [him]". This is an apt analogy for the womanizing Octave, who continues to be as libidinous in The Ladies' Paradise as he was in Pot-Bouille. "I've got the women!" Octave repeats over and over to explain his unending success. And his relationship with his customers is almost always described in terms of sexual penetration, possession, and - ultimately - exploitation. The best example of this is a passage where Octave is surrounded by lady customers in the drawing room of his mistress:

"On their laps they could feel the caress of the miraculously fine material, in which their hands fondly lingered. And they kept Mouret tightly imprisoned, overwhelming him with further questions...He had to bend forward now and again...lightly brushing against their hair with his beard as he did so. But in the soft voluptuousness of dusk, surrounded by the warm odor of their shoulders, he still remained their master...they felt penetrated and overcome by his delicate understanding of their secret selves, and they forgot their modesty, overcome by his seductive charm..."

source: The Modern City as a Cultural Object site
The entire process of the store's operation, allure, and the behavior of the women who shop there is constantly described in terms of sexual abandon, complete with the consequences of such abandon. In fact, the introduction makes a point that the rise of department stores (Zola based the Ladies' Paradise on an actual Paris department store, the Bon Marche, which is still in business today) may have provided a degree of mobility and social freedom to women. Of course, as in all things retail, there is a price to be paid.

One price seems to be the dark side of Mouret's capitalistic eclat: the ruin of entire families and ways of life as the Ladies' Paradise ruthlessly destroys dozens of small shop owners around it (very much akin to Walmart today). I do not know whether Zola sat in the Capitalism or Socialist camp. Some of his writing in his previous book Money suggests he found both foolishly idealistic and/or incapable of creating equity due to human nature. In The Ladies' Paradise, Zola seems to accept Mouret's success as inevitable, which justifies the ruin of those who compete with him. I say this based on some of the Zola-isms that pepper the novel, especially towards the end. Some examples:

  • "Death must fertilize the world...the struggle for life propelled people towards the charnel-house of eternal destruction."
  • "This manure of distress was necessary to the health of the Paris of the future."
  • "Every revolution demanded its victims, for it was only possible to advance over the bodies of the dead."

Even Zola's morally chaste, gentle heroine - Denise - accepts and supports Mouret's actions, even when they lead to the ruin of people she cares about deeply. She actually loves him more because of it. That said, Zola always strikes me as ambivalent. His tone suggests he views capitalism - and specifically Mouret's actions - as inevitable more than truly desirable. This comes out in his dissection of the operation of the retail giant, which reveals a vast dehumanization at work. Zola's characters are constantly out to "devour" their superiors in order to rise up the ladder. Octave even consciously encourages this 'survival of the fittest' mentality and every year engages in mass firings to cull the gene pool, so to speak. The Ladies' Paradise is presented as a wonderland of silk and satins and gloves that masks a predatory organism beneath. It is a carnivorous beast, a monster.

"In the mechanical workings of the Ladies' Paradise, the staircase in the Rue de la Michodiere constantly disgorged the goods which had been swallowed up by the chute in the Rue Neuve-Saint-Augustin, after they had passed through the mechanism of the various departments upstairs." 

However, what creates the surprisingly positive tone of this novel is that Zola turns his usual black views on their head through Denise Baudu, the mild, child-like heroine who is nevertheless quite intelligent, courageous, and capable of deep feeling. In a normal Zola novel, a decent, hard working young woman of conscience is usually doomed. Enough said. I won't go into much detail to avoid spoilers, but it's enough to say that Denise is not dehumanized by the ravenous beast-machine of the Ladies' Paradise and resists "the great seducer" Mouret.

I enjoyed The Ladies' Paradise, both as a novel and as a read. Zola's observations are always thought-provoking, especially around economic issues since he always sidesteps polemic. Even so, I can't say this is not one of Zola's great novels. The plot takes a little too long to move for that. However, Zola's survey of the rise of the department store is a colorful page turner and, for many readers, will likely be one of the few Zola novels that does not repel with the author's often bleak outlook on human nature. (Or maybe I'm just so used to it now that it seems light by comparison!).

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