Who & When: The Ladies’ Paradise, or more widely known as Au Bonheur des Dames, was written by the French writer Émile Zola and published in 1883 as the eleventh novel in his twenty (braw, you serious?) novel series Les Rougon-Macquart. I used have zero clue about the prequels/sequels but this could just as well have been a stand-alone work for all it felt like.
Why this book is awesome: Nowadays the majority of us are used to being showered by clever ads and beautifully decorated clothes stores, but just imagine: what if you were a late-19th century woman? The novel tells us about the rise of the first retail giant, the absolute horror of the small competing stores and thousands of women, who fall before the promise of beauty.
Note: this is exclusively my opinion/interpretation, not to be taken as an insult to possibly varying views of other readers.
Enter Denise, a provincial young woman who has just arrived in Paris with her two younger brothers. They are confused and lost in the big city and are searching for the house of their uncle Baudut.
Already in the second paragraph an unflattering description tells us that Denise is no beauty; she is too thin and average-looking with a mouth too large and hair that has no colour, however, she seems to be the mother figure of the trio, as they have just lost their father. (Note: I like what Zola did here, dispelling the pretty heroine aura.)
Suddenly, they spot a huge department store, The Ladies’ Paradise, and basically just stand there, gaping, for ages.
Turns out that the silk shop and house of their uncle is just on the other side of the street and it’s a gloomy, mould-covered opposite of the lavish department store, which sort of scares the living hell out of the three siblings for a sec.
A reunion with the uncle follows, during which Denise explains that she has arrived to find work. The uncle confesses that they have problems with business because no one wants to come into the dark, scary shop now that there’s that darn huge store over the street (no kidding!). He hopes to recover financially and marry his anaemic daughter Geneviève to his employee Colomban, so he can’t offer work for Denise at the moment. They visit another small shop, where they accidentally bump into a high0end employee in “The Paradise”, Bouthemont. He offers Denise the position of a saleswoman.
Uncle Baudut tries to prevent this, by telling Denise the dark history of “The Paradise”. Initially it was just a small silk shop owned by a widow, M-me Hédouin, but then she married the young and charismatic Octave Mouret and conveniently died soon after. After her death, Mouret inherited the shop and started a crazy expansion scheme, buying up adjacent houses and spending a fortune on advertisements. This and Mouret’s blatant neglect towards the old traditions of commerce infuriate the small shop owners, but intrigues Denise even more. She is instinctively revolted by the dark, obsolete shop of her uncle and decides to apply for the job in “The Paradise”.
Notes: As I saw it, Denise possesses a sort of a natural instinct, that makes her accept the defeat of the smaller, weaker competitors by a newly-risen giant store – she just can’t help it, even when her own relatives are on the brink of bankruptcy.
Picture: A. Gerveux, Cinq Heures Chez Paquin (1906)