Emile Zola The Ladies Paradise Analysis Essay

Can anyone tell I’m a Zola fan yet? This time, I’m writing about yet another novel in his Rougon-Macquart series, The Ladies’ Paradise or Au Bonheur des Dames. Published in 1883, this novel is Zola’s attempt at describing the relatively unheard-of at the time department store. Modelled on the Bon Marché, Paris’s first big shop constructed of different departments catering to all, Zola’s Ladies’ Paradise is epic in both its reputation and stature.

The novel centres around both the owner of the Paradise, Octave Mouret, and one of the shopgirls, Denise Baudu. Mouret has inherited the Paradise from his first wife and strives to develop his store to become the most powerful in all of Paris. As a result of this, we see the effect this appearance of the department store has on the small businesses which surround the Paradise. Mouret’s monster destroys all in its path in order to be successful – he really doesn’t care whose building or whose livelihood (or indeed who) he kills in the process. Mouret is extremely fiscally motivated, always thinking about bigger and better sales and advancements that he can make within the store to rival his competitors until they eventually give up.

Then we have Denise. She is the niece of one of the shop owners whose business is threatened by the construction of the Paradise. Against her uncle’s wishes, she applies for a job as a shopgirl at the Paradise in order to support her two brothers after the death of their parents. However, all is not plain sailing when she starts her new job. She is victimised due to her plain appearance when she is sent to work in the Ladieswear department. Believe me, this is the ultimate clique! Her dowdy dress is ridiculed and her inability to style her own hair any other way is a source of amusement for the girls who consistently refer to her as unkempt. Zola writes: ‘A further torment was that the whole department was against her. To her physical martyrdom was added the surreptitious persecution of her colleagues. Two months of patience and gentleness had not so far disarmed them. She was the object of wounding remarks and cruel tricks, and constant slights which, in her need for affection, cut her to the quick… Later on, as she quickly became accustomed to the workings of the shop, and proved herself to be a remarkable saleswoman, there was indignant amazement, and from then on the girls conspired never to let her have a good customer.’ Day in, day out, Denise is faced with the 19th century equivalent of mean girls – girls who know the best customers to snatch up before Denise can get her hands on them. In this way, Zola demonstrates not only real life (I’m sure we’ve all had to deal with people like that!), but also the ruthlessness of business and consumerism in not just Victorian Paris but around the world.

This ruthlessness is described as necessity throughout the novel. You can’t run a successful store without some cutbacks! Anybody who is seen as dead weight is instantly thrown out of the Paradise family. And a family it seems to be as the staff all live under the same roof and dine together. Zola writes of the method in which those are fired from the Paradise: ‘In any case, the salesmen accepted their precarious position, for they were forced to do so by necessity and habit. Ever since their arrival in Paris they had roamed about, beginning their apprenticeship in one shop, finishing it in another, getting dismissed or leaving of their own accord on the spur of the moment, as chance and their interests dictated. When the factories lay idle, the workers were deprived of their daily bread; and this took place with the unfeeling motion of a machine – the useless cog was calmly thrown aside, like an iron wheel to which no gratitude is shown for services rendered. So much the worse for those we did not know how to look after themselves!’ Zola’s analysis of consumerism in the novel does not paint the most ideal of lives. Granted, when one is in the right job and position, the rewards can be great, but one false move can decimate years of training. The Paradise is somewhat uncaring in this aspect. Mouret wants people in his store that are fully committed but when supervisors and others deem a member of staff to be useless to the giant wheel that is their department store, the member of staff i.e. the cog is cast aside with little regard for his circumstances. The Paradise is full of people who are back-stabbing each other to get the top, as discussed in the overview that: ‘everyone in the department, from the newcomer dreaming of becoming a salesman to the senior salesman coveting the manager’s job, had only one fixed idea – to dislodge the colleague above them in order to climb a rung of the ladder, to devour him if he became an obstacle; and it was as if this struggle of appetites, this pressure of one against another, was what made the machine run smoothly, stimulating business and igniting the blaze of success which wasastonishing Paris.’ This monster store, described as ‘colossal and fantastic’ can be the means to ruin or promotion, depending on how you play your cards.

Mouret’s sole focus, as I have said, is money. His days are spent surveying his store and trying to come up with new ways to get the customers in the door. The only way he can think to do this is to appeal as much as he can to female shoppers. They are the ones who will spend the big francs on silks, gloves, homewares, anything he throws in front of them so he thinks. The reader is informed that ‘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 his mercy. His tactics were to intoxicate her with amorous attentions, to trade on her desires, and to exploit her excitement.’ He opens new sections of his department store just for her. He develops new ways of enticing Woman into departments designed specifically for children in order to get even more money from her pocket. A despicable way to trade some may say, but I’m sure a most successful one! He starts sales in his shop on the cheapest of items so any woman shopper would think she urgently needed that item – it must be brilliant, it’s on sale! Then we see the introduction of his returns policy – you can always try it and bring it back, knowing full well they wouldn’t! Say what you will about him, Mouret is a fantastic businessman! He doesn’t miss a trick! He is believed to be ‘drinking the money of Paris as [he would] drink a glass of water.’ Constantly moving departments around so customers would have to walk through certain areas to get where they wanted to go – maybe on the way they could pick up a bargain here and there. Zola portrays Mouret as quite simply the master of the shop, as the master of consumerism! His sales are even described as generating paroxysms in his customers! His sales mean the shops are crammed full of people, resulting in excessive heat and even fevers amongst the women. He knows how to get the money out of his customers without them even realising they’re being duped. As Mouret states himself: ‘Doesn’t Paris belong to women, and don’t the women belong to us?’

I think The Ladies’ Paradise is one of those novels where you can just picture everything. I love books like that! Zola is one of very few writers that I have come across who can easily paint a glorious picture, even if it’s of the most disgusting of things as we can read elsewhere! Here, his description of the department store is one of the most beautiful you can imagine. He details the gilding of the store, the elevators lined with velvet, the sheer aesthetic pleasure of the shop never ceases to be breathtaking. At the end of the day of Mouret’s biggest ever sale, the setting sun sets the inside of the shop ablaze: ‘A sheet of fire was running through the great central gallery, making the staircases, the suspension bridges, and the hanging iron lacework stand out against a background of flames. The mosaics and the ceramics of the friezes were sparkling, the greens and reds of the paintwork were lit up by the fires from the gold so lavishly applied. It was as if the displays… were now burning in live embers.’ The most magnificent of descriptions, I’m sure you’ll agree! You can just picture the low sun burning through the shop showing the devastation and desolation brought on the store by the shoppers. Yet again, this imagery is what draws not only the reader into the Paradise but also the shoppers. No wonder they are amazed and enthralled by what they experience in this grand building and most regal of palaces! Mouret could offer them anything and they would take it. Zola’s introduction of the grandeur of the department store is a comment on what he describes as the new Paris – a Paris driven by consumerism and wealth – a Paris driven by the excessive need to have.

As predictable as it is, the reader witnesses Denise’s looks capture the attention of Mouret. Try as he might, he cannot get this girl out of his head. The man who wants for nothing, but this is the one girl who we will see continually refuse his advances! He watches her develop in style and confidence, offering her promotions and more money in order to appease her, yet she still will not yield. Mouret is a man who ‘only had to stoop to get the others’ and here we see the resilience of a woman who chooses not to be gossiped about. The whole store knows Mouret worships Denise, leading them to speculate she already has a lover. In reality, Denise does feel something for Mouret, feeling terrible and ashamed when she may have done something to disappoint him. She simply doesn’t want to be the next in a long line of Mouret’s women whom he courts and dumps the next day. She is a woman of morals and standards and as such is highly respectable in her resolve and determinations. In some ways, Denise almost despises herself for the way she feels: ‘Mouret had invented this mechanism for crushing people, and its brutal operation shocked her. He had strewn the neighbourhood with ruins, he had despoiled some and killed others; yet she loved him for the grandeur of his achievement, and each time he committed some fresh excess of power, despite the flood of tears which overwhelmed her at the thought of the misery of the vanquished, she loved him even more.’ She sees businesses ruined, men driven out of their homes, money offered to get people to move on so he can build more wings to his store, she sees her own uncle’s business be driven into the ground by Mouret but still she cannot shake her feelings for him. Perhaps she is altogether impressed by his acumen to grow and change constantly to adapt, like Denise in some ways. She came from nothing and works her way up within the Paradise through sheer determination.

Most notably to me is Zola’s description of the store towards the end of the novel. We read of the attraction and pull of the Paradise to the citizens of Paris, but only a few pages from the end do we hear a comparison with religion. Zola writes: ‘And it was he who possessed them all like that… His creation was producing a new religion; churches, which were being gradually deserted by those of wavering faith, were being replaced by his bazaar. Women came to spend their hours of leisure in his shop, the thrilling, disturbing hours which in the past they’d spent in the depths of a chapel… If he had closed his doors, there would have been a rising in the street, a desperate outcry from the worshippers whose confessional and altar he would have abolished.’ This comparison between the religion of consumerism and actual religion is amazing. People in search of a new faith have left the churches and instead found the luxury of shopping. Now I know some people can be obsessed with shopping (I know I am!) but Zola’s description here is incredible. Those looking for something to believe in have chosen Mouret’s store to salve their souls! Ironic really, since the way he conducts his Paradise and the way in which he treats his staff is anything but Christian! Yet here we have men, women and children ploughing through his doors day in day out, lining his pocket with money. Mouret knows they will return again and again if he does just enough to entice them.

Overall, I thought this novel was great! We’re all familiar in this day and age with the modern department store but it was a novelty in Victorian Paris. It must have been a sight to behold, this fictional colossal building of marble and gold forever expanding along a small street in France! Yet again, Zola describes the effect of this consumerism on the rich and the poor expertly. As we can read in his other novels, he never shirks away from reporting on the good and the bad. I will let you read the novel to find out what actually happens in the end but I really do suggest you pick it up if you can! Oh, and I’ve also just started the BBC series called The Paradise which I believe roughly follows the story – so far the first episode is rather different but I’ll keep going! Let me know if any of you have already watched it!

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Edited: Jan 11, 2013, 12:53pm

I just finished reading The Ladies' Paradise, which is the eleventh in the Rougon-Macquart series. It features Octave Mouret, the son of the Mourets in The Conquest of Plassans, and brother of Father Mouret in The Sin of Father Mouret.

This is my review:

The Ladies' Paradise can be approached on three levels: as a somewhat conventional 19th century love story, as a study of the inner workings of the retailing business in the late 19th century, and as an indictment of the rampant consumerism. First, the love story:

Denise and her two younger brothers have come to Paris, where their uncle, a small shopkeeper, had promised her a position in his shop after their parents died. When they arrive at their uncle's store, Denise finds that the store is suffering and her uncle is unable to offer her a position, primarily because a large and growing establishment, The Ladies' Paradise, is siphoning off his customers. Other small shops in the area are also in decline, and Denise feels fortunate to obtain a position at The Ladies' Paradise.

The owner of The Ladies' Paradise is Octave Mouret, who was featured in the previous Rougon-Macquart novel Pot Luck; however, none of the characters or events in that novel spill over to the current novel. In the interval between the two books, Octave has married the widow of the owner of The Ladies' Paradise, she has died in an accident, and he has succeeded to sole ownership. Octave is now a wealthy womanizer, seducing and discarding shopgirls on a regular basis. Initially he is not attracted to Denise, who is described as slight, and somewhat plain, except for a magnificent mane of hair. Denise overcomes a series of hardships, including the disdain of her fellow shopgirls, and Octave gradually takes notice of her and attempts to seduce her. She resists, focuses on her work and family, and is able to work her way into positions of greater responsibility and compensation. Denise gradually comes to love Octave, but doesn't want to be another of his throwaways. SPOILER SPOILDER SPOILER. She holds out for marriage, and in the end he marries her, and I guess they live happily ever after.

This story-line aspect of the novel is the weakest part of the book and the part I liked least. In fact, it was due to my recollection of this story-line that I almost skipped this one in my Rougon-Macquart challenge, since I had initially read it within the last 10 years. While I liked Denise's character, especially in the beginning when she felt something like Jane Eyre to me, after a while she began to grate on me as being too perfect. I found myself wondering what a Dickens heroine was doing in a Zola novel. And, as noted above, unlike any other Zola novel I've read, there's a sappy, happy ending.

Nevertheless, The Ladies' Paradise is a worthy component of the Rougon-Macquart series. It gives us an insider's view of the inner-workings of a major department store at the end of the 19th century, when surprisingly many of the retailing techniques we think of as modern were beginning to be utilized. We see the nitty-gritty mechanics of the business, including the living arrangements of the shopgirls (in dorms over the shop), how receipts are collected and counted, how inventory is controlled, how deliveries are made, even how shoplifters are treated. In addition, we watch as Octave institutes the innovations that allow him to drive the small shopowners out of business and maximize profits.

For example, he begins partially basing compensation of the sales force on their sales receipts: "To make people do their best--and to keep them honest--it was necessary to excite their selfish desires first." He begins a practice of heavy advertising, and begins catelogue sales. He adopts a policy allowing returns, on the theory that the belief that an item can be returned will induce a customer to buy more--will be the tipping factor for whether to purchase an item or not. He scientifically arranges the merchandise and the location of the departments so each customer will have to traverse a larger portion of the store and make impulse purchases. The grand innovation of course is the development of a store in which many categories of goods are sold, rather than just one--the "department" store.

Mouret exploits the greed of his customers. He lures them in with low-advertised prices on a particular item, knowing that the enjoyment of buyers "is doubled when they think they are robbing the tradesman. " He recognizes that if one item is seen as a bargain, other items can be sold at as high a price as anywhere else, and "they'll still think yours are the cheapest." He uses sales in order to expedite turnover of inventory: "He had discovered that she could not resist a bargain, that she bought without necessity when she thought she saw a cheap line, and on this observation he based his system of reductions in price of unsold items, perferring to sell them at a loss, faithful to his principle of continual renewal of the goods."

Throughout, the madness of consumerism is condemned. Many of the new retailing techniques are based on a low opinion of the customer. For the most part the customer is female, and as a woman she is implicitly compared to the victim of sexual seduction:

"Mouret's unique passion was to conquer woman. He wished her to be queen in her house, and he had built this temple to get her completely at his mercy. His sole aim was to intoxicate her with gallant attentions, and traffic on her desires, work on her fever. Night and day he racked his brain to invent fresh attractions."

Then, "...when he had emptied her purse and shattered her nerves, he was full of the secret scorn of a man to whom a woman had just been stupid enough to yield herself."

However, the woman is not excused:

"It was the woman that they were continually catching in the snare of their bargains, after bewildering her with their displays. They had awakened new desires in her flesh; they were an immense temptation, before which she succumbed fatally, yielding at first to reasonable purchases of useful articles for the household, then tempted by their coquetry, then deoured. In increasing their business tenfold, in popularizing luxury, they became a terrible spending agency, ravaging the households, working up the fashionable folly of the hour, always dearer. And if woman reigned in their shops like a queen, cajoled, flattered, overwhelmed with attentions, she was an amorous one, on whom her subjects traffic, and who pays with a drop of her blood each fresh caprice."

I found myself fascinated with these two aspects of the book, perhaps because, unlike Denise, the seductions of The Ladies' Paradise prevailed over the good sense of its customers.


Feb 6, 2013, 4:51pm

I've just finished this and wrote my review before reading yours, Deborah. However, it seems we are in almost complete agreement about the strengths and weaknesses of the novel. Here is my review.

The strength of this novel is its almost overwhelming depiction of the merchandise in the Ladies' Paradise, one of the first Parisian department stores, and of Parisian women's insatiable demand for the goods it offers. The weakness is the plot and the characterization; the usually brilliant story-teller Zola falls down on that aspect of the job in this novel. However, a less good Zola is still a lot better than a lot of other books!

At the beginning of this novel, an orphaned provincial young woman, Denise, brings her two younger brothers (one a young man, one a child) to Paris, hoping to stay at the home of their uncle, who owns a small store. His business is failing, however, because Octave Mouret, the protagonist of Pot Luck, has turned the small store he acquired by marrying Mme. Hedouin (who subsequently died) into a department store which is stealing business from all the shop-owners in the neighborhood. Despite the fact that everyone she meets hates the Ladies' Paradise, Denise is attracted by it and has no other option except to get a job there as a salesgirl; this entitles her to a small room in which to live as well as her meals. As the novel progresses, she encounters various problems, is fired and then rehired, and comes to the attention of Mouret, who is the creative genius and dictatorial ruler of the store. A ladies man, he somewhat unbelievably becomes romantically interested in Denise; although she resists, her prestige rises in the store. I found the character of Denise much too meek and good to be true, and I couldn't believe the romantic attachment between Mouret and her.

So much for the plot. Zola dazzles the reader, as Mouret dazzles the shoppers, with his descriptions of the displays and the merchandise and the ways in which the female shoppers almost swoon over it. He also brilliantly dissects the inner workings of a department store: how the goods enter, how they're sold, how they're paid for, how they're shipped out, how the finances work, how the different types of employees are encouraged to compete with each other and how, mostly cattily, they treat each other, how shoplifting works and is caught, and much more. Another aspect of the novel is real estate: the creation of the large boulevards of Paris (as described in other works in the Rougon-Macquart cycle) and the attempts to cash in on them, as well as Mouret's machinations to acquire the right parcels to create a store that fills the entire block. Although Zola also tries to show how this drives the other merchants out of business, this part of the story is less fully told. As a portrait of the growth of department stores, materialism, and commercialism, this novel is fascinating, if not horrifying, and a meaningful contribution to Zola's goal of giving readers a full picture of life of during the Second Empire. It just isn't a very good story.


Feb 6, 2013, 5:54pm

One of the fascinating historical perspectives in Zola's works revolves around this particular work especially IMO and that's Baron Haussmann's reconfiguring of the streets and avenues of the Paris of the day without which the modern department store might have had to wait another decade or so and Zola forthrightly portrays the human cost of that project--more or less a case of eminent domain--people having their livelihoods destroyed in the modernization process--old ways give way to the new ways--it's the same as ever today. Those who can't or refuse to keep up get left behind. A cutthroat aspect of western human society--there are always people getting rich off the misery or destruction of others.


Edited: Aug 19, 2013, 7:05am

Oh, it's definitely the same as ever today, and the whole Haussmanization of Paris is treated in more detail in The Kill where, then as now, it's the poor who get moved in the name of "urban renewal."


Feb 6, 2013, 7:42pm

And in The Kill, the insiders who make off like bandits.

Rebecca--great review. It's nice to have my opinion of the book validated by such a perceptive reader as you! And I agree, even a "bad" Zola is well-worth reading.


Aug 18, 2013, 1:38pm

Here is my review:

The Ladies' Paradise by Émile Zola
First published 1883 as Au Bonheur des Dames
English translation by Brian Nelson 1995

“The silk department was like a huge bedroom dedicated to love, hung with white by the whim of a woman in love who, snowy in her nudity, wished to compete in whiteness. All the milky tones of an adored body were there, from the velvet of the hips to the fine silk of the thighs and the shining satin of the breasts.”

In such sexual terms, Émile Zola repeatedly describes the merchandise on display in Paris’s first and greatest department store, “The Ladies’ Paradise,” or simply “The Paradise.”

The fabrics and articles of clothing are designed to appeal to all the erotic senses. A pair of leather gloves smells “like an animal in rut which has landed in a girl’s powder box.” Women plunge their hands into bales of silk and piles of lace, their rapture reaching an orgasmic intensity which translates into a frenzy of spending. The shop floor, seen from above, was a “sea of bosoms bursting with life, beating with desire.” And at the end of big sale “the customers, despoiled and violated, were going away in disarray, their desires satisfied, and with the secret shame of having yielded to temptation in the depths of some sleazy hotel.”

The setting is Paris in the 1860s during the extravagant, materialistic years of the Second Empire. The owner and manager of The Paradise, Octave Mouret, is one of the two principal characters of the novel. An ambitious young widower of modest origins, he has built The Paradise up from a simple draper’s shop to become the marvel of Paris through his audacity and his merchandising genius.

The other principal character, Denise Baudu, appears on the scene as an orphaned teenage girl from the provinces throwing herself and her two brothers unexpectedly upon the charity of her uncle. But the uncle, the owner of a small fabric store across the street from The Paradise, is in the process of being driven out of business by competition from the monster store and can barely feed his own family. Facing starvation, Denise winds up working as a shopgirl in the very store that is ruining her family. Here the pretty teenager soon attracts the eye of the lustful Mouret, a man as accustomed to manipulating women into his bedroom as he is to enticing them onto his sales floor. But Denise, he finds, does not share the casual sexual attitudes of many Parisiennes. Instead he discovers in her a strength and intelligence that both frustrates and inspires him.

The Ladies’ Paradise is a novel in Zola’s “Rougon-Macquart” series. The series relates the fortunes and misfortunes of an extended family during the Second Empire period. Many of the titles focus on the influence of heredity and environment on the character of family members, but that is not so much the case here. Octave Mouret, the Rougon-Macquart descendant in this case, is not as much the subject of the novel as the institution he has created. (He actually first acquires The Paradise in Zola’s previous novel, Pot Bouille, translated most recently as Pot Luck.) The Ladies’ Paradise is actually rather short on plot and character development compared to Zola’s other novels.

A major theme in the novel is the effect The Paradise has in driving out of business the small, family owned competitors, which can’t complete with The Paradise’s low prices and sex appeal. One constant contrast is between the brilliantly lit interior of The Paradise and the dark, dingy spaces of the other stores where “the dark shadows were falling from the ceiling in great shovelfuls, like black earth into the grave.” The misery into which the small shopkeepers descend is often depicted melodramatically, yet Zola never suggests that the large department store is evil or unfair, but rather that we are witnessing a natural stage in the evolution of commerce.

It is fascinating to see in this novel the beginnings of retail practices with which we are now quite familiar. The physical arrangement of departments within a store is done for psychological, rather than logistical purposes. Traffic flow in busy aisles is deliberately impeded to create the illusion of bigger crowds and more excitement. A generous return policy encourages impulse buying. With a staff growing into the thousands, the store becomes a community of its own with dormitories, dining halls, and recreation rooms. Cutthroat employment practices are softened in the interest of employee loyalty, and we see the emergence of employee benefits such as onsite health care, maternity leave, and education programs. On the outside there is a new business/government partnership for further development, and we see the buying power of a large retailer begin to control its suppliers.

Octave Mouret explains at one point that he has built his success upon “the exploitation of Woman.” Is the novel demeaning to women by depicting them as so easily exploited--so readily seduced into an orgy of spending? Not necessarily, because what we also see is the increasing power of women in the marketplace as independent consumers. Inside the store Zola shows them growing in power and responsibility as managers, department heads, and buyers (though we still never see a woman supervising a man). Behind the scenes they have additional influence as key investors.

The Ladies’ Paradise is a fascinating and enlightening look at the birth of an institution which is still a dominating force in retail. It can be seen as a critique of materialism and greed, but as such is not as forceful as some of the author’s other works. Nor is the novel particularly strong in plot or character. But Zola’s immense powers of description are on full, sensuous display.


Aug 19, 2013, 3:14am

Thanks for the reviews, I've been carrying the book around on three holidays now without opening it. I think I finally will.


Aug 29, 2013, 5:18pm

PBS TV will be showing an 8-part BBC series called "The Paradise," based on The Ladies' Paradise, on Masterpiece Classic this fall. Their schedule often varies by region; in my area it will be starting on October 6.


Aug 30, 2013, 9:07am

Thanks for that info, Steven. I'll have to look for it, although it's hard to see how they could drag it out to eight parts!

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