The Ladies' Paradise is a compelling story of ambition and love set against the backdrop of the spectacular rise of the department store in 1860s Paris. Octave Mouret is a business genius who transforms a modest draper's shop into a hugely successful retail enterprise, masterfully exploiting the desires of his female customers and ruining small competitors along the way. Through the eyes of trainee salesgirl Denise we see the inner workings of the store and the relations and intrigues among the staff, human dramas played out alongside the relentless pursuit of commercial supremacy. 

My review 
(beware of spoilers! ) I came to read this book after watching the BBC adaptation, The Paradise, which gave the story a British setting. The series  scriptwriters worked many changes on the original text, which usually disturb people fond of literary classics, but not me and not in this case. I think they quite  improved both plot and   characterization,  instead.

Zola's text aims to depict  the department store, The Ladies' Paradise, as an ambiguous symbol of progress:

"It helped women to establish themselves historically in the public sphere, and it may appear to have increased the customer's power and autonomy; but, as Zola shows, the new codes of social behaviour and social discourses which it entailed for the shopper simultaneously organized a powerful network of constraints, providing a mere illusion of freedom and fulfilment. The department store, in its embodiment of consumer culture, was - and is - a giant, precision-made dream-machine" (Brian Nelson)

The department store is a model of the new capitalism, designed to seduce more than to supply. The mechanisms of seduction described in the text are numerous: the policy of free entry, the establishment of fixed prices, the system of returns, the seduction of the eye with an almost "orgiastic" display. To create the need, to awake new desires is the main philosophy at The Ladies' Paradise.  

Emun Elliott as John Moray in the BBC series, The Paradise
The master of seduction is Octave Mouret, who manages his business as an emperor rules his kingdom. Women in general are his preys, both as lovers and as customers. He is a great seducer, maybe not as cynical as Don Juan, but wordly and rather unscrupulous, bold and enterprising. 

"He was tall, with fair skin and a carefully trimmed beard; and his eyes, the colour of old gold, and as soft as velvet..." (p. 31)

Less serious-minded than his close friend Bourdoncle (both started as shop assistants when the Paradise was just a small shop),  who is now  his right-hand man in the business, Mouret is distracted in many ways, even thoughtless. He has a series of love affairs which the narrator defines disquieting.

"Mouret , on the contrary , affected to go into raptures over women; he was entranced and affectionate in their presence, and was always being carried away by new love affairs; and his amorous adventures were a kind of advertisement for his business: it seemed as if he enveloped all the women in the same caress, the better to bewilder them and hold them at his mercy" (p.33)

Octave Mouret is a young widower. He married Madame Hédouin but she died in an accident while the department store was being built. Starting from her own father's shop and with her money,  Mouret has now  built his own empire. 

"Since her death Octave remembered her with affection, and he was grateful to her memory for the fortune she had showered in him when she married him. And so, before setting about signing the bills which had been placed on his blotter, he gave the portrait the smaile of a happy man. After all, when his escapades as a young widower were over, when he left the bedchambers where he was led astray by the need for pleasure, didn't he always come back to work in her presence?" ( p. 32)

Mouret's insatiable greed for pleasure, money and power is counterparted by Bourdoncle's steadiness, uprightness. His friend obstinately tries to suggest him a more moderate life-style, especially with women, otherwise,  he fears "They'll have their revenge. There'll be one who'll avenge the others, there's sure to be." (p.34)

It seems Bourdoncle doesn't recognize the avenger when she comes. Is it instead that, at least unconsciously,  he feels Denise Baudu might be that woman? Because he starts disliking her immediately.

Joanna Vanderham as Denise
When she arrives in Paris with her two brothers, hoping to receive some help after their parents' death from their uncle's family, she is just a girl, skinny, shy, afraid of everything and everyone. Since her uncle and his family can't help them, being themselves through a period of crisis in their own business, Denise ends working for the man who is the reason of his uncle's troubles. She applies for a position at The Ladies' Paradise and starts working for Mr Mouret.

"Usually he never interfered in the engagement of personnel, as the heads of departments were responsible for their own staff. But , with his sensitive flair for women, he felt a hidden charm in this girl, a quality of grace and tenderness of which she herself was unaware." (p. 55)

Denise is not particularly smart nor strong, she is not surprisingly talented nor so charming at other people's eyes. If she has qualities, they are resistance, acceptance and selflessness, She is rather weak and passive, but her moral uprightness will be her strength, she will win over all the others.  Treated in the most ill-mannered - if not ruthless - ways, target of derision and contempt, false rumours and wickedness, she resists and goes on for her brothers' sake. She must go on and earn money for their living.
Mouret is immediately attracted by the girl,  as by a little. cute pet to protect at first then little by little as a desirable woman.  His interest turns into an irrepressible passion. He wants to have that young woman, no matter what.

Denise has always felt uncomfortable and frightened under his stares, uneasy at his interest in her. In her naivety, she has interpreted that  upsetting feeling in his presence as fear. She'll later on discover that what she feels is not fear but sexual attraction.
Mouret uncontrollable passion for Denise turns  him into a  rather ridiculous figure: he begs, he cries, he offers money and grants promotions, but thus doing he loses all his the charm he might have had on the reader. These scenes in which the young inexperienced salesgirl - even once she has been promoted by Mouret responsible of  a department in the store - still obstinately refuses to fall her master's prey and turns him down, make her  a heroine and him just a parody of the seducer.
Denise is the only girl who refuses to be seduced by Octave Mouret, she refuses to be "commodified". She will be the avenger Bourdoncle so much has feared to come.

Denise with her ordinary skills and extraordinary goodness seems  to  humanize the store. The gossips around her will have to stop and  she will be respected at last.

Beyond the happy ending, the romance plot has been read by feminist critics as an allegory of feminization and female revenge, the domestication of Mouret and of his  machine as an idealization of the bourgeois family. Academic interpretations apart, Zola's portrait of modenity and its dehumanizing risks, is in his intent obtained through an objective photography of the reality, as ugly and merciless as it looks.

Octave Mouret is not the torn romantic widower coping with a sense of guilt for his wife's death nor the human master concerned for his employees and their needs the BBC series proposed in the alluring performance by Emun Elliott . We find him in two novels by Zola: Mouret the ambitious filanderer in Pot-Bouille is showing making his fortune from women in The Ladies' Paradise, the effective sequel to Pot-Bouille.  In none of the two novels Mouret comes out as a model hero, he is shallow, greedy, and on the whole an undeserving self-made man. His success is built on women and thanks to his natural appeal on them more than on a nose for business, managing skills or hard - work.   

Denise is not at all the smart, ingenious, resourceful young woman who seduces her master with her ambition and creative talent,  we saw in the performance of  Joanna Vanderham .

All the other characters in the book are mean and selfish, rather flat,  even Denise's elder brother, Jean. Their pettiness makes Denise extraordinary . She finds no real friends, except for Deloche, a young man  from the province like her, helplessly in love with her since the moment they met outside the Paradise, and as fragile as her in that wild and bitter micro-world.  

Did I like this book? It was interesting in many ways but I found really difficult to relate  to the characters and to the story. I can honestly say I liked the adaptation much more than the original story. Welcome to all the cuts and changes the scriptwriters decided to make adpting the novel.


Alexa Adams said...

I have never even heard of this book, but I adored the Zola I read in college (particularly Germinal). I think I need to read this one, despite your lukewarm feelings about it, particularly because my family, for three generations, ran the shoe departments in old school department stores. Thank you for bringing this to my attention, and have a wonderful Christmas!

Maria Grazia said...

If you come to read it, let us know whether you like it or not. Best wishes for a joyful Christmas time with your dear, Alexa. Thanks for your comment!

Servetus said...

I've read it about six times (teach this periodically when I'm lecturing on European history since 1500) and I like it *a lot*, BUT the main thing that has to be kept in mind w/almost any Zola novel is that the human characters are usually incidental to the effect. For Zola, the department store is supposed to be a main character, as it's the thing that sets everything else in motion. (Similar to La bête humaine, where the train is a character, or L'Oeuvre, which was probably the basis for The Impressionists, in which the art is supposed to be a character, or L'Argent, where the stock market is a character). Students have a difficult time with that, and it's also kind of hard to portray that on screen. I still haven't seen the adaptation.

Maria Grazia said...

I've never read nor taught Zola, nor much French literature actually.I've read Thomas Hardy or Giovanni Verga, who can be considered similar to Zola, being inspired by his work and his naturalism.
I had the same troubles at relating to their characters or their worlds. That doesn't mean I didn't appreciate their work or wasn't interested in reading.
The problem with "The Ladies' Paradise" is that it didn't match my expectations, since I read it out of curiosity after watching the TV series. The characters and the atmospheres were totally different. Especially the protagonists and the dynamics between them.
That's all.
I read with my head and with my heart and when both get involved in a book, that's extremely good. But it is such a rare event. It didn't happen with this novel by Zola.
Thanks for dropping by and contributing your opinion!

Carole said...

Maria, thanks for linking this in to Books You Loved. Happy New Year

Elizabeth said...

I love the photos you put in.

Stopping by from Carole's January Books I Loved. I am in that list as # 46.

My featured book is SEVEN LOCKS.

Silver's Reviews
My Blog

Mary said...

As a Department Store devotée, I had been attracted to Zola's book, Au Rue de Paradis, I believe is the title, last year. I am currently enjoying the British TV series that is being shown in the U.S. now, Mr. Selfridge and now I hear about this other show that is a take-off of Zola's book! I wish it would be available here in the U.S. My early positions out of college were in the retailing field - I was hired on at Bullock's Department Store in Los Angeles for their Executive-Training Program fright from the University. A great experience and thrill that comes back to me in the Selfridge mini-drama.

Anonymous said...

I do enjoy the bbc series very much so far and would have hoped the book would be just as thrilling. Ill have to look into it none the less :)

Susan in Yuma said...

I have to say that I am not surprised by the characterizations of men and women within this book. These stereotypes seem to persist in French culture even to this day as evidenced by the way men and women are portrayed on French television. If you don't believe me, just watch the first episode of "Spiral."