Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Review: Au Bonheur des Dames, by Emile Zola

To paint a matter from every vantage and sympathy, to avoid sermonising, that is the trait of a great novelist, rare and to-be-cherished. Towards matters like generational divides and consumerism such impartiality is sparser still, but Zola’s Au Bonheur des Dames (The Ladies’ Delight/Paradise) reaches as close to this as possible. He descends to neither the level of moss-eyed reactionary, nor that of the skater gripping the rear bar of Progress’ train. Through exhaustive research and nearly two decades hindsight, Zola explores the bud and bloom of the department store, viewing it personally and societally, from the perspective of the new age’s victors to its losers, from its young to its old.

One such young thing is Denise Baudu, a shopgirl from the country forced to Paris by her father’s death. Now effective guardian of her two brothers she seeks paid work at her uncle’s shop. She hoped to, at least, but circumstances have soured all round. The department store “fad”, it seems, won’t fade until it’s left a few corpses in its course, her uncle’s store one of them.

But she needs work to support not just her, but her youngest brother Pepe. And that department store, that chapel of consumer decadence, Au Bonheur des Dames, designed to intoxicate customers, intoxicates her as well. Although it shrinks small businesses, leaving no budget for extra hands, it is a machine ever growing, and ever in need of new cogs to keep it working.   

Industrial advances, fixed prices, loss-leaders, a mass-market world that opens luxury’s doors to all (the petty bourgeoisie and up, that is), not just those who can afford tailors. But if the new luxury sells itself to all, then so must beauty do. Thus, the only beauty is excess, expressed through displays of such scale and polychromatic wonder that they could shock the most insensitive palates. Zola does not descend to snobbery, as many authors might, by depicting this show, deliberately aimed at the masses, as lacking in artistic refinement. He conjures overflowing fabrics, flowers primed to burst like dew drops, and a richly coloured moistness saturating the air. Had he intended to demonise, or even dismiss these displays, he would not describe them in such sensual detail. Beauty through excess is still beauty.

But Zola makes sure to shake the reader from Au Bonheur’s waking dream, for while it is beautiful, it is an advertiser’s beauty, a perfumed attraction, sweet-scented compared to the outer world’s decaying stench. The store’s prosperity leeches customers from small businessmen, those who lack the business know-how and, more importantly, capital to sustain themselves in the shadow of the blood-sucking butterfly. Idiosyncrasy, the small businessman’s only sling against the mass-producing Goliath, seems an overpriced prestige.      

Zola does well to ingratiate the reader towards Octave Mouret, the head of Au Bonheur, for by doing so he prevents them from viewing the store as a faceless machine of the modern age, whose beautiful front is only a cynical grab for customers. If it is a machine, then it is one planned and primed by Mouret himself, with the industry and enterprise a ‘man of his age’ requires; its beauty a testament and furtherment of his domination. While Zola does not worship the self-made capitalist, he stresses the role of Mouret’s business savvy and nerve in Au Bonheur’s flourishing. Just as much as any small business owner, he is the impetus behind his enterprise. The reader finds an intelligent, brave man, though one blind to the finer details of the big picture.

Although Mouret is the beating heart, his employees are the blood. They have a job, but of the better-than-nothing variety. It wears at them physically and mentally, leaving most ‘eaten up … before the age of forty’. But rather than condemn the system, a pointless battle, Zola believes strives toward humanity can be made within the new system.

In my introduction I praised Zola for his impartiality, but that’s not wholly accurate, nor, I believe, faultable given objectivity’s impossibility. Of all the “sides” (clumsy word), he leans towards progress, either fatalistically or acceptingly (depending on your view). Those who resist the coming tide, like Denise’s uncle, he paints as obstinate followers of the past era’s dogma, who’s firm/stubborn refusal to bend to pressure will only leave them, and their dependents, in ruin. But even then, he does not rob Uncle Baudu’s resistance of all honour. Though he bats away Mouret’s increasingly reasonable offers for his land, which sustains him less and less, he finds an odd dignity knowing an ‘old crock like [him] should stand in [Mouret’s] way when everyone is on their knees before his money’. But an honourable defeat in a one-sided battle of attrition is still defeat. Zola calls this death of old business practice just one of the ‘birth pangs’ inherent in every generational shift. In the evolution of culture those institutions most fit to survive in contemporary circumstances will thrive, while those that came before will starve.

This does not mean, however, he favours Mouret above other characters. He draws the limits and perversities of Mouret’s capitalist mentality. Mouret, by attempting to apply the tenants of natural selection to business (e.g. in culling off smaller stores; breeding survival-of-the-fittest competition among his staff), fools himself into thinking capitalism is a natural, and therefore good, force. Ideally, capitalism is about ‘creating something’, achieving success through cumulative production. But Mouret’s drive to have his female customers by their finely tailored collars, to tie them to his store via the insidious “empowerment” of the ‘democratisation of luxury’, reveals consumer capitalism’s ulterior drive: ownership. In line with that perennial archetype, the rich man who believes everything, and everyone, has a price, Mouret soon realises that money is not so fundamental a force that it can buy love. But it is also not so corrupting a force that it can suffocate love.

Yes, this is also a love story of a now stock kind, one between a goodly girl and a defrosting prince (but, you know, it’s all in the execution). On finding something that does not bow to the almighty franc, the good Denise, eroding Mouret’s delusion of ownership, ‘he felt as though a favourite bird had just drawn blood with its beak while he was playing with it’.

But therein lies a prime problem with this novel: Denise is not a particularly compelling character. Diligent, caring and uncomplaining, she embodies feminine ‘gentleness’. Those who dislike her do so only out of self-superiority, fear, or envy. Her only fault seems to be her physical unattractiveness, and even that is overcome when she smiles. Zola depicts her as the sympathetic everygirl, someone to personify the pain inflicted by the department store’s inner workings. That she works her way into Mouret’s closed heart can come as no surprise. The tension arises solely from her one compelling trait, her inability to admit her love.   

As an attempt at fictional documentary, Au Bonheur des Dames deserves praise, as a love story, less so. But the love story cannot detract from a work of so invested and well-developed in its other aspects. Zola’s verbal pictures ripple with coloured vitality, letting the reader feel just what made the department store so alluring. But his ability to go behind that allure, to succinctly explain the inner workings that made that front possible, to have the reader sympathise with employees and employer behind it, that is Zola’s main accomplishment. 

[Quotes from Robin Buss' 2001 Penguin Classics translation.]


  1. “Impartiality” is merely an atmosphere, that when we choose our point of view, the destiny is decided that it would only benefit one or two characters, and we are all biased beings, which our ignorance and prejudice would creep into our creation. Whether to judge or not judge, if not to judge the persons… then system must be judged. The highest level of objectivity or impartiality would only achieve one thing — that a writer would never pick up their pen. The tendency is to try to achieve the purity of music, but whether you agree or not, it depends.
    How to tell a love story after Pride and Prejudice? Let even trace back to Beauty and The Beast, or even Cinderella, a man reforms himself in loving a woman. If we put in chorological order (as we are tracing back, yes, there is a controversy that Cinderella is a much older tale than Beauty and The Beast), female characters begins to play a larger and larger role in a more personal interaction with the male characters. Cinderella benefits from her marriage, as all these female characters generally do. What is it in our story model that a wealthy man marring a woman with ‘only beauty’ to recommend themselves? But they are symbols in a level, men symbolises position, wealthy, power, intelligence, handsomeness… while women embraces gentleness, sensibility, kindness, ‘softness’, innocence, beauty… But there is an imbalance of distribution (economic distribution), that most of traits for men are material, and for women are spiritual. There is a fundamental cruel side of matrimony for women, but keep in mind, Jane Austen does not write a woman’s story, but human’s story, (for both men and women), that she is well-aware that because of the heritage law, the second son of the family suffers the same obligation of trying to marry a rich heiress.
    Therefore, marriage is to some extent, a redistribution of power in these cases. However, this could be extended, as male symbolises the ruthless capitalism (as Mouret is the man behind or even in front of Au Bonheur des Dames), and female symbolises the worker or the people, or the good noble people (as Denise holds a lower position, but also a heart of gold). People are not slaves and they are humans, exploiting them is exploiting your own emotion and human’s lives, (strikes, reforms, riots… North and South has captured this side), and both sides need love (emotion) and wealthy (material) as humans always do. So, Denise and Mouret reunion has a metaphorical level of reading.

  2. The need is mutual, but because this concept of men owning the women, that they are buying her, is considering her as a goods, to cure his sexual desire and inner need… is as unhealthy as the advertisement promising you that their products will fix everything. They must reach a mutual respect in their relationship (not just love), and that is the brilliance of Jane Austen (mutual respect and moderate wealthy is also crucial for a reunion, but of course, anything is preferred than a marriage without affection… Love is the foundation, basic, but not the only thing). Denise is a failure in the sense that she is not an equal to Mouret (but I have not read the novel), (Elizabeth is the equal of Mr. Darcy, who would say that Elizabeth Bennet is supposed to be the sympathetic every girl?)
    Her inability to admit her love must be because she does not feel to be respected by Mouret, rather than her own weakness. Or is she playing the ‘you are too good, that I do not feel like to deserve you…’ card? Or even it is because if she admits, the novel would finish much quicker. But either way, she must achieve self-respect before being love (like Elizabeth has her own pride despite that she know Mr. Darcy has superior social position), and Jane Austen asserts more than one love line in her novels, and all the novels wish only to cope Elizabeth and Darcy’s line fails in such aspect (North and South is at disadvantage in such aspect). Denise in being an idealised female loses her chances to become a human, or at least an equal for Mouret. Jane Bennet should not marry Mr. Darcy, therefore, Denise should find her Mr. Bingley instead. But that is unfair to Denise, she deserves her own happiness and Mouret reforms or let’s say he becomes sensitive towards other people’s need, and therefore redistributes the power between employees and employer (by the way, whether you like relationship, or humans belong a symbol of something larger totally depends on you… just for this individual case, as the same praise that could give to North and South, is to picture a human sketch of both sides and the female heroine is the only the point of view character, or their bounding character, the inbetweener…). Thus the marriage becomes the class reconciliation, and female becomes thus less as an individual, but a being trying to balancing two identities (however, this is an assumption I have formed without reading the novel), and I shall stop here.

    1. That Denise is not a round character owes perhaps to Zola's newfound optimism. In his Naturalism phase, Zola could write round females, but they (like all his characters back then) were base creatures, driven by selfishness and biology, rather than any morality or reason. Au Bonheur des Dames is an optimistic novel; Zola needed a place to put his forward-facing idealism, his hope for us rising Fallen. He put hope in Denise, and so made her less than human when he made her more than human.