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.]