This is my review of Au Bonheur des Dames (French Edition) by Émile Zola.
Since I associate Zola with grim, unrelenting tales of exploited coal miners, the theme of a Paris department store dedicated to delighting women seemed at first uncharacteristically tame and frothy. In fact, behind its plate glass and eye-catching displays, “Au Bonheur des Dames” proves to be as dominating and exploitative as any industrial factory, its shop assistants, clerks, packers and delivery men mere cogs in the machinery, as controlled as any industrial worker, on the mass production line of retailing.
Beneath his charm and apparent empathy with women and their love of fashion, inspired entrepreneur Octave Mouret is in fact a cynical manipulator: he is not only a casual seducer, but views his female customers as an inexhaustible captive market to be dazzled by his marketing ploys and all too readily induced to fritter away their husbands’ money on the material goods he displays with such alluring skill. His sponsor Baron Hartmann warns him that one day women will “get their revenge” but Mouret is knocked off course where he least expects it by the sweet, unsophisticated but stoical country girl Denise Baudu, who is quick to grasp that the department store is a part of inexorable progress, but steadfastly sticks to her personal principles.
In vivid if wordy descriptions, Zola describes how the magnificent store looms over the surrounding gloomy alleys, further cutting them out from the sun. These are the haunts of the resentful traditional shopkeepers who persist in their stubborn and ultimately fruitless struggle to survive, when they cannot realistically hope to compete with Mouret’s drastic discounts and huge variety of goods. The scale and brightness of his store, with the light pouring in through glazed roofs, and the Lowry-style bustle on the metal staircases and galleries, as far as the eye can see, creates the idea of a self-contained community, which Zola sometimes calls a “phalanstery” after the C19 ideas of Charles Fourier for a utopian community.
Yet, although the workers are housed and fed in a paternalistic way, the shop is far from utopian: staff are not allowed to have visitors in their rooms, women have to leave when they become pregnant, and in the summer months of slack demand, assistants are dismissed for the slightest imagined misdemeanour. Not surprisingly, they often resort to scams to swindle the store, and the smallest rumour or incident is exaggerated and spread on the gossip grapevine. Although the customers look down on the assistants who must be ladylike without being accepted as ladies, they often behave badly, not merely overspending on luxuries and abusing the “returns” policy, but even resorting to shop-lifting.
Just as the store seems very topical in these times of zero hours contracts, class divides and the ravages of competition, Zola’s characters are real in their flaws and complexity. There are also some moments of comedy amongst the exhausting materialism of the store contrasting with the suffering of the impoverished small shopkeepers.
The novel is best read in French, although the exhaustive lists of specialised fabrics and some of the dated procedures forced me to resort to English translations. These vary a good deal in quality, so it is advisable to check them out before purchase. Some come with interesting introductions, to be read afterwards to avoid spoilers.