Emile Zola, Au Bonheur Des Dames (The Ladies' Paradise)
by Elaine Showalter
Among male novelists, Zola was exceptional in his understanding of the department store as an emblem of modernity and optimism. In 1881, while he was researching Au Bonheur des Dames, he spent five or six hours a day at the Paris stores Bon Marche, Louvre, and Place Clichy. He represents the old-style shop, Baudu's drapery store Vieil Elbeuf, as moribund; a sour, icy, dank, ugly and lifeless environment, and satirizes its business formula: "not to sell a lot but to sell it dear". In contrast, the new paradise of the department store is a beacon of life: "It was like a riot of colour, a joy of the street bursting out here, in this wide open shopping corner where everyone could go and feast their eyes." Octave Mouret, the owner of Bonheur "belonged to his age…when the whole century was thrusting forward into the future."
But at the same time as Zola sensed and celebrated the vitality of modern marketing and the shopping bazaar, he feared its power to tap and release the power of women, a fear that he expresses in Darwinian metaphors of survival of the fittest, but it seems to be fundamentally a sexual-anxiety about women's sensuality and desire. Sometimes he describes the store as "a commercial cathedral," the site of a new feminine religion:
"While the churches were gradually emptied by the wavering of faith, they were replaced in souls that were now empty by his emporium. Women came to him to spend their hours of idleness, the uneasy, trembling hours that they would once have spent in chapel: it was a necessary outlet for nervous passion, the revived struggle of a god against the husband, a constantly renewed cult of the body, with the divine afterlife of beauty. If he had closed his doors, there would have been a riot outside, the frantic cry of pious women denied the confessional and the altar."
The department store is a place where women can find sanctuary and distraction, where they can develop professionally and meet prospective lovers, where they can find freedom in the city and express their needs. Yet Zola also denounces the department store as a seductive machine to exploit women's sexuality:
"Woman was what the shops were fighting over when they competed, it was woman whom they ensnared with the constant trap of their bargains, after stunning her with their displays. They had aroused new desires in her flesh, they were a huge temptation to which she must fatally succumb, first of all giving in to the purchases of a good housewife, then seduced by vanity and finally consumed."
Women were both "defenceless" victims, unable to resist; and rapacious predators, ruthless at finding bargains and pillaging sales:
"In this final hour, in the midst of this overheated air, women ruled. They had taken the shops by storm and were encamped as in conquered territory, like an invading horde settled in, surrounded by the ravaged merchandise . . . All of them, heads held high, gesturing curtly, felt fully at home, with no consideration for one another, exploiting the place to the uttermost, carrying off the very dust from the walls."
These conflicting views - the idea that shopping is somehow a shameful female pastime, narcissistic and erotic; and that retailing is an art of the modern city, meant for women's necessity and pleasure - go back to the mid-19th century and persist in the 21st. Zola was writing in the early 1880s, looking back to the founding of the great department stores in Europe and the United States, and their efforts to bring women comfort, convenience, and competition in their shopping experience. These techniques, plus the floor plan, window displays, sales, returns policies, and advertising, the tycoons reasoned, would encourage women to spend. In Paris, Aristide Boucicaut rearranged all the departments at the Bon Marche just before it opened in 1852:
"What's necessary …is that they walk around for hours, that they get lost. First of all, they will seem more numerous. Secondly…the store will seem larger to them. And lastly, it would really be too much if, as they wander around in this organized disorder, lost, driven, crazy, they don't set foot in some departments where they had no intention of going, and if they don't succumb at the sight of things which grab them on the way."
At Chicago's Marshall Field, Potter Palmer installed full-length mirrors from Paris, and new-style phosgene lamps; he allowed some customers to take home goods on approval and to return unsatisfactory wares. A uniformed official greeter bowed and held the door; customers were greeted by name as Miss or Mr. By the 1880s, American women were believed to have a "national love of shopping", according to one trade journal.
In London, the American merchant Harry Gordon Selfridge, trained at Marshall Field, had done careful research on women's clubs to find out what women wanted; he presented himself as a friend to women's emancipation and saw the department store as a resting place where women could be pleased and indulged. Selfridge boosted shopping as play rather than work, as amusement rather than duty, as a visual culture of "colour, glass, and light." "I was lonely," says a housewife in an ad, "so I went to Selfridge's...one of the biggest and brightest places I could think of." In the original Selfridge's, there were elegant restaurants with modest prices, a library, and reading and writing rooms, special reception rooms for French, German, American, and "Colonial" customers, a First Aid Room, and a Silence Room, with soft lights, deep chairs, and double-glazing. The first law of marketing success was to keep the shoppers in the store as long as possible.
Some feminists encouraged shopping because they hoped it would draw women into participation in politics, social work, and employment. Journalists described the London shops as an art form in themselves, a kind of interactive museum. British magazines began to publish shopping guides that stressed skill and expertise; in 1888, "Shopping in London," in The Lady, told women "where and how to shop," and warns against bringing one's spouse along. The same year, the Lady Guide Association forms, to provide professional guides "Certificated for Shopping." Zola's heroine, Denise, who becomes a buyer at Bonheur, is a reformer who establishes a staff orchestra, a games room, evening classes in English and German, a free library, medical care, and even maternity care. But while the stores flourished and offered new opportunities to women, many social observers condemned the activity of shopping as vain and self-indulgent, and believed that women were the dupes of the marketing tycoons.
Zola's store owner Mouret is another marketing genius. Like Boucicaut, he is "an unparalleled master was in the internal layout of the shops. He made an absolute rule that no corner of Au Bonheur des Dames should remain empty; everywhere, he demanded noise, people, life … because life, he said, attracts life, breeds and multiplies. All sort of practical consequences derived from this rule. First of all, there must be a crush at the entrance; from the street it should look like a riot; and he achieved this crush putting cut-price articles at the door, … After that, along the galleries, he knew the art of disguising lines that were not going fast, ... If he had known how, he would have made the street run through his shop."
He is an innovator when it comes to the latest marketing techniques: the loss-leader, fixed prices, mail order, seasonal sales, employee benefits. "In addition to that, he had just opened a buffet, where biscuits and syrups were served free, and a reading room, a monumental gallery, over-extravagantly decorated, in which he was even venturing to hold exhibitions of painting. But his most subtle idea, directed at women without any idle vanity, was to reach the mother through the child. He used every strength and exploited every feeling, setting up departments for little boys and girls and stopping the mothers as they walked by to offer their babies pictures and balloons."
Most of all, he is an artist, "a revolutionary indeed," who has "introduced the brutal and the colossal into the science of window dressing." Zola both condemns Mouret as a shrewd and manipulative exploiter of women's base instincts, and admires his flair and talent. The descriptions of the window displays are among the most original in the book, as if Zola himself identified with Mouret as a new kind of creative spirit of the age. His designs are spectacular and modern: "He wanted landslides of cloth tumbling as though it had been accidentally emptied out of the boxes, blazing with the most intense colours, each striking a spark from its neighbours." And of course such art is dangerous for women:
"And below, as in a basin, slumbered the heavy fabrics, the special weaves, the damasks, the brocades, the beaded and lame silks, amidst a deep bed of velvet, all the velvets, black, white, coloured, interwoven with silk or satin, scooping out with their shifting marks a motionless lake on which reflections of sky and landscape seemed to dance. Women, pale with desire, leaned over as if to see themselves. All of them, confronted by this discharged waterfall, remained standing, secretly fearing they would be captivated by such overwhelming luxury, and unable to resist the longing to throw themselves in and be lost in it. "
The culminating scene of the novel is the February Great White Sale, Zola's Great White Whale, in which the entire store is transformed into a glittering "song of white," in which the centerpiece is "a tent of white curtains descending from the skylight…suggesting something between a bedroom and a temple. It looked like a great white bed, vast and virginal, awaiting the white princess of the fairy tales, the one destined to come at last, all-powerful, wearing her white bridal veil." The bedroom and the temple-these are the two forms the department store occupied in Zola's imagination, and in Au Bonheur des Dames, he brought them together to dramatize the woman of his dreams, powerful and pure; and portray her marriage to the forces of the new.
read more »
add to cart »
« back to essays