This French novel was written in 1883. I read a Kindle version of the book, translated by Ernest Alfred Vizetelly, The Complete Rougon-Marquart Cycle (All 20 Unabridged Novels in volume). From what I’ve read, this translation isn’t the best. I found numerous typos, and one reviewer said it isn’t even complete, but was edited to remove parts that were considered immoral at the time. I don’t know about that but I’d suggest looking for the translation by Brian Nelson above.
The story takes place in 1860’s Paris and revolves around an enormous department store, The Ladies Paradise, that eventually covers an entire city block and employs over 2700 people! Its owner, Octave Mouret, gobbles up the surrounding businesses and expands his store. Soon he is selling just about everything a woman could want (and then some!), all under one roof, from umbrellas to imported lace, to fine fabrics for dresses, to corsets. You name it! Anything any woman could ever want or dream of!
It’s essentially the story of the rise of the department store and how it impacted life. If you have seen the Masterpiece production, “The Paradise,” which was based on Zola’s book, you will have a general idea of what the story is about. Notice I said, “general” idea. As usual, the writers of that series did not make it a priority to faithfully follow the author’s story.
The Ladies Paradise is number eleven in a series of twenty novels about the Rougon-Macquart family. Exactly where Mouret or Denise fit into this family tree I do not know. But, as it turns out, it’s not necessary to be familiar with the earlier books in order to follow and appreciate the story!
The story begins with a very timid and shy Denise coming to Paris with her two younger brothers in tow. They are recently orphaned and she is hopeful that her uncle will give her work in his drapery/dry goods store. But unfortunately he is unable to help her since his business is suffering terribly, as are all the other businesses surrounding The Ladies Paradise.
Denise finds herself almost mesmerized by the store across the street from her uncle’s dark, drab establishment. Its giant windows with the merchandise on display for all to see draws her. She is hired as a shop girl and so begins her trials. The book recounts in great detail the troubles she finds herself in. From the outset she is paid only commission but the other shop girls often conspire against her preventing her from getting any customers. The competition is bitter to say the least.
Mouret has a genius for business. He reduces prices and advertises sales. He uses all sorts of marketing campaigns to draw in the customers. He even allows “returns,” something that was unheard of. His forward thinking brings him great monetary success. The small businesses surrounding The Ladies Paradise don’t have a chance. As they attempt to lower their prices in order to compete most end up in debt and eventually bankrupt.
Mouret is not a likeable character. Not until the final pages of the book, did I have even a little affection for him. He sees women as objects of profit. He lures them into his store.
It was he who possessed them thus, keeping them at his mercy by his continued display of novelties, his reduction of prices, and his “returns,” his gallantry and his advertisements. He had conquered the mothers themselves, reigning over them with the brutality of a despot, whose caprices were ruining many a household.
He has numerous mistresses, including the shop girls that he employs, and thinks nothing of seducing and discarding them on a whim. No. He’s not a very nice man!
Mouret is attracted to Denise and invites her to dinner, which of course is an invitation to be his mistress, but she will have none of it. She is horrified at the invitation itself knowing full well what it means. She repels his advances again and again, which shocks and angers Mouret. He cannot believe that she would turn him down! For months he pursues her to no avail. Her refusal to submit to his overtures is not just painful for Mouret. It is extremely difficult for Denise as well because at one level she greatly admires him, even loves him. She admires all that he has accomplished because she knows what he is doing is the future and for the benefit of so many. The lower prices are enabling the people to better provide for themselves. But she will not compromise her moral integrity and refuses to be used by him.
Honestly, I just don’t see what Denise sees in him! I had several conversations with her about that as I read.
The gossip that ensues around Mouret and Denise is great. Everyone, it seems, is whispering little tid bits about her, none of which are true. And this brings her further heartache and pain. Her co-workers cannot believe she would refuse him. Think of the benefits, they tell her!
I don’t know if Emile Zola was a Christian or not, but I noticed that not one of the characters in the book ever folded their hands in prayer to God, ever pleaded for mercy, or ever found comfort in their faith. Not a single one! Given the trials so many of them endured I found that strange.
Reading this book was almost a spiritual experience for me, which probably sounds strange based on everything I’ve shared so far. But I have to tell you what gripped me the most was the pain and suffering of the shopkeepers whose businesses failed thanks to The Ladies Paradise. I found myself pondering the doctrine of God’s sovereignty in the affairs of man. And I wondered about the comfort they forfeited by not trusting in God, and instead choosing to dwell on their bitterness and hatred towards Mouret.
And what about Denise and Mouret? Did he win her heart in the end? Did they live happily ever after? Well, I don’t want to give it all away.
This is a book I would like to revisit, but for now it’s on to the next one on my list!