Au Bonheur des Dames  

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"The cultural shift represented by the department store is also explored in Emile Zola's 1883 novel Au Bonheur des Dames, which describes the workings and the appeal of a fictionalized version of Le Bon Marché."--Sholem Stein

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Au Bonheur des Dames (The Ladies' Delight or The Ladies' Paradise) is the eleventh novel in the Rougon-Macquart series by Émile Zola. It was first serialized in the periodical Gil Blas and published in novel form by Charpentier in 1883.

The novel is set in the world of the department store, an innovative development in mid-nineteenth century retail sales. Zola models his store after Le Bon Marché, which consolidated under one roof many of the goods hitherto sold in separate shops. The narrative details many of Le Bon Marché's innovations, including its mail-order business, its system of commissions, its in-house staff commissary, and its methods of receiving and retailing goods.

Au Bonheur des Dames is a direct sequel to the previous book in the Rougon-Macquart series, Pot-Bouille. Like its predecessor, Au Bonheur des Dames focuses on Octave Mouret (b. 1840), who, at the end of the previous novel, married Caroline Hédouin, the owner of a small silk shop. Now a widower, Octave has expanded the business into an international retail powerhouse occupying (at the beginning of the book) most of an entire city block.

Au Bonheur des Dames was first translated into English by F. Belmont in 1883. Several other translations have appeared over the years, John Calder published a translation by April FitzLyon in 1957. The most readily available are those by Brian Nelson (The Ladies' Paradise) in 1995 for Oxford World's Classics, and by Robin Buss (The Ladies' Delight) in 2002 for Penguin Classics.

Contents

Plot summary

The events of Au Bonheur des Dames cover approximately 1864-1869.

The novel is a straightforward narrative telling the story of Denise Baudu, a 20-year-old woman from Valognes who comes to Paris with her brothers and begins working at the department store Au Bonheur des Dames as a saleswoman. Zola describes the inner workings of the store from the employees' perspective, including the 13-hour workdays, the substandard food, and the bare lodgings (for the female staff). Many of the conflicts in the novel spring from the struggles for advancement and the malicious infighting and gossip among the staff.

Denise's story is played against the career of Octave Mouret, the owner of Au Bonheur des Dames, whose retail innovations and store expansions threaten the existence of all the neighborhood shops. Under one roof, Octave has gathered textiles (silks, woolens) as well as all manner of ready-made garments (dresses, coats, lingerie, gloves), accessories necessary for making clothes, and ancillary items like carpeting and furniture. His aim is to overwhelm the senses of his female customers, forcing them to spend by bombarding them with an array of buying choices and by juxtaposing goods in enticing and intoxicating ways. Massive advertising, huge sales, home delivery, a system of refunds, and innovations such as an in-store reading room and a snack bar further induce his female clientele to patronize his store in growing numbers. In the process, he drives smaller, specialty shops out of business.

In Pot-Bouille, Octave is depicted as a (sometimes inept) ladies' man who seduces or attempts to seduce women who can give him some type of material (social or financial) advantage. This characteristic is carried over in Au Bonheur des Dames. Here, he uses a young widow to influence a political figure (modeled after Baron Haussmann) in order to have frontage access to a huge thoroughfare (the present day rue de Quatre-Septembre) for the store.

Despite his contempt for women, Octave finds himself slowly falling in love with Denise, whose inability to be seduced by his charms further inflames him. The book ends with Denise admitting her love for Octave. Her marriage with Octave is seen as a victory of women over a man who refuses to be conquered and whose aim is to subjugate and exploit women using their own senses.

Relation to the Other Rougon-Macquart Novels

Zola's plan for the Rougon-Macquart novels was to show how heredity and environment worked on members of one family over the course of the Second French Empire. In this case, the environment is the department store.

Octave Mouret is first introduced briefly in La fortune des Rougon. He plays a larger but background role in La conquête de Plassans, which focuses on his parents, the first cousins Marthe Rougon and François Mouret. As an innovator and a risk-taker, Octave combines his mother's imagination with his father's business sense, making the department store the perfect milieu for his natural gifts.

He also inherits from his great-grandmother (Adelaïde Fouque or Tante Dide) a touch of what today might be called obsessive-compulsive disorder, manifested in his intense commercial drive and his obsession with dominating female consumers.

Octave's brother is the priest Serge (La faute de l'Abbé Mouret), who serves as guardian to their mentally challenged sister Desirée.

In Le docteur Pascal, the final novel in the series set in 1872-1873, we learn that Octave and Denise are married and have two children. (Octave also appears briefly or is mentioned in La joie de vivre and L'œuvre.)

Additional background

In Au Bonheur des Dames, the store is a symbol of capitalism, the modern city, and the bourgeois family. It is emblematic of changes in consumer culture, sexual attitudes, and class relations taking place at the end of the century.

Typical of Zola's novels, the physical location of the fictional store in the novel is worth noting. Located along the rue du Dix-Decembre equidistant from the Opera Garnier (under construction in the storyline of the novel) and the Palais Brongniart (the Parisian stock market), Zola's department store is meant to highlight the confluence of 'feminine' shopping and 'masculine' finance. Both the stock market and the theatre are central elements in other novels in the Rougon-Macquart series (L'argent and Nana).

See also


Sources

  • Brown, F. (1995). Zola: A life. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
  • Zola, E. Au Bonheur des Dames, translated as The Ladies' Paradise by Brian Nelson (1995).
  • Zola, E. Au Bonheur des Dames, translated as The Ladies' Delight by Robin Buss (2002).
  • Zola, E. Le doctor Pascal, translated as Doctor Pascal by E. A. Vizetelly (1893).




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