“The Ladies’ Paradise catapults the reader into the present-day world of consumer culture and marketing. It seems as if the store owners of today’s Bloomingdale’s, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Neiman Marcus all read The Ladies’ Paradise and made it their bible for creating desire for consumer goods. Emile Zola documents how the first department stores in nineteenth-century Paris made shopping into a religion, while he simultaneously woos readers with his gripping love story between the enterprising store owner Octave Mouret and the rags-to-riches heroine Denise Baudu.”
Emile Zola is an often missed french writer of the later 19th century, The Ladies Paradise was written in 1883 and was the first of his novels to be translated to English. I must admit to never having read Zola before which is quite amazing to me now seeing as how I sought out all the literature of this period I could find. However I did specialize my studies as an English major in British Literature but I still feel somewhere along the way, I should have encountered Emile Zola…I wish I has but now I have so much more to discover as I read through his works. I have the Classics Tour to thank for that!
The Ladies’ Paradise at 383 pages was quite the read but it kept my attention and amazed me in it’s subject matter for this time period. Detailing the rise of modern commerce in the great fashion capital of Paris through the creation of the department store, The Ladies’ Paradise is at once captivating on a literary and historical level. The ideas of business and commerce are quite enlightening when you see how they would have come about at that time including the changes that were made and the drive women had in this new age of modern department stores. I also found the subject matter such as the treatment of women and their characters quite interesting when compared with what was being written in England at the same time. Take for example Hardy’s Tess which was published in 1891 and caused an uproar because it spoke of a woman having a child out of wedlock and her plight in a tone of sympathy and understanding.
However in France years before Zola was very open about speaking of women in the same situations, or kept women who supported themselves through affairs or even women who had multiple known intimate associations with men. In fact the story of Denise is one of what we are made to feel a rarity, a woman of lower means who refuses to give over her virtues to men in order to be supported. Her reputation and her fight, are made out to be exceptional and even somewhat ridiculed. What is Zola therefore implying of other women of that time? He is also very open about gossip and the spread of rumor with ladies’ reputations which I found very rare for it’s time period as well. I found this juxtaposition fascinating and am excited to continue my study of Zola and perhaps other French writers of this time. I highly recommend both The Ladies’ Paradise and other Zola works to any reader who appreciates classical literature.