Émile Zola, The Ladies’ Paradise. Oxford University Press,  1995. 432 pages.
Émile Zola’s The Ladies’ Paradise may well be the greatest novel ever written about the dangers and delights of shopping. It stands some fairly stiff competition from masterworks like Dreiser’s Sister Carrie and a slew of popular novels from the ‘70s and ‘80s colloquially known as . . . well, for The Freeman, let’s say “sex and shopping” novels. But for power of prose, obsessive attention to the details of the shopping and selling experience, and glorious descriptions of fashion and economics, Zola is a clear winner.
In fact, since this column is running on Cyber Monday, some of you may be reading it while surfing for the best deals on kids’ toys and fancy electronics. Some of you may be reading it while eating leftover turkey sandwiches, recalling how black Black Friday was. All of us will likely, in the coming weeks, see our Facebook feeds fill with promises to reduce consumption, or links to denunciations of consumerism, or both. Most of us also will yet again find ourselves filled with desire for things we never knew existed . . . until we clicked that one enticing link.
We share this experience of temptation, desire, fulfillment, and more temptation with the characters who inhabit Zola’s The Ladies’ Paradise. Zola modeled his fictional department store on the Bon Marché, one of the very first department stores. Zola’s book is, among other things, a shop-girl novel about the rise of shop clerk Denise from poverty and obscurity to power and influence. Through her moral virtues, her work ethic, and her intelligence, Denise becomes the head buyer in the ladies’ dress department and, by the end of the novel, she has avoided numerous potential pitfalls to become the fiancée of the store’s owner.
But Zola’s novel is not an unsubtle hymn to the wonders of commerce. It displays the good and the ill of human nature as expressed in the most human endeavor of trade. As Denise rises, many smaller local businesses fail to rise to the challenges offered to their old-fashioned ways of merchandising by their new and aggressive competitor. As many women happily seek and find both the bargains and the luxuries they need, others, like Madame de Boves, are driven nearly mad by the inability to gratify the desires roused in them by The Ladies’ Paradise.
The madness wrought by the desire to consume drives Zola’s prose to some of its most poetic heights. In the fabric department of The Ladies’ Paradise one finds:
First pale satins and soft silks were gushing out; royal satins and renaissance satins, with the pearly shades of spring water; light silks as transparent as crystal—Nile green, turquoise, bloom pink, Danube blue. Next came the thicker fabrics, the marvelous satins and the duchess silks, in warm shades, rolling in great waves, and at the bottom, as if in a fountain basin, the heavy materials, the damasks, the brocades, the silver and gold silks, were sleeping on a deep bed of velvets—velvets of all kinds, black, white, coloured, embossed on a background of silk or satin, their shimmering flecks forming a still lake in which reflections of the sky and of the countryside seemed to dance. Women pale with desire were leaning over as if to look at themselves. Faced with this wild cataract, they all remained standing there, filled with the secret fear of being caught up in the overflow of all this luxury and with an irresistible desire to throw themselves into it and be lost.
Reading this, and other lush descriptions of the store, we are overcome with that same irresistible desire, and we are made both hungry and afraid.
Zola means for us to be. While he comes out cautiously in favor of the progress and advancement signaled by the innovations of the store and by the mercantile drive of its owner and employees, Zola is clearly nervous about the moral effect, particularly on women, of supplier and creator of eternally renewing and increasing desires.
It was Woman the shops were competing for so fiercely, it was Woman they were continually snaring with their bargains, after dazing her with their displays. They had awoken new desires in her weak flesh; they were an immense temptation to which she inevitably yielded, succumbing in the first place to purchases for the house, then seduced by coquetry, finally consumed by desire.
Virginia Postrel’s new book, The Power of Glamour: Longing and the Art of Visual Persuasion—which would make a fine addition to any Cyber Monday shopping list—contains a good discussion of Zola’s novel, and reminds us that Zola’s depiction of temptation and desire is not only great art. It is great history as well.
The great nineteenth-century department stores also turned shopping into theater, mingling glamour and spectacle as they seduced shoppers with image-laden publicity and colorful displays of abundant merchandise. . . . Unlike traditional shops, department stores invited even the casual browser to fondle and caress the goods, knowing that such contact would kindle longing, projection, and with some regularity, the impulse to buy.
And Postrel reminds us that not only the merchants, but those who sold to the merchants, were quite conscious of wanting to manipulate this impulse. She quotes an advertisement in a trade magazine that reads, “Any clerk can sell the customer the goods she came in and asks [sic] for, but it takes a ‘Silent Salesman’ All-Glass Show-Case to sell the goods that the customer never knew she wanted until she saw them displayed.”
So how worried should we be about all this consumption? It is, after all, the time of year when the media, the pulpits, and the classrooms are filled with people chiding shoppers for their desires. The New Minimalist movement encourages people to view large stores like museums or art galleries, and to appreciate rather than to shop.
One could do worse, this time of year, than take 20 minutes to read Hayek’s brief essay “The Non-Sequitur of the Dependence Effect,” which is his attempt to take apart the anti-consumption argument. As he puts it, this argument:
starts from the assertion that a great part of the wants, which are still unsatisfied in modern society, are not wants which would be experienced spontaneously by the individual if left to himself but are wants which are created by the process by which they are satisfied.
There are a number of reasons why Hayek is unpersuaded by this argument. The one that strikes me as the most significant is, quite simply, this: “To say that a desire is not important because it is not innate is to say that the whole cultural achievement of man is not important.”
Just because you didn’t know you wanted Zola’s novel, or Postrel’s book, or a “Silent Salesman” All-Glass Show-Case before you read this column, in other words, doesn’t mean that you are wicked for wanting them now or that I am wicked for having alerted you to their existence.
My desires for today extend no further than a couch and a slice of leftover pecan pie, and perhaps a few episodes of the BBC version of Zola’s novel. But shop if you like. Hayek says it’s okay. And The Ladies’ Paradise is always open.