AS CONSUMER CULTURE teeters on the brink of unsustainability in sky-high Jimmy Choos and chain stores ravage communities, an early look at our current woes is on full display in Émile Zola’s The Ladies’ Paradise (1883). This unpretty novel chronicles the advent of modern retail: the grand department stores that “devoured Paris” in the mid-nineteenth century, casually ruining small traders “like a cholera” and wrecking household budgets “with the indifference of a machine going at full speed, unconscious of the deaths it may cause on the road.” Zola celebrates this “poem of modern activity,” “this new way of doing business,” even as he documents its cost.
The Ladies’ Paradise, a portrait of the eponymous store, takes place between 1866 and 1869. With “eyes the color of old gold,” Paradise mastermind Octave Mouret personifies the age’s grasping spirit. Mouret is a department-store Don Juan who “invented this machine for devouring women,” laying “seductive traps” for his target customer, “analyzing her like a great moralist.” He “wished her to be queen in his house and built a temple to get her completely at his mercy . . . intoxicate her with gallant attentions and traffic on her desires, work on her fever.” Exalting Woman as he exploited her, he “led the dance of customers, drawing the money from their very flesh.”
Mouret’s then-novel tactics are now familiar to any shopper: slashed prices, endless “gallantries” (freebie bouquets and balloons that double as free advertising), and amenities such as reading rooms and refreshment bars that encourage customers to idle. He generates store excitement (creating a crush at entrances by crowding cheap stuff there), dazzles and disorients the shopper with surreal displays (to make her “yield to her longing for the useless and pretty”). The store as spectacle promotes browsing, and fixed prices transform the haggling shopper into a passive consumer who “animates the goods with covetous glances.” The bazaar’s new methods trigger desires lifted and separated from need, and turn shopping from a chore into a leisure activity, an entertainment, a new religion, a passion, a dream.
The novel opens as Denise, a waif from the provinces, comes to work at the store. A self-sacrificing ange de la maison type with modesty and tresses in abundance, she supports her orphan brothers by toiling in the kids’ department—and provides a close-up view of the workers’ grim conditions and the “slow agony of the tradespeople,” some her kin, as they are “killed by the monster.” Mouret’s cheap stuff destroys the local artisans: “Art is done for, I tell you! There’s not a single respectable [umbrella] handle being made now,” rants the umbrella maker with whom Denise lodges. Yet she is a fangirl for the “march of progress” (“All this misery was necessary for the Paris of the future . . . every step forward was made over bodies of the dead”) and for Mouret himself (“He invented this method for crushing the world . . . yet she loved him for the grandeur of his work”). She charms—and eventually bags—the boss with her Victorian-style virtue. Seemingly immune to shopping urges, she is a paragon of purity in contrast to the frenzied lady shoppers who roam the store like maenads ogling the merch. Among the pack, we meet a sampler of stock characters that could have been written today: the bargain hunter, the shopaholic, the shoplifter, the socialite.
Ladies’ appetites, in Zola’s account, are frivolous, unseemly, beastly. One postsale scene is like the aftermath of an orgy: “The lace and underlinen thrown about everywhere made one think an army of women who had disrobed there in the disorder of a sudden desire.” Meanwhile, salesmen “calculate their commission still out of breath after the struggle. . . . Their eyes sparkled with the passion for money.” In the throes of a “white” sale, Mouret oversees weird nuptials between the shoppers and their objects of desire: From his perch, “the despotic monarch of dress” gloats over his conquests. Clutching their free violet bouquets “as though for the bridals of some sovereign,” the lady shoppers move en masse toward his display of silks, “like a great chamber of love” where “the god of dress had set up his white tabernacle.” The customers are “all excited and carried away by the same passion”—“like a drove of cattle from whom he had drawn his fortune.” Lovely.
The book is quite lurid. What’s surprising is how unshocking it all seems now. While Octave’s store occupied one Paris block, today “the enormous and brutal temptation of the big shops” is everywhere—even our computers. Zola’s account of the awesome machinery of “progress” is both familiar (albeit in a more metrosexual and corporate way) and more poignant than ever: the ecstasy and agony of shopping.
Rhonda Lieberman is a frequent contributor to Artforum.