French author Emile Zola (1840 – 1902) was above all a social observer. His works provide a window into the nineteenth century. The Ladies Paradise, first published in 1883, is a sociological study of the time disguised within an exceptional novel.
The novel uses the lives of two principal characters – Mouret and Denise – to illustrate societal dislocations as a new order slowly destroys the old order. This includes the suffering of people unable to adjust and make way for the new and the hold outs hanging on to the past as if their entire being depended on it.
Mouret is a new breed of businessman (entrepreneur?) radically transforming retail trade in Paris. He is powerful, focused and hard working. He is also used to getting what he wants out of life, including women. Few obstacles were strong enough to challenge the march of Mouret's vision in creating an universal department store selling all manner of things; that in an age of shops specializing in individual trades. For example, one shop sold lace while another sold velvet and yet a third sold knick-knacks. None sold all three under one roof – that is until Mouret's store, The Ladies Paradise.
Denise is a poor, country girl who finds herself not only struggling to survive in the big city but also in the politics and chicanery of employees at Mouret's store. With a little help from Mouret, Denise survives a brutal initiation at the Ladies Paradise and starts to make her presence felt. (Mouret simply wants to add Denise to his list of conquests.)
Life of course never moves in a straight line. Neither does a good novel.
Over time, along with his obsession of growing his department store, Mouret's develops an unhealthy obsession with conquering Denise. Meanwhile, Denise has gathered all the wiles of any Parisian noblewoman and innocently uses Mouret's infatuation to influence the evolution of the Ladies Paradise.
Zola is a master in symbolism and the novel contains notable use of the tool. The novel is written in rich, descriptive prose very different from the brief 'no extras included' copy writing in fashion today. While The Ladies Paradise will appeal to the analytical reader looking to obtain insights into the human psyche and society it is also a simple story of a young country girl out to survive in the glittering big city.
Imran is a Singapore based Tour Guide with a special interest in arts and history. Imran has lived and worked in several countries during his past career as an international banker. He enjoys traveling, especially by train, as a way to feed his curiosity about the world and nurture his interest in photography. He is available on Instagram (@imranahmedsg); twitter (@grandmoofti) and can be contacted at email@example.com.