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au bonheur des dames

31 august 2007

No social phenomenon of the 21st century in America draws more universal revulsion than the giant retail store. Nobody really likes Wal-Mart or Target except their boards of directors, who wouldn't be caught dead shopping there. Country folk, small-town types, and urbanites all despise the big boxes. The romance of the great emporia hardly has a advocate anymore. To recapture the wonder of the huge retailer that consumes everything in its path, we have to turn to Émile Zola's 1883 novel Au Bonheur des Dames – a book that conveys not only the wonder and romance of large-scale shopping, but anticipates almost every economic and social critique that later generations could make about the big stores.

Au Bonheur des Dames fuses together a literal romance plot (will Denise, gentle maiden from the provinces, succumb to the seduction of the merchant prince Mouret, or will Mouret learn to honestly love her?) with hundreds of pages of ecstatic descriptions of the sensual pleasures of 19th-century Parisian shopping. But these ecstasies are tightly interlaced with a keen sense of the human cost of big retail. Denise begins the novel seeking refuge, and a job, with her uncle Baudu, a small dry-goods merchant. But the small stores in Paris have stopped hiring. There's no work for salesgirls except at the huge department store across the street, the cruelly-named Bonheur des Dames. Happiness for ladies means misery for working women, and often enough despair and death for Mom-and-Pop competitors of the retail giant.

Bonheur des Dames is both a relentless machine and an organic law of nature. Unable to help the doomed Baudu family, Denise muses:

Jusqu'au bout, il lui fallait assister à l'œuvre invincible de la vie, qui veut la mort pour continuelle semence. Elle ne se débattait plus, elle acceptait cette loi de la lutte; mais son âme de femme s'emplissait d'une bonté en pleurs, d'une tendresse fraternelle, à l'idée de l'humanité souffrante. Depuis des années, elle-même était prise entre les rouages de la machine. (448)
[To the last, she had to witness the irresistible operation of life, which demands death for its ceaseless renewal. She did not struggle; she accepted this natural law of struggle. But her womanly soul filled with a grieving goodwill, with a tender fellowship, with the idea of suffering humanity. For years, she had been seized by the wheels of the machine.]
The somewhat mixed metaphors in that passage (I'm sure I'm not the first to point them out) point to a conflict in Denise's and perhaps in Zola's own thinking about the activity of Bonheur des Dames and similar big retailers. On the one hand, the business of a capital city resembles a food chain. The large eat the small because everyone must eat to live. To blame Bonheur des Dames for eating small businesses is like blaming a wolf for eating a lamb. The wolf may feel some remorse, but he's got to eat another lamb tomorrow.

But on the other hand, Bonheur des Dames is a creation of engineering and marketing design. It is a machine, an artificial enhancement of the natural forces of retail competition. Its size and power give it natural advantages and natural imperatives, but Mouret's continual tinkering with its physical and social systems deliberately arrogate more and more power and wealth to his store.

In particular, Mouret has designed his machine so that it can express the greatest possible amount of money out of the women of Paris. These ladies pay dearly for their happiness, and indirectly for the unhappiness they bring to so many mere women (vendeuses and small shopkeepers). At times it's as if Mouret has found a vast uncharted natural resource and simply gathered it into his bosom.

C'etait lui qui les possédait de la sorte, qui les tenait à sa merci, par son entassement continu de marchandises, par sa baix des prix et ses rendus, sa galanterie et sa réclame. (489)
[It was he who held the key to their fate, who had them at his mercy, by means of his continual piling-up of products, by means of his low prices, his return policies, his charming manners, his very fame.]

By making himself the cynosure of the upper echelons of Parisian womanhood, Mouret feels he has filled the human need for a variety of religious experience, much as the Dynamo, in Henry Adams's analysis, supplanted the Virgin:

Sa création apportait une religion nouvelle, les églises que désertait peu à peu la foi chancelante était remplacées par son bazar, dans les âmes inoccupées désormais. La femme venait passer chez lui les heures vides, les heures frissonantes et inquiètes qu'elle vivait jadis au fond des chapelles: dèpense nécessaire de passion nerveuse, lutte renaissante d'un dieu contre le mari, culte sans cesse renouvelé du corps, avec l'au-delà divin de la beauté. S'il avait fermé ses portes, il y aurait eu un soulèment sur le pavé, le cri éperdu des dévotes auxquelles on supprimerait le confessionnal et l'autel. (489-490)
[His creation brought with it a new religion. Churches abandoned by shaky faith were replaced, in souls now idle, by his store. Woman came now to pass her empty hours with him, the shivery and restless hours she'd passed till now in chapels: a necessary release for a nervous passion, a renewed struggle of a God against the Husband, an ever-renewed worship of the Body, with the added divinity of Beauty. If he closed his doors, there would be an upheaval in the streets, the desperate cry of worshippers denied their confessional and their altar.]

It's the same mixed message that keeps us going to Target or Wal-Mart even though our souls rebel. We are not only drawn in by the low, low prices on the brands we trust; we are kept there by the spectacle of so many other shoppers who flock to the faith; by the simple devotional act of checking out. Reading Émile Zola simply shows us that this variety of religious experience is nothing new.

Zola, Émile. Au Bonheur des Dames. 1883. Paris: Gallimard, 1980.