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The Ladies’ Paradise (thoughts)

April 19, 2010

I’m today’s stop on the Classics Circuit‘s Zola tour, and I’ll be discussing The Ladies’ Paradise. Emile Zola is one of those authors I’d heard of but never tried before, so I was eager to join in the tour. But then, reading the summaries of his novels, they didn’t really like sound my style. The Ladies’ Paradise stood out for seeming to be happier, and also it sounded like it was about clothes and shopping. Since I love clothes, I thought this would be my best shot at enjoying Zola.

Ahem. I will say this: the novel is decently written. Sure, his characters fall flat, but Zola can write powerfully descriptive scenes (I suppose there’s a reason he was a naturalist!) and the plotting is enough to keep the pages turning. The best part of the book, for me at least, was all the themes and issues it addressed; this is one of those novels that cries out for analysis. I could spend this post drawing parallels between the rise of The Ladies’ Paradise and our current big box stores. But honestly? I didn’t enjoy The Ladies’ Paradise and I have no interest in reading more Zola, for one reason: a serious contempt for women seems to pervade the whole thing.

There are women wasting away from unrequited love, women exchanging their bodies for supplements to their income, women happily giving up everything for the sake of bratty brothers, women completely at the mercy of their mania for shopping, women being bankrupted by their husbands’ poor business sense…women being exploited left and right. The way Zola describes his female characters is just icky. And our heroine, Denise, is only as powerful as she is virtuous. One could say that in a novel obsessed with commerce, in which everything is being cheapened at a frenetic pace, she’s the only thing that can’t be bought. But who wants a heroine as metaphor and women valued according to their purity? Not me.

And here’s the thing: I read nineteenth-century authors on a pretty regular basis. So I’m well aware that they didn’t write in a twenty-first century world that’s experienced two waves of feminism. And I don’t judge them by the same standards…for example, I’m almost done with a reread of Dracula right now, and despite the ridiculous cliches of Mina, I still love her. But The Ladies’ Paradise seems to portray all women as conniving and/or dopes while men are out to ‘mine them like coal’.

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. …if, in the shops, Woman was queen, adulated and humoured in her weaknesses, surroudned with attentions, she reigned there as an amorous queen whose subjects trade on her, and who pays for every whim with a drop of her own blood.

Apparently, in Zola’s world, only women were consumers who could be seduced by stores…which doesn’t ring with my impressions of, say, going with a guy friend to Best Buy! ;) Not to mention, if you know anything about microfinance, you know that loans to women benefit their families far more than loans to men. I could go on defending my gender, but I don’t think it needs defending. I’m certainly offended at the idea that women are frivolous shoppers, tricked by male store-owners, bankrupting their poor husbands, but at the same time it’s so ludicrous, I’d rather acknowledge that Zola was a sexist prig and leave things at that.

Anyway, as much talk as there has been about Zola being a naturalist, I find his world view so incredibly biased against women that I have no wish to spend anymore time there. I know that most of the stops on this tour have been positive reviews, and that most bloggers are women, so certainly take my impressions with a grain of salt. But as for me? I’ll be reaching for some Colette soon, to get the bad taste out of my mouth!

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54 Comments leave one →
  1. April 19, 2010 2:09 pm

    I totally didn’t remember any of that in The Ladies’ Paradise. Wow. I wish I remembered better now.

    I didn’t think Zola’s portrayal of women in Germinal was particularly fabulous, but at least one of them was respected for her mental steadiness (in comparison to the men) most of the time. I certainly didn’t mark it out as different than any other nineteenth century novels.

    • April 20, 2010 8:12 am

      You know, I’m sure the constant digs at women are partly because of how Zola framed the book. But it didn’t stop me from being annoyed! ;) I was also a bit sleepy and cranky when I wrote this post, hehe.

  2. April 19, 2010 2:38 pm

    What is Zola’s attitude towards men in this novel? In Thérèse Raquin, Zola expresses a great deal of contempt for humans.

    In your conclusion, do you mean that Zola is not a Naturalist? I’ve been wondering about that myself (based on just one novel). That par of the Zola story seems more complicated than I had expected.

    • April 20, 2010 8:16 am

      When he writes about the men, there definitely isn’t the same tone as the women…some of them are dumb, but others are clever or heroic or other similar adjectives. But this is the only Zola I’ve read!

      I don’t have enough literary background to argue whether Zola was actually a Naturalist. But my hazy expectations of what Naturalist writing is like were definitely not met by this. So now I’m popping over to read your post on TR!

      • April 20, 2010 9:10 am

        To be clear, Zola is by definition a Naturalist, since he more or less invented the concept. After finally reading some Zola, though, I’m less clear on what Naturalism actually is.

        The concept is perhaps purer than the actual practice in the novels.

  3. April 19, 2010 3:51 pm

    Icky! Perfect description – I felt like that too for a while then I began to find the humour. In Nana, Zola’s treatment of the sexes seems to be more balanced and I think in the ned he’s kinder to the women. I really enjoyed Nana – ina an icky kind of way! :-)

    • April 20, 2010 8:35 am

      I tried to find the humour…but it just kept getting worse and worse as I read further. :/ If I ever feel like giving Zola a second chance, I’ll pick up Nana.

  4. April 19, 2010 4:13 pm

    Sounds like the kind of book that would frustrate me too. The only Zola I have read is Germinal, but I didn’t notice the attitude you mention above, at least not to the same extent. Germinal is pretty girm on people of either gender; actually it has a rather bleak outlook on life in general.

    Colette sounds like the perfect remedy!

    • April 20, 2010 8:35 am

      Germinal sounds bleak. :/ I suspect Zola and I just don’t get along…I have a fundamentally positive view of people!

  5. April 19, 2010 4:37 pm

    I quite liked this novel! I liked the examination of conspicuous consumption and the origins of the big department store. Can’t say I particularly want to read any more Zola though. Good review.

    • April 20, 2010 8:36 am

      I definitely liked the themes. If his tone towards women hadn’t upset me so much, I would have rambled on forever in this post. :)

  6. April 19, 2010 5:24 pm

    Huh. I picked this book up off a display table at Chapters last week – I haven’t read any Zola either and to be honest he’s never been on my list. But I thought I might come back for this book because it seemed interesting and I like the topic – department stores truly do mark a big change in things, and I can’t think of many people who’ve written about them!

    But, I don’t think I could read this after all. Mostly, I wouldn’t be able to relate. It’s not just “presentism” at work – I have a hard time relating to this kind of thing when it’s contemporary as well. (The parts of the Shopaholic books where she buys things makes me cringe!) Very interesting reading this, cheers :)

    • April 20, 2010 8:37 am

      I’ve never read the Shopaholic books! The movie was pretty shallow, lol. If you do read it, I’ll be curious about your reaction!

  7. April 19, 2010 5:47 pm

    I wish I had managed my time better so I could participate in this circuit!

    I actually think even to this day, most consumer culture is driven by women. I don’t think women are the only ones who are “weak” to go shopping, but I think women DO make many household decisions, traditionally, and so many stores make it a point to go after women more than men. I mean, even men’s clothing stores play the angle of how much a woman will like you in your clothing. Or wearing a particular cologne. Or driving a particular car, etc. It’s very woman-centric.

    I do take issue with the obvious sexual undertone in the quote above, though. As though women become aroused by shopping and buying things. Then again… I also really disliked the whole Shopaholic franchise of books that played on that same stereotype!

    • April 20, 2010 8:39 am

      I agree that women make more purchases than men. But that doesn’t excuse Zola’s portrayal of us as morons! ;) I’ve never read the Shopaholic books…even though I adore style and clothes, I don’t think of myself as that consumer-centric (I prefer thrifting to ‘normal’ stores and malls just depress me), so to have the thrill of fashion reduced to materialism depresses me. And seems so unfair!

  8. April 19, 2010 5:55 pm

    What a shame it was so sexist! I found your review very interesting all the same though. :)

  9. April 19, 2010 7:02 pm

    Wow, interesting! I’d have been with you on the contempt-for-women issue given the quote you pulled, but also second the other Germinal readers who have said that this aspect of his philosophy is a lot less pronounced in that novel. I wonder if he does better depicting the extremely poor than he does with the bourgeoisie – one thing that’s struck me about Germinal is his genuine-seeming empathy for the miners living in poverty, even for the ones that act like monsters. He is surprisingly sympathetic to the bourgeois characters as well, but they seem a lot thinner to me – less well-formed.

    • April 20, 2010 8:42 am

      That is interesting! Maybe this book is just more sexist? Maybe it’s because he’s portraying the thoughts of sexist men? I suppose I could have given him a tiny benefit of the doubt. ;)

  10. April 19, 2010 8:18 pm

    Oh don’t worry, I think you have a point. I’m a guy and yet I’m a much more impulsive buyer than my female cousins :)

  11. April 19, 2010 11:38 pm

    After reading so many of the positive reviews of this book on the tour, I added it to my wishlist. I’m starting to rethink that now, since what you mentioned about women would bother me as well. It makes me think how long women have been portrayed as being more or less ‘shopaholics’ and where the stereotype came from. Yet, even if it is true that women are expected or do more of the regular shopping (for clothes for example?) the things you mentioned would still annoy me.

    • April 20, 2010 8:44 am

      I wonder where so many of the stereotypes about women came about from. :)

  12. April 20, 2010 3:05 am

    I don’t think I like the sound of this, especially his portrayal of women. I can see why you didn’t enjoy it. Though it is a shame as I am a sucker for descriptive writing.

    • April 20, 2010 8:44 am

      His descriptions of the store itself were marvelous…too bad about the sexist bits overshadowing them. :(

  13. April 20, 2010 4:05 am

    Oh my… While I do think that women are the purchasers for family / household goods more often than men, at least according to what little I have seen / read, I do not think that warrants the passages you quote! I have read the same things that point to the fact that (especially with micro-finance) women are better managers of money and less likely to spend on frivolous things. While Zola sounds… interesting… I think I will focus on other authors for the time being! Great review though.

    • April 20, 2010 8:45 am

      Yep…Zola just isn’t my style. But he seems pretty popular on the tour in general! :)

  14. April 20, 2010 4:55 am

    Wow! Great post – definitely interesting and informative. I have yet to read any Zola and after this post, I’m not really keen to. Thanks for the heads up!!

    • April 20, 2010 8:46 am

      I hope you go read some of the other tour stops! I’m definitely in the minority. :)

  15. April 20, 2010 5:28 am

    Give me Colette any day of the week over Zola.

    • April 20, 2010 8:46 am

      It’s true! Colette is so marvelous. :)

  16. April 20, 2010 5:35 am

    Several of the other Classics Circuit posts about Zola have been extremely positive, and I was just beginning to think he might be an author for me. I wonder if the contempt for women that you observed in this book is something that’s present in his others – you’re the first person (I’ve seen) make this observation. Hmmmmm.

    • April 20, 2010 8:47 am

      From the comments by bloggers who read other novels of his, it sounds like he’s not as sexist in his other novels!

  17. April 20, 2010 6:33 am

    I’ve been wanting to read Zola since reading about him on blogs and haven’t a clue as to what to expect so I’ll keep this in mind, though when it comes to classic literature I try and forget any ideals etc so hopefully I’d get past any problems here. It’s both intriguing and off-putting that a man from that era has focused on women in his book like this, I think I’ll still have to give it a go.

    • April 20, 2010 8:49 am

      I love reading classic lit, and I approach it on its own terms, but at a certain point, as a woman reader, if I feel discriminated against I just get cranky. ;)

  18. April 20, 2010 7:06 am

    I didn’t particularly like Zola’s look at women in The Masterpiece either — she was just a model for his art and then he got tired of her. But as Amateur Reader says, maybe it’s just a contempt for humans in general because I didn’t like any of the characters. Sounds like this really stays sexist throughout, though. Not a fun thing to read.

    Yeah, despite how many people have enjoyed Zola on this tour, I don’t think he’s really for me. Yet I feel compelled to keep reading…

    • April 20, 2010 8:49 am

      I feel compelled to read all the reviews too, even though I’m positive Zola’s not my kind of author! I think I’m fascinated that others enjoy him so much. LOL

  19. April 20, 2010 8:55 am

    I remember reading Therese Raquin many years ago and not connecting with the protagonist at all because I couldn’t understand the choices she made. However, the book seems to be a favourite of some of my favourite authors so I feel I should give it another go (just to see what I missed – maybe I was too young). Very interesting review though, makes me want to read The Ladies Paradise just to see why you disliked it so much!

    • April 20, 2010 9:41 am

      I didn’t dislike it as much as it sounds from this review (which I wrote in a bad mood yesterday). …The actual reading was fine, and I happily flipped the pages to find out what would happen…but the sexism was always there, like sandpaper slowly scraping away at me. Does that make sense?

  20. April 20, 2010 12:14 pm

    I agree that Zola’s portrayal of women is not especially favorable in The Ladies’ Paradise, but I chose to look past it and focus on the social commentary/issues instead. The Parisian department stores in the late 1800’s made money largely by exploiting women, and Zola showed how that was accomplished.
    In Therese Raquin, I did not notice any particular contempt of women. It rather seemed, as Amateur Reader pointed out, the contempt was directed toward all humans. That novel offered a stunning portrayal of the psychological effects of guilt, and was one of my favorites last year. I know I’ll be reading more Zola… not sure whether Germinal or Nana will be next.

  21. April 21, 2010 6:54 pm

    I’m more inclined to think that Zola employed satire and cynicism in his writing for the purpose of showing up the stereotypical notions entrenched in French culture. For me, Zola is one of the greats of Literature. What you see as sexism, I see as irony. :)

    • April 24, 2010 6:48 am

      You know…I can see an argument for Zola being ironic when we’re obviously in Mouret’s head. But the way Zola as narrator describes the female characters, and the storylines, particularly the focus on Denise’s purity and innocence, didn’t feel so ironic.

  22. April 22, 2010 8:39 am

    Hmm. I’ve noticed Zola’s sexism from reading The Kill (which I’ll be reviewing tomorrow) as well, and also in Nana it seemed to me. Although someone here raises an interesting point, it could be the wealthy and greedy that he dislikes, the women who are striving for false appearances instead of authenticity and honest work (like the poor people in Germinal). I’m glad you brought this up, there’s so much for me to think about in writing my review!

    • April 24, 2010 6:51 am

      But is sexism ok as long as it’s against rich women? (Obviously, that’s rhetorical…I don’t think that’s why you’re arguing!) I’m off to check out your thoughts on The Kill.

  23. April 22, 2010 1:45 pm

    Thought provoking post! I’m currently reading The Belly of Paris for my review this week and I just love it — I’ll have to keep an eye out for sexism. There are some women who are pretty catty but I haven’t finished the book so I can’t judge it yet.

    • April 24, 2010 6:52 am

      Since this was my first Zola, I’m curious to hear what his other books are like! I’m glad you’re loving The Belly of Paris. :)

  24. April 23, 2010 12:54 am

    How interesting! I suppose the key for me is the fact he wrote Woman, and not ‘woman’. I suppose I read that passage as about a concept of womanhood, that was constructed by male shopkeepers, male advertisers, and the general bedrock of men and as such it doesn’t actually refer to flesh-and-blood reality but an image that Zola draws out of his culture. When Zola was writing, it was a sensitive time in France for gender politics. All the male authority figures – political leaders, priests and fathers, were having a hard time, challenged by a rising class of women with a little money and icreasing independence. I think Zola was right there in that class of males feeling the pinch, but I also think he was an honest enough writer (or nearly!) to show that the attitude men had towards women at the time was idealising and patronising and that they were frankly horrified by what women might achieve. So when I read Zola, I hear the words ‘Here come the girls!’ in my mind, because the representation is always struggling over women’s power. Here, they have consumer power, and that’s suddenly become a serious force, so the fear it arouses is cushioned by the thought that desire means weakness (and this was something that the men knew ALL about!). So that’s how I see the gender relations in Zola – fraught, a struggle, and true to the ugly and often disturbing emotional undercurrents of the time.

    But that’s just me. :)

    • April 24, 2010 6:54 am

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment Litlove! And obviously, I don’t have the literary background that you do. :)

      I can see the passage I quoted as being representative of patriarchy and Moulet, etc., but I don’t think that justifies *all* of the ways Zola discusses his female characters. But this was my first novel by him, so I don’t have extensive experience with his voice. Honestly, since I read classics for pleasure, I doubt I’ll be reading another Zola any time soon…his writing just doesn’t delight me.

  25. April 23, 2010 5:12 pm

    I had a similar reaction when I read this for the tour as well. I didn’t hate, there were things I enjoyed, but his attitude toward women was too much for me to want to read more of him, at least any time soon. It was oddly modern in some ways though, such as the comparison to the big box stores that you mentioned. Since reading it I’ve had an even stronger inclination to shop at smaller, local stores and eat at local, non-chain restaurants and support the small business owners of the world. Perhaps that was part of Zola’s purpose.

    • April 24, 2010 6:55 am

      I’m glad I’m not alone in my reaction! :) And yep-it really makes you want shop locally, doesn’t it?!

  26. April 25, 2010 7:36 am

    I think you read the wrong Zola! There’s no anti-women sentiment at all in Germinal, and it’s one of the most brilliant books I’ve ever read. Of course, that probably means that you would hate it, given our past. But I wonder if in The Ladies’ Paradise he is ripping apart a particular culture that some women were a part of, and wasn’t making broad generalizations about women but about these specific women. I haven’t read it, I don’t know, but I do know that Zola has catapulted to the top of my list and I’m gathering everything I can that he wrote!

  27. May 2, 2010 5:54 pm

    ah, but if you read Nana you see all of the ridiculous things men will do for sex (including killing themselves and bankrupting themselves).

  28. Sophia permalink
    May 4, 2011 3:11 pm

    I completely disagree that Zola is a “sexist prig”.
    The men are complete sops as well – Deloche is pathetic, as are the majority of the men in the shop including Lhomme who earns less than his wife, Madame Aurelie, and lives in constant fear of her. Look at Colomban who abandons Genevieve, who is at no fault but for her presumptive relationship with her fiance of ten years (who can blame her there?).
    The portrayal of both genders is equal in favourability.
    It is the shop, Au Bonheur des Dames, that is the villain, the machine. Mouret may have started it, but he did so with his wife who dies. Once the momentum starts, he is carried away by its power as much as the women who shop at it.
    Surely, what is far more interesting to note is the amazing methods employed by the shop to encourage such behaviour in Woman. There are constant illusions to the sexual and the religious, highlighting the intense power that these grand stores had over women.
    Zola was part of a growing witness to the growth of modernity, with the cult of the body, as a commodity and as a projection of individuality.
    Have a gander through some late Baudelaire or Walter Benjamin if any of this grabs you.

    On a side note, have you read Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Laclos? (or watched the Stephen Frears film version?!) Very interesting stance on Woman in it.

    But yes, the book spurned me on to spurn unethical chain stores.

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