Saturday, April 10, 2010

The Ladies' Paradise

Whether you're visiting my blog for the 24-hour readathon or from the Classics Circuit, or just because you like me, welcome!

The current tour on the Classics Circuit is for Emile Zola. I've owned The Ladies' Paradise for a while, and had started reading it about a year ago. I was only about 15 pages in when I realized it was part of a series, so I put it aside to get the earlier books in the series and read them first. Then I learned that some of the series is only available in French. Oops. So, when Zola came up on the Circuit, I decided to dust off The Ladies' Paradise and dive in.



Overall, The Ladies' Paradise doesn't feel like a novel. The main character is really the store, The Ladies' Paradise, and it's more about business, marketing, and consumerism than about the actual characters and plot. Normally that would drive me crazy, but it didn't here. It's definitely not going to make my list of favorite books, but I still enjoyed it. It surprised me that this was written in 1883. The business world descriptions were oddly accurate for today as well.

It's a revolutionary time for business. Stores have started placing pricing signs in the windows, increasing competition. Large stories like The Ladies' Paradise now have departments selling different items instead of each store only selling one type of item. Before then, there were umbrella stores, dress stores, silk stores, etc. Now, one giant store could sell all of these items, and grow to have over 3,000 salespeople and make a million francs in one day. (See my entry in the book score/soundtrack mini-challenge for the readathon for a comparison between this and Empire Records.)

The story is about Mouret, the owner of The Ladies' Paradise. He sees the opportunity to exploit women and market to them to make tons of money in his story. There is one girl, Denise, who becomes a salesperson in his shop that refuses to give into the consumerism and be bought by him, and he falls in love with her. And her transformation from a frail girl unable to stand up for herself to someone who can control the shots was interesting, but the story is less about Mouret and Denise than consumerism itself.

I don't know if it's just because I'm in marketing myself that I paid more attention to that aspect of the novel, or if it was just really prevalent anyway, but that's what I focused on. The focus on women is definitely there though: "Of supreme importance...was the exploitation of Woman...it was Woman they were continually snaring with their bargains...They had awoken new desires in her weak flesh." And on, and on. It doesn't paint a very flattering picture of women. It portrays them as easy to tempt by saying something is on sale, by filling the store with baubles and shiny things, by saying it's the latest fashion, by having sales reps there to greet and sell to each customer individually. The whole thing is extremely insulting, but at the same time it's rather true. Even when I worked in the men's department in J.C. Penney's in high school, it was the women who bought 90% of the stuff. And sometimes something like Dockers would be on sale for like $2 off, but the sale sign convinced them all they were getting a great bargain. And how many women do you know that have to buy the latest fashions just because it's the trend, and heaven forbid they aren't trendy?

I think I found this book fascinating because in high school I was someone who focused on fashion, and even though I didn't like being trendy exactly, I was still obsessed with clothes and shopping. Now you have to practically drag me to a mall, and if someone told me I was trendy I might just punch them in the face. I think focusing on being trendy just makes you look unintelligent (although going to far in the other direction can be just as bad). It looks like you don't know who you are and are just doing what you think you're supposed to be doing, demonstrating low self-esteem. What's interesting to me is that this seems to now be a plague among the boys in America and not just the girls. Last night I went to the mall with my husband for the first time in about 18 months. What is wrong with teenage boys these days? They look like idiots, and the look girly! They all have skinny pants and pink and purple tops, which I noticed is what was also on all the mannequins. And their hair, ugh. I don't mind long hair, my dad actually usually has long hair, but what's with the weird long in front, elf-like haircuts? I'm really glad I'm not a teenager these days. I would not be dating.

Sorry for the tangent. One more thing I thought was interesting. Mouret arranges his story so that you have to walk across the most floor space as possible to reach departments that you might shop together. For instance, ladies shoes and dresses may be a mile apart, with accessories in between to tempt you along the way. That way you aren't like to just walk in and make your purchase and leave. He also rearranges the store to keep people confused. I think Dillard's is on to that strategy. My mom and grandma always talk about how they have a different layout every time they go. Maybe that's why. Interesting. It also talked about marketing to the children, having tempting items for them that the parents can't say no too. We tend to talk about this being a recent issue, so I thought that was fascinating that Zola wrote about that over 100 years ago.

Well, I'm off to get back to reading for the readathon!

34 comments:

  1. Sounds so interesting. I thought Zola did a great job talking about art in the book I read. It sounds like he talks about fashion and shopping and so forth just as convincingly!

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