Zola's prophetic celebration of unbridled commerce and consumerism, The Ladies' Paradise (Au bonheur des dames, 1883) recounts the frenzied transformations that made late nineteenth-century Paris the fashion capital of the world. The novel's capitalist hero, Octave Mouret, creates a giant department store that devours the dusty, outmoded boutiques surrounding it. Paralleling the story of commercial triumph is the love story between Mouret and the innocent Denise Baudu, who comes to work in The Ladies' Paradise. She provides the crucial link between Mouret and the three essential social groups in the novel: the female clientele, the shopgirls, and the petit bourgeois shopkeepers of the neighborhood.
But the store itself plays the leading role. Zola celebrates capitalism, commerce, and consumerism with a kind of prophetic optimism, calling this novel "a poem of modern activity." The work's interest for readers in feminist, cultural, and social history and theory is made abundantly clear in the introduction by Kristin Ross, and the fiction is reproduced in its colorful, 1886 English translation.
Émile Zola is the ever-popular author of Nana, Germinal, and many other novels. The Ladies' Paradise is the eleventh book in his Rougon-Macquart series, the "Natural and Social History of a Family under the Second Empire." Kristin Ross is Associate Professor of French Literature at the University of California, Santa Cruz.