Symbolic Sacraments in The Ladies’ Paradise

When Napoleon III assumed power in 19th-century France, he immediately established himself as a man dedicated to progress. The programs of his Second Empire established remarkable achievements, spanning from a revolutionary new banking system to a newly flourishing economy. While many of his foreign endeavors failed, Napoleon III successfully formed a country that dazzled commercially, often to the bewilderment of its citizens. Across such a backdrop splashes Emile Zola’s novel The Ladies’ Paradise, the presentation of one typical shop girl’s experience in that environment. Protagonist Denise Baudu and her peers grapple dramatically with a key new phenomenon of this economy: the department store, a polished spectacle with a seedy underbelly. All flaws aside, store owner Octave Mouret establishes a business sphere so awe-inspiring, it assumes a presence almost theological in nature. With the flawless beauty The Ladies’ Paradise exudes, Mouret generates followers of Capitalism, an exciting new “religion” that parallels the traditional seven sacraments of France’s predominant Catholic values.From the beginning, readers sense a glimmering breath of life washing over the store, consumers and retailers essentially baptizing each other as they welcome their new faith. This image manifests itself through the story as the store continues to evolve. Denise sees this before even entering the store: she describes the way the store dummies come to life, saying that “passions in the street were giving life to the materials: the laces shivered…the lengths of cloth, thick and square, were breathing…[and] the dummies…were acquiring souls” (16). Meanwhile, a coat is “billowing out, supple and warm, as if on shoulders of flesh and blood, with a heaving breast and quivering hips” (16). What seemed so simple before, in the age of more individualized shops, simply needs a sprinkling of glamour to transform into a great power, just as Catholics use a sprinkling of holy water to baptize an individual as part of God’s world by their definition. The dazzled crowd outside and the dazzling products inside seem to bring each other to life, giving the incentive to thrive on the religion Mouret so confidently preaches.A more straightforward baptismal image washes over shoppers later on in the story, when Mouret cloaks his store in white. Traditional baptismal rites include some form of delicate white garments, a “virginal whiteness” (398) that symbolizes purity and innocence. When The Ladies’ Paradise holds its great white sale, it is unveiling a much different store than it once was. In fact, it is a colossal neighborhood of a store, showcasing a beauty advertised as the “biggest shop in the world, as the advertisements said” (396). This religious propaganda never fails to disappoint, as shoppers experience a snowy cathedral like none other. From a white swansdown hall to complimentary white violets, the effect is a breathtaking “hymn of praise to white, which all the materials in the shop were singing” (398). Despite the confusion and crowds, the glowing display suggests an underlying tranquility. The shoppers who embrace this hymn have found a blissfully innocent serenity with Capitalism that rivals the more typical baptism—and is just as life-altering in their Victorian world.While baptism is a crucial part of young Catholics’ faith, such observers also dutifully subscribe to the concept of confirmation. Similar in nature to baptism, confirmation is a way of confirming and strengthening one’s belief in God when one is old enough to understand the significance of such a rite. The adolescent’s grace with Him grows with the ritual, a testament to his or her piety. Similarly, a lady’s journey towards confirmation begins almost immediately after she has been baptized, that is, introduced to the wonder of Mouret’s store. From this point of view, then, a reader might argue that the novel as a whole is the story of Denise’s journey towards confirmation. Initially, she is an outsider who admires the “church” but is too shy even to step foot inside. After being hired, she undergoes an arduous journey that tests her faith, even as she is fired, subsequently re-hired, and finally leaves. Yet, ultimately, she proves her devotion through her supreme dedication to fine customer service, with her “gentleness and charm” (330). It is this kind of motivated hard work that drives Capitalism, so for all her disgust with the system, Denise actually shows that she is one of its most pious followers. In fact, the consumers Denise serves are brought up to believe her religion from quite an early age. When she becomes the head of the children’s department, she thrives, blossoming from the “innocence and freshness ceaselessly renewed around her” (354). Child after child becomes smitten with the capitalistic cathedral before her, receiving Mouret’s blessing as quickly as their mothers can pay. While the youngest are entirely in parental hands, older youths prove their love of this religion easily, many undergoing confirmation by the age of ten. Denise observes young girls of this age experimenting with clothes, often trying on a garment and “study[ing] it in front of a looking-glass, turning round with an absorbed look, her eyes shining with the desire to please” (354). Persuading one’s mother to buy more is an easy matter, and as Denise can see, children’s power of persuasion can be one of the strongest money-makers of all. By becoming involved with purchases, young girls please a trinity of individuals: themselves, Capitalist society as a whole, and those working in the store itself—above all Mouret, the Pope of The Ladies’ Paradise.As the store develops into a major Parisian highlight, Mouret expands his fast-growing religion to include avenues beyond women’s and children’s products alone, including other attractions to draw women into His Paradise. One such attraction, the buffet area, echoes of the Catholic sacrament of the Eucharist. Though Mouret is more easily perceived as a pope-like figure because he does not actually create Capitalism or department stores himself, his remarkable innovations in marketing can conceivably put him in the role of a deity. Readers can see that his passion flows through all he does—including these very refreshments. Much like the nearby reading- and writing-room, this type of luxury is a testament to the accomplishments Mouret has achieved, both in generating financial dominance and in converting ladies over to his expanding religion. Transforming shopping to include pure leisure, his store truly lives up to its name now. With such treats as fruit cordial and small cakes, people seem to “los[e] all shame before the free refreshments” (246). As always, passing up a free gift proves impossible, even silly. What these women do not realize is that each sip and every bite is packed with Mouret’s ambition and love, the very essence of the paradise he has established. While the Eucharist suggests that Christ’s soul is present in holy bread and wine, the Eucharist of this story more closely resembles a Protestant perspective of the rite: a symbolic representation of soul, rather than a literal presence. Regardless of denomination, however, the effects of the holy rite simmer with a similarly significant fervor.Such fervor can serve as an excellent spiritual force, but much to employees’ chagrin, it can also lead to dastardly sinning, for which proper penance must be paid. Shoppers most notably sin against Capitalism by means of shoplifting. The store’s bounty of attractive merchandise, coupled with a bevy of customers to occupy employees, clearly invites this type of theft. Because those involved are relatively well-to-do, employees frequently hush up these incidents, but guilty parties undergo a considerable amount of embarrassment when caught. When Jouve catches frequent customer Madame de Boves stealing lace, for instance, he lets her go with no legal trouble. She must confess, and absolve for her misdemeanor via a hefty donation to the poor. This penance, so mild for the year-long thefts that “had become a sensual pleasure necessary to her existence” (422), protects her reputation, but is nevertheless a highly emotional undertaking. As Mouret laments, the store is “a regular den of thieves, robbed, pillaged, looted” (340). Still, whenever possible, the sinners he despises must face considerable reconciliation—in a manner as humane as possible for their social context, yet still sufficiently severe. Mouret’s powerhouse reaps severe consequences not just for sinners, but also for the more innocent small business owners around him. However, his religion can also aid individuals, mirroring Catholics’ practice of anointing of the sick. Designed to provide inward grace, this rite allegedly establishes spiritual and sometimes even physical strength during an individual’s illness. As much as Denise’s uncle detests The Ladies’ Paradise, the store inarguably provides solace for his niece and many others like her in times of struggle. Denise’s start at the store, difficult though it is, does give her hope of a successful life. For her, Clara, Pauline and countless other shop girls, the store presents a solid foundation of housing, meals, and money. Denise’s salvation from a destitute existence allows her to spread the grace to her own brothers. Jean, for instance, continually destroys himself through his affairs with women—constantly begging Denise for money, even though “the idea that he was killing her and taking Pepe’s share as well affected him so much that he began to cry” (176)—but because Denise embraces Capitalism, she can save him from utter ruin, time after time. Denise herself gains both spiritual and physical strength through her earnings and the success she attains, a direct gift from Mouret. In good Christian spirit, however, this gift has a domino effect, as Denise pays that sense of comfort forward to her ever-ailing brother.Denise, a far less promiscuous specimen then Jean, undergoes a considerable amount of ailing in regards to her own Capitalist love life. Catholicism presents two main options in regards to love: follow the Holy Orders to become part of the clergy, or marry, in completion of matrimony. Symbolically, Denise appears torn between the two. She loves Mouret, and yet she remains “in the strong position of an adored woman who refuses to yield” (400). Marriage, to her, suggests irritation and a stifling of independence, “giving up everything in order to follow him” (401). Meanwhile, refusing Mouret also means she must leave the store to avoid gossip and her own temptation to surrender. While she is relatively self-sufficient at this point, having made a name for herself as a main buyer, where can she go from here? Denise has come a long way since her shaky beginnings, falling under the spell of Mouret’s religion. If she refuses Mouret and leaves The Ladies’ Paradise, she will not experience matrimony and she will abandon the Holy Orders—for, in her high-ranking position, she has risen to become a member of the store “clergy,” helping reign over consumerist proceedings. In the end, however, it appears that she will give in to the path of matrimony. As close-knit of a theological community as The Ladies’ Paradise is, this choice seems practically inevitable. While The Ladies’ Paradise crushes competing vendors in its 19th-century Parisian neighborhood, sparking rage among opposing businessmen, Octave Mouret creates an unquestionably fantastic spectacle of a store. From its brilliant displays to its unbeatable prices, author Emile Zola presents the department store as a new type of religious force, one that draws in converts left and right. In a predominately Catholic nation, readers see Mouret as a higher being, one whose Capitalism is not altogether unfamiliar. From baptism to matrimony, protagonist Denise’s journey juxtaposes itself against the seven sacraments with which she was probably quite familiar. Indeed, Denis Baudu and her surrounding society venerate a pseudo-religious figure that, whether they realize it or not, is just as influential as the real-life Pope Pius IX himself.