Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The Ladies Paradise: Setting as Character

No one can judge me for reading a novel for my Parisian History class with accents of macarons.
(What you might judge me for is the fact that they were purchased from Trader Joes. Oops!) 

To be fair, I knew what I was getting into, when I registered for a "History of Europe : Paris" class last quarter. But I wasn't prepared for exactly how thoughts of the glittering city were going to overtake my life. Nowadays, all I'm thinking about is French food and fashion, as well as all of that history, both the good and the bad sides (which might sometimes be on the same side... I mean, I got to watch the opening three minutes to Moulin Rouge in class yesterday!).

Still, in between all the Wars of Religion and Revolutions and Napoleonic Empire and whatnot, the assigned readings for the class don't really have all that much in common with a history novel at all. Colin Jones' Paris: the Biography of a City aside, we are reading, for the most part, novels.

The first of them, Emile Zola's The Ladies' Paradise, was particularly notable to me, due to its characterizations, not of people - I found the characters in that respect to be a little drab and mopey - but of the development of the modern-day department store. The novel follows the challenges faced by country girl Denise, a young orphan, who, alongside her two younger brothers, moves to Paris to find a better life, eventually leading her to work at a rapidly growing department store, which is sending all of the smaller, specialty stores in the same area out of business. Funny enough, it's the building that captures your attention.

The store itself in the novel - the titular Ladies Paradise - was modeled after Le Bon Marche, which was a noted Parisian retailer in development at the time of the novel's inception (which would, in turn, become Seattle's own The Bon Marche... RIP). While the descriptions and actions of the characters are the deliberate focus of the novel, the presence of the department store really serves as an insight into developing marketing and service practices of the 19th century, whether it was how they decided to organize merchandise, the treatment and social interactions of the men and women who work inside the mammoth store, or how other shops responded to this new superstore, too.

The entirety of the store is described in almost worshipful detail... everything about it sounds glamorous and grand, especially in contrast to the drab and practically prison-like appearances of the other shops in the story. Its sparkling and luxurious ambiance is lovingly transcribed, and gives better exposition to the stakes at play in the interactions with outsider shop owners.

Have you ever read a novel like that before... where the primary character of the novel seemed not to be the people and forces at play, but what setting gathered them all together? Can you think of an example of a book that draws its significance from the surrounding landscape, and not its major characters?

Let me know, in the comments below! 

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