“But he felt stronger at Henriette’s, knowing how the possession of a shared mistress brings men together and softens their hearts. That the two of them should be there, wrapped in her beloved scent, having her at hand, ready to persuade them with a smile, seemed to him a guarantee of success.”
Oh boy, what a line! Octave Mouret loves mixing business with pleasure, using his seductive charm to help ensure that he always gets the upper hand. His Parisian department store adopts that same essence, luring innocent female customers into the seductive web of all those departments…these pleasure-seeking women feverishly handling the goods in complete ecstasy, with Mouret lining his pockets with their monetary tokens of gratification. Leave it to Zola to come up with a new twisted version of pleasure and seduction. ;)
Innocent Denise Baudu, who at the start of this novel reminds me of Mouche from Paul Gallico’s Love of Seven Dolls, is also not immune to the seductive pull of Mouret’s Parisian store. There’s a marked change when you compare the Denise from the beginning to the Denise at the end. There’s an evident change in her demeanor, and one that I don’t entirely like. In a way, she becomes an embodiment of Social Darwinism’s survival of the fittest idea when she completely adopts the move towards change—the death of the small family owned boutique for the modern wholesale department store—as something good and worthwhile. I found her cold, almost savage when she adopts this new outlook, considering that her own family becomes affected by these changes, and especially when her sentiments are stated through “assumed innocence”: “Seeing this doomed family, Denise, her heart filled with compassion, felt afraid for a moment that she was doing wrong. Wasn’t she about to put her shoulder to the wheel that was crushing these poor folk? But it was as though she was being driven by some force and she did not feel that she was doing wrong.” Personally, when I was reading along, I hoped that Denise would’ve been presented as a representation of the old style of business, with Mouret representing the new—in essence creating a merger of the two styles of business—the small family style merchants and boutiques with large department store emporiums. When you think about today’s society, the small specialty boutiques still survive.
My favorite character is Deloche. I have a soft spot for those poor pathetic Dickensian caricature types like Smike in Nicholas Nickleby
and Jo in Bleak House
. You can’t help but want them to succeed, though you know something awful will happen. Zola, here does play with that idea, and offers a different, more hopeful (?) kind of ending for Deloche… but, ultimately, as a reader you’re left hanging as to what will really come next for him.
All in all, this is quite a good book.