The Ladies' Paradise

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...

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