Monday, July 10, 2006

Thoughts about Emile Zola and Au bonheur des Dames:

I was introduced to Emile Zola from that book, L'Histoire Des Juifs En France, he was introduced as a very energetic, anarchist writer. But I had tried a few years back to read some Classic Literature, and frankly I didn't like it at all! I don't remember the book I was trying to erad, but I felt it was so lame, excessively fast and disoriented. So that was a big blow to what others find interesting, I thought I simply preferred reading science material and science fiction. So when I went to the braderie for the first time and saw the Au Bonheur Des Dames I bought it with great enthusiasm, but I kept in mind my old misadventure with Classics. I also kept in mind that I haven't been very interested in reading stories lately.

I only started reading it this week. To my surprise I was totally absorbed by his style of writing! I was amazed by the way he described everything. He has this way of simply penetrating people, of seeing things from inside. Everything about his writing fascinated me. The first day I read 130 pages, the second 160 and the third the remaining 260 pages. That deprived me from a lot of the story's pleasure, because when I arrived to the last 60 pages my mind was totally depleted and I was totally unable to visualise and enjoy the descriptive sequence. But I was so eager to see the end of the story, the extremist part of my character took care of the rest.

The events of the story take place in a boutique. It's all about the shopping passion of women. The surprise in all this is that this choice of subject contradicts the general gender segregation. Men often whine about how they simply don't get the point of shopping about how women can invest so much emotions and money on such futile extravagance. Zola however simply centered his whole story on this. And he seemed to know what he was talking about, even though it was an artistic view of the subject, after all the boutique is often called a temple for the women's desires, the owner of the store often sees his store, and its success, as an means of dominance, his dominance on women who become slaves in there own temple. Great care is put to describe there way of touching and examining the cloth and textiles. Shopping becomes a mystic experience. Now I might not be the best representative of the female shopping frenzy but I think I am woman enough to know that Zola on this subject isn't so wrong.

A strong pillar in the story is the human dynamic relationships. The idea isn't so innovative itself. A woman that arrives to Paris to find a job in order to support her 2 younger brothers after the death of her parents takes the only job available and makes a very difficult start. The story isn't so centered on her, but she is the heroine of this story. And there is a lot of description of the emotions of everybody, very detailed.

The narration is also interesting, the story is strong up until the last 10 pages I was still wonder what will happen. You see, the problem with most stories is that is only pivots around one hero, or couple of heroes. There is the center and the rest of the world is organised in a web of foes and subordinate allies. The allies are good but they are obviously second place. In this story things seem different; the line of events is so realistic. There is a confusion of different emotions, different people, simply an interaction!

Now I can't really say I am satisfied with the finishing of the story, not to mention there is no physical contact, which is normal for that era lol.

What's more interesting in a good story is what you can guess about the culture and view of the writer on the base of his book. Take his Heroine for example Denise, she is naturally portrayed in a very unusual manor. Well, unusual would mean: unusual in our own standards.

Ok first things first, according to au bonheur des Dames Mss perfect, represented by Denise, is not pretty, but she has a charm, which is pretty sweet and innovative since, afer all, women were always the gender discriminated for its beauty before.

On the other hand, Denise is a very silent and sensitive person, she is extremely poor and she has the responsibility of her two younger brothers, and she assumes her responsibility with great humility and acceptance. She doesn't revolt and she even looks submissive in some occasions. Which is something that feminists usually refuse, a man idealises the weakness and humility of women is looking for a submissive wife. And Zola seems to be a very revolutionary man in most of his views all through his story.

So before judging look closer at his work. Denise is not submissive, she is simply not confrontational. All through the story she achieved her goals without war, she was excessively idealistic but not in an ugly boring way.


At a certain point of the story, Denise is called for the house of her boss' girlfriend (the boss is having soft feelings for Denise and his girlfriend knows it) and this woman starts a mean maneuver to humiliate Denise in front of the boss. Denise doesn't fight back and eventually, under the woman's pressure, Denise silently cries and the boss interferes in favor of his employee thus breaking up with his girlfriend.

At first sight, Denise has hidden behind her tears to get protection, something we feminists hate about old fashon submissive ladies. So Zola appears as if he failed us (yeah I know he never promised to defend woman's status in the modern world but when you are the reader then you judge a book according to your own mentality by comparison).

Anyway, a second look at this paragraph makes us reconsider; the situation is actually very natural. In the business the employees are the weakest link. Trust me, I know what I'm talking about. The boss might know that you are right, but you'll always be the one demanded to make all the compromises. So in other terms, Denise was literally helpless. And when the pressure was big enough crying is the only way to do it. Of course the ideal thing is to be able to resist for ever, but in fact, people can be very mean and resisting without fighting back can be so humiliating and draining that it can break you down.

So again, Zola wins, he made a natural story.


judy b said...

I read this recently - I have been an admirer of Zola's writing since reading Germinal when I was 16 (many year ago!. I found Au Bonheurs des Dames to be incredibly modern in terms of economics - do we not witness the same business strategies occurring between large businesses nowadays. Denise is very strong and I feel that she maintains her dignity throughout the novel. I hope (eventually) to read the whole of the Rougon-Macquart cycle that Zola wrote.

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