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Return to Equinoxes, Issue 7:Printemps/Ete 2006
Article ©2006, Bethany Hetrick

Bethany Hetrick, New York University

Mannequins, Mass-Consumption and modernity in au bonheur des

dames :

The Department Store as Ladies' Paradise? 


Very deliberately conceived as “le poème de l’activité moderne”1 as Zola’s preparatory notes attest, Au Bonheur des Dames unveils the eponymic department store as the embodiment of the modernity of consumer experience, one that is essentially and consummately feminine. If for Walter Benjamin the flâneur represents the paradigmatic modern man in the phantasmagoric city, it is the advent of the department store that defines the contours of “the last promenade for the flâneur” (10), where flânerie is pressed into the service of capitalism, thereby devolving into its antithesis. However, on the heels of the flâneur a new figure emerges from modern commercial culture, a female consumer whose phantasmagoria traces aisles of commodities instead of streets, in the public, primarily feminine space of the department store.

The woman’s body, in moving from the private sphere into the realm of public consumer practices, bears the marks of this transformation in curious and telling ways. Historically, the notion of feminine “publicness” has metonymized the condition of the prostitute (fille publique/ femme publique), in dramatic contrast to the bourgeois wife and mother, ruler of domestic and private space and nucleus of the family structure. This movement from private to public, then, implies a kind of prostitutionalization, the selling of the commodified body in the service of a new consumer culture, as well as its opposite: a sort of reverse-prostitution, in which the women now pay to be seduced by way of mass-produced mechanisms of desire in what Rosalind Williams will call the “logic of fantasy” of the department store as dream-world (72). Recasting Benjamin’s definition of the prostitute as “seller and sold in one” (10), the bourgeois female shopper is rather “buyer and sold in one,” performing a kind of self-purchase that may or may not, as we shall consider, eventually actualize self-possession.

In Body Work, Peter Brooks argues that the modern narrative produces “a semioticization of the body which is matched by a somatization of the story,” and therefore “stories cannot be told without making the body a prime vehicle of narrative significations” (xii). Zola’s novel fits seamlessly into this perspective in its fixation on the feminine physique, its desires and its perversions, directly in line with the body-obsessed, clinical impulse of naturalism. The department store, this temple erected to the cult of the feminine body as Zola will call it (631), incarnates a new space created of, by and for the fetish, both in the Freudian and the Marxist senses. Here fetishized objects are purveyed for the self-service fetishization of subjects, and the convergence of the two around the female body becomes the motor force that drives Octave Mouret’s ingenious “machine.” With this in mind, it seems imperative to explore specifically what seems to be happening to women’s bodies in the department store, and ultimately how we can then start to interpret the nature of this modernity that is self-consciously on display in Au Bonheur des dames.

Before examining women’s bodies in their animate form, it would seem impossible to resist evoking the uncanny double of the mannequin. Somewhere between a statue and a prostitute, this figure born of the new commercial practices literally embodies the fetishistic nature of the modern shopping experience. One could take as an example the following provocative passage from the inaugural scene of the novel:

“La gorge ronde des mannequins gonflait l’étoffe, leshanches fortes exagéraient la finesse de la taille, la tête absente était remplacée par une grande étiquette, piquée avec une épingle dans le molleton rougedu col ; tandis que les glaces, aux deux côtés de la vitrine, par un jeu calculé, les reflétaient et les multipliaient sans fin, peuplaient la rue de ces belles femmes à vendre, et qui portaient des prix en gros chiffres à la place des têtes.” (392)

The stylized feminine body, described from a fetishizing gaze that emphasizes its womanly attributes (breasts, hips and waist), is at the same time decapitated in a violence conjured by the red material of the neck, and its head is replaced by a number, and not just any number, by a price.

In Discourse/Couterdiscourse, Richard Terdiman comments on this passage as follows:

“Reification is capitalism’s master trope. Here, in a grotesquely comic and revealing figure, reification takes the form of a radical reduction of being to exchange value. The price tag substituting for the mannequin’s head (the anatomical part which most signifies representation of the human) becomes the metonym of the whole display; simultaneously the arrangement metaphorizes desire as money.” (136)

Kristin Ross, in her introduction to a recent English-language edition of Au Bonheur des Dames, works the idea of femininity back into the equation, asserting: “In this admirably ‘economic’ image, Zola evokes both the condition of the woman consumer and the image she is called upon to purchase: herself as commodity” (xvi). These two analyses coalesce where a reduction of being to exchange value becomes transposed onto the commodified female body as displayed for commercial consumption, thereby announcing an economy of the eroticized body driven toward self-purchase; in short, a mannequin economy of the feminine.

Ross takes this image one step further, to address the play of reflection and refraction that is explicitly at work here:

“As the image of the mannequins is refracted out into the street, consumers and female passersby become indistinguishable from the mannequins; all are soulless but beautiful replicants, ‘women for sale.’ The female image that peoples the streets is headless and, by extension, credulous, lacking in critical judgment and decisiveness.” (xxvii)

This new female crowd of “belles filles à vendre” infinitely reproduces a hollow, headless, even prostitutional form. It prefigures, in a sense, the female hordes of shoppers and salesclerks of the Bonheur on sale days, who are significantly described in this frenzy as “losing their heads” (615; 633). Moreover, the mannequin seems to have acquired a sort of animus that becomes displaced onto the swelled material, recalling other such scenes of enchanted articles in the text, and thereby conjuring Marx’s definition of the commodity as imbued with a transcendental, magical quality and a “mystical character” (42), haunted by the ghostly hand of a laborer abstracted into nonexistence.

Another textual reference to mannequins proves to be still more violently evocative in its focus on the neck as the site of the beheading, comparing the forms to a line of triumphant soldiers with wooden pegs protruding from their necks, this peg recalling a knife handle “enfoncé dans le molleton rouge, qui saignait à la section fraîche du cou” (631). This blood seems to collapse anteriority and futurity by fusing the three major female sacrifices of the novel, that of Mme Hédouin, Geneviève and Mme Baudu. These “soldats” also cross-reference another “armée” of mannequins later in the text. What is especially intriguing about this last set of dummies is the extent to which they are further dismembered, and at the same time proportionally further eroticized, as “une armée de mannequins sans tête et sans jambes, n’alignant que des torses, des gorges de poupée aplaties sous la soie, d’une lubricité troublante d’infirme” (780). This “disturbing lewdness of the disabled” (409), to cite the translation of Brian Nelson, betrays a sort of deviant attraction to the mangled body, concomitant with the sexual charge of the bodily fragment to which we will return.

As a supplement to these images of headless mannequins, we can evoke the character Bourdoncle, Mouret’s wildly misogynistic second-in-command and “l’homme chiffre, qu’il chargeait d’ordinaire des exécutions” (429), literally “the man-number whom he charged with executions”, both in the sense of executing something and executing someone.2 To reinforce this identification of Bourdoncle, number-man as executioner, the shared syllable of “Bourdoncle” and “bourreau” very likely hints to an intentional identification of the two. What we are witnessing here, then, is the number decapitating the human, an act that is repeated in the enunciation of Bourdoncle’s trademark “passez à la caisse”, itself so sharp and swift that it almost feels like the blade of the guillotine. Accordingly, this phrase serves the dual “beheading” of routing the hordes of distracted and disoriented shoppers to the cashier’s desk, as well as enacting the death warrant of unfortunate employees during the summer of mass execution designated “le coup de terreur des congés” (534) , and thereby explicitly resonating with fanatical, revolutionary slaughter.

Finally, to blur the disturbingly unstable distinction between dummy and human, we can return to Terdiman’s reading of reification more explicitly in its relation to the personnel of the department store. To this end, it is useful to recall the scene where Denise is first summoned to act as a live mannequin, a moment of becoming-dummy that executes the rite of reification with chilling exactitude.3 Denise realizes that she must submit to this spectacle of dehumanization: “Pourtant , il lui fallait obéir, elle dut laisser Marguerite draper le manteau sur elle, comme sur un mannequin” (496) ; however, she is far from being a willing participant: “Denise était devenue très pâle. Une honte la prenait, d’être ainsi changée en une machine qu’on examinait et dont on plaisantait librement” (497). Horrified, Denise complies, but her shame translates an acute cognizance of la condition vendeuse later described by Zola in the following terms: Tous n’étaient plus que des rouages, se trouvaient emportés par le branle de la machine, abdiquant leurs personnalité, additionnant simplement leurs forces” (192). The mannequin, then, becomes the emblem not only of self-sale / self-purchase and headlessness in its various incarnations, but also of the worker-turned-machine, profoundly reified and more or less inexorably conditioned to his or her own fundamental interchangeability and dispensability within the structure of the store’s workings.

Moving from simulacrum to animate body, it is clear that in the representation of the mannequin, that is to say, the mutual collapse of desire and money at the site of a form that is at once headless (dehumanized and robbed of reason) and fetishized, we can anticipate the modern commercial experience. Mouret admittedly intends for his clients to be “séduites, affolées devant l’entassement de nos marchandises, vidant leur porte-monnaie sans compter” (425). At the core of this practice, then, is a meticulously contrived ritual of seduction enacted on the woman’s body and designed to induce the desire for commodities through a temptation that is overtly sexual in nature.

Denise Baudu, virginal orphan newly arrived from the provinces, becomes a case study in the psychology of consumer seduction. The first chapter of the novel chronicles her initiatory experience of the department store in the language of sexual awakening: “Denise, depuis le matin, subissait la tentation. Ce magasin [. . . ] l’étourdissait et l’attirait ; et il y avait, dans son désir d’y pénétrer, une peur vague qui achevait de la séduire” (402-3). By the end of the first chapter, unable to repress her indomitable attraction to the department store, she returns: “Denise, cédant à la séduction, était venue jusqu’à la porte [ . . .] le Bonheur des dames achevait de la prendre tout entière” (414). This lexicon of temptation, desire, seduction and penetration dominates the description of the department store from Denise’s perspective, as we witness the first stirrings of lust in her as yet pre-sexualized body.

The link between selling and seduction becomes all the more explicit at Mme Desforges’s first tea, depicted in the third chapter of the novel. In a particularly orgiastic scenario, Mouret finds himself encircled by a group of wealthy female clients in a darkened salon, all of them fondling the lace samples that he has brought. The narrator recounts: “Elles s’abandonnaient, séduites,” as the ladies stammer “Oh! Monsieur Mouret! Monsieur Mouret!” in voices that are described as “chuchotantes et pâmées” (468). As this scene crescendos to this collective orgasmic gasp, it plays out the creation of a fetish with the material object supplanting the physical encounter as the instrument of sexual pleasure.

The erotics of the modern commercial experience are not entirely ominous; there is undoubtedly a real pleasure to be experienced in succumbing to the omnipresent temptations that the department store deploys, and a certain buying power that could be mobilized. However, Mouret reminds us at a certain moment that the department store is “une création [. . .] faite de la chair et du sang de la femme” (130). Pleasures of the flesh aside, Mouret perhaps inadvertently signals that something else is happening here: the woman’s body also becomes the site of violence, originating even in the foundational sacrifice on which the store is constructed.

The death of Mouret’s first wife, Mme Hédouin, at the worksite of the store-in-construction replays itself constantly through pervasive blood imagery, already encountered here in reference to the mannequins but more directly represented in the blood-soaked infrastructure of the department store. The original female sacrifice of Mme Hédouin therefore haunts the novel, and two more lives will be claimed before its conclusion. Both Geneviève, Denise’s cousin, and Mme Baudu, her aunt, will fall victim to the department store. The casualties of the two Baudu women, although clearly tied to a kind of symbolic bloodletting with regard to those who stand intransigently in the way of progress, complete a trilogy of sorts: women who must be destroyed for the department store to prevail.

Continuing in this tradition of the mutilated woman, we can remark that the novel is shot through with images of partialized bodies, as Brian Nelson has noted (Introduction xix; “Désir” 30-1). In addition to the decapitations already discussed, frantic shoppers are evoked by the synecdoche of the outstretched, grasping hand, or “un océan de têtes vues en raccourci” (631) surveyed from the top of the central staircase through Mouret’s dominating gaze. Elsewhere, a play of reflections during the summer sale catches a sundry assortment of mutilated body parts: “Partout les glaces reculaient les magasins, reflétaient des étalages avec des coins de public, des visages renversés, des moitiés d’épaules et de bras” (627). We can add to this assessment the inventory chapter, which also reveals arms, heads, fists and limbs in the place of salespeople: “une houle de têtes, de poings brandis, de membres volants, semblait se perdre au fond des rayons” (670). These various part-objects, both of shoppers and of workers, seem to fade into the universe of things-on-display that characterizes the department store. However, as bodily fragments, they also function undeniably on at least three additional registers:4 rhetorically, to signify the whole; psychosexually, as a localized fixation on the part; and ritualistically, commemorating the site of a sacrifice. Therefore, in its ungeneralizable polyvalence, the narrative of the part-object in Zola’s text communicates both desire and aggression, in addition to the commodification of the body part through its contingency to and likeness with “parts” of merchandise.5 Thus, as the commodity fetish becomes sublimated into art in the form of the étalage, it collapses into the psychosexual fetish through an eroticization of things that is both feminized and feminizing;6 in essence, female fetishism as “a specular meeting point for psychoanalytic and materialist discourses” (Apter 3).

This fine balance of violence and eroticism intrinsic to the bodily fragment and the display finds still another conduit in the frenzied female crowd of the department store, whose group experience is cast in the light of a very specific kind of corporeal and psychological threat that is not without its own perverse sexual thrill. In the three great sale sequences, allusions abound to the crushing of bodies (écrasement) within the crowd and to the asphyxiating heat generated by the voracious “devouring” of commodities. As Naomi Schor has shown in Zola’s Crowds, the curve or temporal cycle of the female crowd involves the stages of emptiness, swelling, saturation, discharge, and emptiness, and is therefore patterned primarily on a sexual model that is “orgasmic in its intensity and physiological manifestations” (85). Thus, violence and sexuality are conjugated inextricably in the crowd dynamic, sexual excitement rhyming with auto-destruction and asphyxiation.

Schor likewise identifies the curve of the crowd with another, concomitant phenomenon that pervades the text: a pathology of shopping based on the fever, symptomatic on both the physiological and the psychological levels. In the text, the frantic delirium of the crowd often leads to mass “fièvre,” “détraquement,” “névrose” (644) and “rage” (792). The fever, with both a pathological and a passional valence, situates the practice of shopping within a logic of increasing corporeal danger and arousal, as we have seen. To associate the sale-shopping with madness and neurosis opens yet another field of bodily harm, of which the chief symptom appears to be the violence of the crowd that is both externally and internally directed: the pushing and shoving, as well as the wreckage left in its wake described repeatedly as “massacre” and “carnage.”

Shopping is further pathologized through the emergence and diagnosis of kleptomania, a new, criminal perversion born of the modern consumer experience and linked specifically to the department store in Zola’s text as in medical records of the time.7 In the novel, Mouret addresses this worrisome trend in theft, both gendered as feminine and classed as bourgeois, in terms of its perpetrators: “Les voleuses par manie, une perversion du désir, une névrose nouvelle qu’un aliéniste avait classée, en y constatant le résultat aigu de la tentation exercée par les grands magasins” (632). The character Madame de Boves represents this criminal profile flawlessly, and it is explained of her: “Elle volait pour voler, comme on aime pour aimer, sous le coup de fouet du désir, dans le détraquement de la névrose que ses appétits de luxe inassouvis avaient développée en elle, autrefois, à travers l’énorme et brutale tentation des grands magasins” (792).

Desire and temptation perverted into madness, kleptomania becomes, unsurprisingly in this century that invented hysteria, yet another “mania” of the fundamentally tainted female reproductive economy.8 As comorbidity is elevated to causality, disordered menstruation becomes the hallmark of the “disease”. In addition, pregnant women are profiled for a particular weakness for shoplifting, as depicted in Zola’s novel, and some clinical case studies even go so far as to hint at a kind of orgasmic pleasure experienced by the perpetrator in the act of theft.9 Therefore, although a certain gynecological determinism is accused in kleptomania, the department store actually triggers this latent defect, and thus the female body, in its sexual activation for commercial purposes, becomes trapped as agent of its own criminality and subsequent vilification.

From simulated to reified bodies, desiring bodies to bodies under attack, we can ultimately situate the department store in terms of a dialectic of feminine seduction and exploitation, the circulation of goods and money played out on the female body alternately as sexual activation, self-fetishization, drive toward destruction, and disease. Arguably quite far from being a ladies’ paradise, the department store welcomes the woman into the public commercial sphere with the promise of a kind of self-purchase that paradoxically only drives her further from self-possession. As Peter Brooks has argued in Body Work:

“While this [sale of woman’s body to woman] might seem to suggest a primal narcissism of women, or an invitation to them to possess their own bodies, there is rather an alienation of women from their bodies, which have been taken over by the (male-owned and –managed) market economy, defined and fetishized by that economy, and offered back to women in piecemeal form, through the cash nexus.” (154)

The woman’s body, no longer private property but rather fetishized commodity, circulates inexorably and vertiginously through the modern marketplace, frantically purchasing that which it can never own.

Yet, our reading of Au Bonheur des Dames is intrinsically problematic to the extent that it falls short of engaging the novel’s unequivocally triumphant conclusion, the apotheosis of Denise, whose messianic “coming” has been anticipated throughout the novel, and whose toute-puissance emanates with the promise of hope, humanity and regeneration. The question remains of whether Zola can really expect his readers to “buy” this narrative of redemption, that he himself has described as “triomphe de la femme aimée, devant la femme exploitée”, 10 impossibly anomalous in a century where the literary protocol of the female body as commodity, of which Nana is the evident example from the Zolian canon, more often leads to its total destruction than its salvation.

Ultimately, however, to read the novel exclusively in terms of the exploitation of and the violence directed against women would be to neglect entirely the commercial glow of the spectacle of the commodity, a portrait of the department store as resplendent as it is troubling, as its many avatars attest: monster, bordello, machine and temple. Consumption itself, ambivalent in its etymology from the Latin consumere, “to take away with” or “to use up entirely”, and consummare, “to make the sum” or “to sum up” as Rosalind Williams has shown, is both destruction and achievement, “submission to entropy and triumph over it” (5-7). It is no surprise, then, that the nascent modernity prefiguring Baudrillard’s société de consommation finally proves to be irreconcilably ambivalent, oscillating eternally between money and desire, desire and exploitation, exploitation and enchantment.



1 As cited in Henri Mitterand’s “Étude” of Au Bonheur des Dames in the Pléiade edition of Les Rougon-Macquart, p. 1680.

2 Interestingly, even the most recent English translation for Brian Nelson’s 1998 Oxford World’s Classics edition fails to render this image translatable, settling instead on: “that model of rectitude, whom he usually charged with the task of reprimanding negligent staff”, p. 43.

3 It is perhaps of interest to note in passing that the practice of using live mannequins was not, in fact, unheard of at this time; Paris’s most renowned and sought-after dress-maker, Worth, was using live models in his displays as early as the 1850’s according to Hillel Schwartz in The Culture of the Copy: Striking Likenesses, Unreasonable Facsimiles, p. 114.

4 As seen in Linda Nochlin’s work on The Body in Pieces: The Fragment as a Metaphor of Modernity.

5 It is also perhaps worth noting that the items displayed constitute almost without exception the archetypal Freudian fetish objects: velours, silks, laces, furs, gloves, stockings, undergarments and umbrellas.

6 For a fascinating discussion of the sexualization of the commodity as considered through the lens of representations of eroticized femininity in the print culture of nineteenth-century France, see Abigail Solomon-Godeau’s “The other side of Venus: The visual economy of the feminine display.”

7 See for example Elaine Abelsons’s article “The invention of kleptomania,” Signs 15 (1989), p. 123-143.

8 Along with the other “menstrual psychoses”: pyromania, dipsomania, homicidal and suicidal monomania (O’Brien 68).

9 See O’Brien 68.

10 In Zola’s preparatory notes, cited in Mitterand’s “Étude”, p. 1698.



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 Bethany Hetrick is a PhD student in the French Department at New York University, having received her BA from Allegheny College in 2003.  Her major research interests include late-19th and early 20th-century French literature.