Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Zola's metaphors, of one kind or another - It was as if the god of cloth had his own white tabernacle

Zola’s Au Bonheur des Dames was a good novel to read intermittently because of Zola’s taste for the big, chapter-length scene.  I just had to bull through a chapter and then time could pass, just as it did in the novel.  The beginning of a typical chapter catches me up on what happened in the white space between chapters, and then the long scene begins, often a day in the life of the department store.  Maybe there is a big sale, or it is inventory day.  Maybe we start with Mouret, the owner, who in his tour of the store crosses paths with Denise, our heroine, so the story can switch to her.  Or start with Denise, until Mouret wanders by.  Or start with some minor characters, shoppers, one of whom is a shopaholic, who at some point encounter etc. etc. 

Not that the novel has such a strong plot, but I was impressed by how much storytelling, including some pretty soapy stuff, Zola could do with this device.  But it is also useful for showing the workings of the store, from the goods unloaded in the basement to the bad food in the upstairs employee commissary.

My favorite aspect of Zola is his metaphorical exuberance, as with the “Symphony of Cheeses” in The Belly of Paris (1873), so it was disappointing that Au Bonheur des Dames is relatively restrained in its metaphorical language.  Descriptions of store displays are often pure long lists, just colors and forms and types of cloth.  I am tempted to quote a paragraph in Chapter IX describing a complex display of umbrellas, which does contain one simile (they are like “big Venetian lanterns”) but is mostly just colors and locations (umbrellas run up the columns and staircases and placed to form stars, like that).

But I now think metaphorical excess would distract from the concept.  I mean, the department store itself, and every part of it, is a blaring metaphor for our current period of Early-mid Capitalism, distinguished by advertising, shopaholism, and massive ever-changing piles of the most amazing stuff.  So it is sufficient for Zola to describe the thing itself, and unnecessary to say what it is like.  It is like so many things, too many things.  It is still the world in which we live, even if today’s Zola might write a novel set in an Amazon distribution warehouse.

Having said this, in the extraordinary final chapter XIV, Zola apparently decided to cut loose. Mouret, a “genius” of the “art of display,” throws a giant white sale in which the entire store is decorated in white. 

Nothing but white, all the white articles of each department, a riot of white, a white star whose fixed ray blinded at first, so one could not distinguish the details, in the middle of this unique whiteness…  [many white items, gloves and handkerchiefs and so on]… up to the second floor; and this ascent of white took wings, hurried and lost, like a flight of swans…  long jets of lace (guipure) seemed to hang from the swarms of immobile, humming white butterflies…  One would say like a great white bed, which in its virginal enormity awaited, like in the legends, the white princess, who must come one day, all powerful, with the white bridal veil.

It’s a “song of white,” it’s a church,  it’s a “fugue” with “complicated orchestration.  “It was as if the god of cloth had his white tabernacle.”  (“Il semblait que le dieu du chiffon eût là son tabernacle blanc.”)  The god of cloth!  It is everything.  If Zola titled his chapters, this one would be “The Whiteness of the Wh-ite S-ale.”

And this massive display not only prefigures the triumph of the department store – its first million-franc day – but the resolution of the romantic plot, the triumph of the heroine, who it turns out is the all-powerful princess and the store is the marriage bed.  “[A]ll-powerful” is actually the last word of the novel, although it describes the arms of Mouret, the owner, which I take as an irony, since it is Denise who is the big winner.

Translations, likely full of instructive errors, are mine.


  1. “The Whiteness of the Wh-ite S-ale.” Well played! I hadn't really considered how Zola is an encylopedist as well as a mapmaker and listophile. Moby-Dick as a sprawling social novel, the Pequod a synechdote of the market economy, or something.

    1. It is a specialized joke. Elaine Showalter also admires the white sale chapter, and she gets very very close to the joke, but does not quite go for it.

  2. Oh good, someone saw that joke. I was beginning to worry.

    Zola had the sense to not want, like Melville, to put everything he knew in every book, but you are right that he had the encyclopedist's instincts. If he were an 18th century writer, all of his research, into department store management or coal mining or whatever, might well have gone straight into the Encyclopédie.

  3. Oh, alright. I saw it, too. The Whiteness was pretty good. I almost commented earlier, but I haven't read the novel and nothing profound (not that I ever do, but particularly this time) to say...

  4. You would probably do pretty well with Zola, although this does not seem like one of his best novels. If only it were all like the Whiteness of the White Sale.