Wednesday, 18 July 2007

Lessons that Walmart Could Learn from Zola

More Zola—can’t get enough of the man this summer as I try to get the feel of what 19th century Paris was like for my next book. I've just finished reading Au Bonheur des Dames (The Ladies’ Delight) which in outline sounds a lot like 1930s movie: Denise, a spunky girl from the country goes to work in big department store, catches the boss’s eye, refuses his advances, but ends up landing him anyway.

There’s more to the story, of course, since this is Zola. The background is Paris which is being rebuilt under Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann—boulevards cut through slums, ostensibly to bring light and cleanliness to the masses and do away with congestion in the center of the City of Light. Of course, fortunes are being made too, as those who own property in the rights-of-way of the new, broad streets make substantial profits when their land is expropriated. At the same time the first big department stores are changing retail trade radically since they can undercut the prices of small stores by wringing better deals from suppliers.

This drastic change is tough on shop owners and small merchants like the umbrella maker who befriends the plucky heroine. But even though Denise sees her uncle's fabric store going under, she finds her sympathies lie with the big stores. Zola says that Denise “was secretly in favour of the big stores in her instinctive love of logic and life.”

“You probably are more competent than me,” she tells her uncle, “but I’ll say what I think. Prices, rather than being set like they were before by 50 businesses, are set today by four or five, and they’re lower, .. It's just much better for the public, that’s all.“

I had to reread that several times, because that’s exactly same argument you get when Walmarts come into a city: people will benefit because the prices are lower. Zola couldn’t be advocating that kind of cut-throat business, not when he was such a champion of human rights! It wasn’t until I got to the end of the book, that I understood. The profits from the great department store where Denise works go in part to the betterment of workers—nurseries for the children of the workers, good food in the canteen, health care, things that were considered few places in the 1880s when the book was published. Walmart’s bosses might do well to read Zola, in fact.


C. B. Whittemore said...

Mary, how marvelous! Thank you for the book recommendation. I have just ordered it and look forward to being transported and inspired!

Mary Soderstrom said...

Hope you enjoy it. Zola seems to be having quite a boom among young readers here.