What is a summary of Au Bonheur Des Dames by Émile Zola?

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Tamara K. H. eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Novel 11 of Émile Zola's "Rougon-Macquart series," titled Au Bonheur des Dames, which translates to The Ladies' Paradise, details life during the birth of the department store concept during the middle of the 19th century. The department store in the novel, called by the same name in the title, is modeled after Le Bon Marche in Paris and is owned by the character Octave Mouret, a widower.

The 20-year-old protagonist Denise Baudu arrives in Paris with her brothers from the small provincial town of Valognes. All are now orphaned since their parents' death. She hopes to find a job in their uncle's shop, but Mouret's expansion of the store competes with the small shop owners in the neighborhood, taking all their customers, representing a major conflict in the novel.

Denise must take a job at Au Bonheur des Dames instead, but the pay is too poor for her to be able to provide for her family. She is discovered working other jobs alongside working in the department store, which is contractually forbidden, and is dismissed. Her uncle's friend offers her a job in his own failing shop, which she accepts until she can find a new position. Yet when Mouret's department store closes even Denise's new store, Denise is forced to try and get her old position reinstated at the Au Bonheur des Dames. Mouret's persecution of the small shop owners due to his ever increasing desire to expand ruins the shop owners' lives to the extent that daughters and wives lose their lives and homes are lost to Mouret.

Upon Denise's return, a new conflict arises when Mouret finds himself falling in love with her. This is particularly an internal conflict for Mouret who, after his wife's death, decided to never marry again but to instead take advantage of women to grow his fortune. Mouret takes advantage of Parisian women by flooding their senses with far too many purchasing options, including an array of expensive fabrics, ready-to-wear clothing, accessories, and even furniture and decor items, all displayed in an exhilarating manner, enticing them to buy far more than they normally would. Mouret's internal conflict concerning Denise is deepened when Denise rejects him, knowing he is simply trying to buy her affection.

Becoming disgruntled by the rumors being spread throughout the store of Denise being Mouret's mistress and wanting to maintain her integrity, Denise decides to leave the store again. However, Mouret realizes he cannot live without her and decides to ask her for her hand in marriage rather than see her go.

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