Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1987
Largely viewed as a thinly veiled, satiric depiction of the author’s year as a personal assistant toVogue magazine’s celebrated editor Anna Wintour, The Devil Wears Prada is essentially a two-character novel that pits a powerful woman boss against her resentful personal assistant, also a woman. The devil of the...
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Largely viewed as a thinly veiled, satiric depiction of the author’s year as a personal assistant toVogue magazine’s celebrated editor Anna Wintour, The Devil Wears Prada is essentially a two-character novel that pits a powerful woman boss against her resentful personal assistant, also a woman. The devil of the title is Miranda Priestly, the most influential woman in the fashion world and prominent editor of the major fashion magazine here called Runway. Despite the fact that Miranda is a moral monster, she is nevertheless the life and soul of the narrative. A rude and irrational figure, her outrageous conduct provides the narrative with its most entertaining episodes. Miranda is presented in such a way that she becomes the proverbial villain one loves to hate. Her existence colors every moment in this novel, including those in which she is actually absent—her great and dreadful spirit seems to hover menacingly even over those times and places that lack her physical presence. Like a powerful witch or goddess, her psyche seems to pervade every corner of her assistant Andrea’s existence, eating away at her personal life and relationships and dominating the narrative with powers that seem almost magical.
Outrageously thin, extraordinarily chic, and fantastically beautiful, Miranda can command a room simply by entering it and, as a result, seems to have no need for ordinary mortal manners and graces. She assumes that there will always be a team of sycophants and servants who will be at her beck and call and who will cater to her every whim. As her personal assistant, Andrea runs endless errands, including not only banalities such as attending to the dry cleaning but also impossible feats such as procuring an advance copy of the newest installment of the Harry Potter books and sending it, at tremendous expense, to Miranda’s children in Paris, or hunting endlessly for a special new restaurant on deliberately insufficient and misleading information provided by Miranda herself.
Andrea must also procure Miranda’s coffee and meals, especially purchasing endless hot breakfasts each morning so that Miranda will have one waiting for her whenever she chooses to arrive in the morning. The spending of the magazine’s money on these numerous uneaten breakfasts is indicative of the general aura of extravagance that accompanies Miranda wherever she goes. She regularly holds deluxe parties at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is showered with expensive gifts by the various designers who court her approval, purchases a $40,000 Chanel gown which then immediately costs $670 to dry clean, and has a standing order for hundreds of trademark white Hermes scarves, which she will then carelessly lose, soil, or discard.
The comparatively frumpy Andrea is also subjected to numerous slights and insults by the always-elegant Miranda—she is forbidden, for instance, to hang her coat near Miranda’s in the closet. She cannot eat in front of her boss or go to the bathroom if it means no one will be available to answer Miranda’s phone for her. Miranda also belittles Andrea by never thanking her for the various services she is required to perform at any hour of the day and night and often seems deliberately to demonstrate Andrea’s unimportance in the scheme of things by referring to her by another assistant’s name.
Weisberger adds a certain explanatory layer to Miranda by giving her a rags-to-riches background; it is revealed early on that she was born Miriam Princhek and changed her name and lost her Cockney accent as her talent and drive propelled her to the top of her profession. Although even the beleaguered and resentful Andrea recognizes that Miranda has made herself into a brilliant and even visionary editor, her power and status at this point have insulated and infantilized her to such a degree that she appears to be losing touch with reality. Depending on the servants and assistants who are paid to wait on her, Miranda seems helpless when required to function autonomously. Andrea also discerns a deep unhappiness beneath Miranda’s elegant facade, for which her power, status, and fabulous wardrobe do not compensate.
What is being explored in the character of Miranda is not simply evil but the way in which evil “wears Prada”; that is, transpires in a system that seems to offer opportunities to women for success and for powerful positions and in which fashionable and expensive clothes such as those by the superstar designer Miuccia Prada validate their new status. Seen in this light, a stylish, intelligent woman such as Miranda can be interpreted as the dark outcome of a feminism that has permitted demonic impulses to run riot while masking them in the guise of a successful career woman.
Andrea Sachs, Miranda’s young new assistant, constitutes the second major subject of this story, which is told from her intensely critical perspective. Andrea’s satiric wit and sense of the absurd find in Miranda and her endless cruelties and snobberies a trove of comic possibility; it is her irreverent point of view that is responsible for the novel’s panache. Although often occasions for high humor, Andrea’s experiences with Miranda also resemble the archetypal story of Cinderella and her wicked stepmother, albeit one in which Miranda and Andrea reverse roles slightly: Miranda playing the part of a demanding and unstable child and Andrea that of an exasperated and overworked nanny who must compensate for Miranda’s regressed behavior with some semblance of responsible adult presence. In addition to being run ragged playing the part of a lowly Cinderella who must keep house for her heartless and entitled stepmother, Andrea also inhabits an Alice-in-Wonderland world in which Miranda plays the role of a sadistic creature who rules by fear, humiliation, and intimidation. Her relentless hazing seems to attempt to push Andrea to the brink of madness.
Although there are two young men who provide some romantic interest for Andrea, the novel is set in what is very much a woman’s world, revolving around the neurotic, highly charged relationship between a woman boss and her entrapped female assistant. The venue of a women’s fashion magazine, which sells seductive fantasies to women who measure their worth by them, reinforces the highly feminized space of the novel. The men are fairly shadowy and quickly drop away as Andrea is torn between the competing demands of her relationship with Miranda and that of Lily, a needy best friend who requires just the kind of mothering Andrea is lavishing on her boss.
If there is a male figure of any note in the novel, it is Eduardo, a gatekeeper who seems to act as a tacit ally of Miranda in his hazing of her minions, even as he sympathizes with their plight. When Eduardo ceases to bedevil her at the end of the novel, Andrea realizes she has undergone a rite of passage and earned his respect. When, for the first time, Eduardo treats her as if she is someone who matters, Andrea realizes that she has come into her own, no longer neurotically attached to Miranda or seduced by her false values.
Miranda’s false values include an obsession with personal appearance, status, and professional power. To the outside world Miranda is an example of a modern, successful businesswoman, but to the women of a younger generation who are working under her, and represented in this novel by Andrea, her way of life and her character are increasingly perceived as demonic. Although often appearing ungrateful and petulant, Andrea does speak to the anxieties of young women who are not sure they want to serve or, even worse, develop into the kind of iron-willed woman executives who came to power in their mothers’ generation. One major reason for this is a perceived sacrifice of personal relationships and a private life.
As Andrea becomes increasingly busy at work, she discovers that the cost is alienation from her good-hearted boyfriend, Alex, a teacher of underprivileged children, and, even more, a loss of a crucial bond between herself and her best friend, Lily. Because of her preoccupation with her job, Andrea fails to emotionally support Lily who, when left on her own, degenerates into self-destructive alcoholism. As Andrea’s job begins to displace her previous personal relationships, she does develop a new love interest, the trendy young novelist Christian Collinsworth. His membership in Miranda’s social set, however, along with his celebrity and his high-powered career suggests that he is a consequence of Andrea’s continued participation in Miranda’s world, estranging her further from her family and friends.
When Miranda insists that Andrea accompany her on an important business trip to Paris, Andrea is faced with a crisis that will define her future and will tell her what manner of person she is. Impressed by how well Andrea is doing as her assistant in Paris, Miranda takes a reasonably warm personal interest and offers her an opportunity to write some short pieces for Runway. Even more warmly, Miranda suggests that Andrea is the kind of woman Miranda was at the same age—that she is a Miranda in the making for the next generation. What should have been taken as a compliment comes to haunt Andrea, as she worries that in thirty years her life will be as empty, friendless, and shallow as Miranda’s appears to be.
Having failed to cut her trip short to fly to her friend Lily’s bedside in New York as Lily lies comatose after an accident, and having instead found herself becoming Miranda’s new protégé, Andrea does an about-face. Horrified by Miranda’s recognition of her as a possible psychological twin, she directs a popular four-letter curse word at her stunned boss, walks off the job, returns to New York to tend to the ailing Lily, and begins a new life as a writer of fiction with special appeal for teenage girls and young adult women. As a final gesture of defiance, Andrea purloins one of the designer dresses which are stored in the firm’s giant fashion closet and sends it on Miranda’s behalf to a poor young girl who had written Miranda a letter asking for a party frock. While Miranda would have ignored such a letter, or perhaps momentarily enjoyed the exquisite discrepancy between her wealth and power and the letter-writer’s lack thereof, Andrea attempts to redress this inequity and, in the process, demonstrates her own capacity for empathy and compassion, shown earlier as well by her care for Lily.
Although it has attracted a fair amount of negative critical attention, The Devil Wears Prada has achieved notable status not only because of its breezy wit but also because of its attunement to the concerns of young women attempting to be true to themselves in a world that rewards narcissism, power-seeking, and opportunism at the expense of lasting love and meaningful work. It is no coincidence that this novel’s happy ending involves Andrea selling fiction to a magazine for young women: It is this readership who will most enjoy this novel and to whom it speaks perhaps most profoundly. There is also an underlying serious purpose that interrogates the meaning of success and failure in American life and satirically corrects the conventional wisdom that presents a woman such as Miranda Priestly as a modern role model. The novel’s greatest strengths, however, lie in the author’s satiric energy, her sense of fearless fun, and her insider’s knowledge of the world of fashion, celebrity, money, and power, which she is able to render as convincingly and comically wicked.
The Atlantic Monthly 292, no. 1 (July/August, 2003): 146.
Booklist 99, no. 15 (April 1, 2003): 1355.
Kirkus Reviews 71, no. 4 (February 15, 2003): 268.
Library Journal 128, no. 6 (April 1, 2003): 132.
Los Angeles Times, May 28, 2003, p. E2.
The New York Times Book Review, April 13, 2003, p. 30.
Newsweek 141, no. 17 (April 28, 2003): 60.
Publishers Weekly 250, no. 11 (March 17, 2003): 53-54.
USA Today, May 8, 2003, p. D05.
The Wall Street Journal, April 18, 2003, p. W8.