Consumerism has been a part of human culture since the man has obtained the possibility to own more goods than it was necessary for his basic needs. On a large scale, this phenomenon was introduced with the industrial revolution, when such goods became cheap enough to be affordable not only to the elite but also to the general public. A lot of effort has been put into studying it from a psychological, social, and anthropological perspective.
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Naturally, the literature, which is among the first representatives of art when it comes to social commentary, has been exploring the issue of consumerism extensively. This paper deals with two prominent works that explore consumerism: The Ladies’ Paradise by Émile Zola and Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert. These two works, while using different approaches and tone in addressing the issue of consumerism in contemporary society, offer similar commentary and treatment of the issue, depicting consumer behavior as a vain and mindless activity that gives consumers the false sense of fulfillment while stripping their life of true values.
Madame Bovary, by Gustave Flaubert is often regarded as a milestone of the Realistic literature and his masterpiece. The novel gained much notoriety upon its release because of its explicit depiction of the underside of the bourgeois life. The author contrasts the outer higher aspirations of the middle and higher class to the actual deception of moral code and vanity endorsed by it. Consumerism plays an important part as one of the key vices of the titular character, Emma Bovary.
While not being defined as an isolated phenomenon before the first half of the twentieth century, its motives and key features are recognizable even in the European society of the 1850s. Emma, the wife of a country doctor Charles Bovary, is experiencing disappointment in life as she is constantly facing the boredom and emptiness of rural life. In an attempt to battle it, she turns to adultery and luxury lifestyle, which quickly exceeds her husband’s capabilities and eventually leads to his financial ruin. This overconsumption is one key characteristic of the disruptive behavior exhibited by Emma and apparently disproved by the author.
An interesting thing to note here is the fact that while her spending is only limited to items like firewood, candles and sugar,1 She subsequently falls to the clever scheme by Monsieur Lheureux, a merchant who offers loans and buying goods on credit.2 It is an easily recognizable pattern that is familiar to the public today – aggressive marketing and crediting policies used by modern companies are often accused of being deceptive and disruptive for the consumers. It is also worth noting that while the novel is often cited as a commentary on moral degradation, the reasons for Emma’s suicide and Charles’ ruin are financial in nature.
Flaubert is unambiguous in his treatment of consumerism. He openly points to its adverse effects, depicting the characters unsympathetically and with irony, often adhering to stark contrasts between the proclaimed elevated ideals and the grounded reality, such as the scene of passionate exchange of words of love between Emma and one of her lovers which is followed by the scene of sale of a cow.3 The author’s accusative stance on consumerism was so evident and concrete that his novel has become a trope namer, leading to the emergence of the informal term “Bovary syndrome” to characterize a woman who leads an excessive and extravagant lifestyle that prompts her massive financial debt.
The Ladies’ Paradise by Émile Zola takes a different approach, both in tone and narrative, but addresses the same phenomenon. The novel follows the life of Denise Bandu, who comes to Paris with her two little brothers. Denise starts working in a department store and experiences the world of commerce from the inside.
The store’s owner, Octave Mouret, is using the progressive sales techniques, like aggressive marketing, large-scale advertisement, the innovative customer services, such as refunds and goods delivery, and recreational rooms and novelties.4 Each of these techniques is displayed through the eyes of the customers and is thoroughly explained, like reorganizing of goods which, according to Mouret, will cause customers to wander around the shop rather than exit after the intended purchase, boosting sales.5
However, rather than scorning at the society permeated by the consumerism, Zola depicts it with joyous admiration. He often adheres to recounting the goods on display in stores’ windows, emphasizing the variety of color, fabric, fashion,6 And even types of umbrellas7 And focusing on the character’s admiration with this abundance. It is important to note that these descriptions are more often than not accompanied with the prices either in the form of a price tag, or just a description of “cheap” or “expensive.” By doing this, the author emphasizes the inevitable additional category of modern society. However, unlike Flaubert, he is not openly bitter about this.
Rather, he sees it as an inevitable change that has come and is here to stay. His characters, while consuming wildly and uncontrollably, still retain the complexity of character, rather than serve as an example of vanity and moral decay. They are often seen arguing against succumbing to mindless buying spree, which implies that consumers at that time already demonstrate the understanding of inner works of commerce. In one lengthy scene, one of the characters, Madame Marty, is seen buying two scarves and a pair of gloves8 Despite being vocal about her determination to buy a braid and leave.
Her companion, Madame de Boves, is supposedly contrasted to her, being described as detesting such techniques. Yet another customer, Madame Bourdelais, explains to Madame Marty her understanding of “exploiting” stores’ discount policies, buying only what is necessary, and being impenetrable to manipulation.9 The whole scene is ironic, given the conversation is taking place in the middle of the frantic shopping spree, and all three women were previously hypnotized by the goods and sales pitches.
Despite being much more detailed than Flaubert in describing the workings of salespeople and consumers, Zola instead offers little judgment on this part. He depicts consumerism as an integral part of the modern world, comical, wild, yet beyond the categories of good or evil.
His description of marketing strategies lacks the pejorative attitude that is common today. Instead of putting consumption in the category of moral vices, he offers an amusing insight into it, and possibly arranges it to look more entertaining to the reader, like the ability for humankind to watch itself from the new perspective and make its own decision about if it is alarming or just pleasant.
In all, both works can be seen as a social commentary on the consumerism. However, while Flaubert’s work offers its conclusions, Zola’s novel can only serve as a source for reaching it by reader’s own means without providing definitive clues or justifications.
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Flaubert, Gustave. Madame Bovary. New York: W.W. Norton, 2005.
Zola, Emile. The Ladies’ Paradise. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.
- Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary (New York: W.W. Norton, 2005), 36.
- Ibid., 88.
- Ibid., 211.
- Emile Zola, The Ladies’ Paradise (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), 243.
- Ibid., 237.
- Ibid., 6.
- Ibid., 243.
- Ibid., 244.
- Ibid., 245.