Gender and War in Zola’s Au Bonheur des Dames



In an early sketch for Au Bonheur des Dames, Zola remarks that he wants his new novel to be “the poem of modern-day activity.” “Thus,” he says, “a complete change of philosophy: no more pessimism; don’t show the stupidity and melancholy of life, show on the contrary its continual labor, the power and gaiety of its birth-giving. In a word, go with the century, express the century, which is a century of action and conquest, of effort on all fronts.”1 Zola’s main idea for the novel, we read further on, is that of a department store “absorbing, crushing all the small businesses of a neighborhood.” “But,” the author hastens to add, “I will not weep for them; on the contrary, for I want to show the triumph of modern activity; they are no longer of their time, too bad for them! they are crushed by the giant” (RM 3: 1681). Ten years later, this self-exhortation to “scientific” impersonality finds a suggestive echo in the narrated reflexion of one of the protagonists of La Débâcle, Zola’s epic portrayal of the Franco-Prussian War: “Maurice was in favor of war, he believed it to be inevitable, necessary to the very existence of nations. Isn’t life a war at every moment? Isn’t the very essence of nature that of continuous combat, the victory of the most worthy, force sustained and revitalized by action, life reborn always fresh from within death” (RM 5: 408)? As Zola makes abundantly clear, Maurice, despite the acuity of his “Darwinian”2 insights, represents the degenerate side of France, an empire exhausted by excessive pleasures and resting on the laurels of its glorious past.


Department Store Modern Activity Moral Ambiguity Female Customer Narrate Reflexion 
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  1. 1.
    Emile Zola, Les Rougon-Macquart: Histoire naturelle et sociale d’une famille sous le second Empire, ed. Henri Mitterand, 5 vols. (Paris: Gallimard, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, 1960–1967), 3: 1680. Hereafter, this work is cited parenthetically as RM.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    The scare quotes accompanying this reference to Darwinism are intended to signal my distance not only from Zola’s social Darwinism but also from any popular or scientific theory of evolution that neglects the random and contingent nature of genetic, morphological, and behavioral changes over time. Natural selection is not a universal optimizing process that can “explain” every characteristic of every existing species, nor is it a historical force that determines relative fitness exclusively at the level of the individual organism. Selection is determined in varying degrees by biological, environmental, and cultural factors, and occurs among groups as well as individuals, with the differentiation among groups sometimes being the more decisive effect for evolutionary history. Contrary, then, to the ruthless individualism, rigid hierarchism, and unilateral determinism that characterize Zola’s version of the “survival of the fittest,” altruism—the sacrifice of one’s own chances of survival in order to benefit the survival and reproduction of others—is a significant and demonstrable adaptive mechanism. Such is the case even if we can never know with certainty whether a given instance of altruism was “really” motivated by purely unselfish thoughts or impulses. See Sober and Wilson, Unto Others. For readings of Darwin that are sensitive to the heterogeneity and reciprocity of evolutionary forces, see Daniel C. Dennett, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life (New York: Touchstone, 1996) and Wilson, Psychosomatic, 63–95.Google Scholar
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    A glance at a few of the titles currently to be found in the “Business,” “Marketing,” or “Management” section of popular bookstores is revealing in this regard: Store Wars: The Battle for Mindspace and Shelfspace (by Judith Corstiens and Marcel Corstiens [New York: John Wiley, 1995]);Google Scholar
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  7. and Eating the Big Fish: How Challenger Brands Can Compete against Brand Leaders (by Adam Morgan [New York: John Wiley, 1999]).Google Scholar
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    “The national symbolic” names those official and popular discursive practices by means of which the national identity of a people is created and maintained. According to Lauren Berlant, desire circulates through these cultural images, rituals, monuments, and narratives to produce a “fantasy of national integration,” a simultaneously collective and personal historical memory that makes a particular nation-state appear not only intelligible but also inevitable to those individuals born within its geographic and political boundaries: “Modern citizens are born in nations and are taught to perceive the nation as an intimate quality of identity, as intimate and inevitable as biologically-rooted affiliations through gender or the family.” Since, however, this “pseudo-genetic condition” cannot fully control nor disguise the many complexities and ambiguities that are inherent in political, civil, and private spheres of life, the “content of this [national] fantasy” is not fixed and unchanging but instead “a matter of cultural debate and historical transformation.” See Lauren Berlant, The Anatomy of National Fantasy: Hawthorne, Utopia, and Everyday Life (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), 20, 22.Google Scholar
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    The fact that we now take for granted the easy cohabitation of the discourses of business and violence disguises the originary urgency of their association. Working from René Girard’s anthropology of mimetic desire, Michel Aglietta and André Orléan (La Violence de la monnaie [Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1982]) argue that the money form developed, historically, as a means of diffusing and controlling violent rivalry between exchanging parties. On this view, modern buying and selling relations are the expression of an “acquisitive violence” that has been displaced into socially normalized forms of competitive self-differentiation such as profit-making, speculation, and market monopoly. My point here is that something of this sublimated violence may rise close to the surface not only in moments of dire economic crisis (Aglietta and Orléan’s claim) but also in the smallest of day-to-day commercial transactions. Contrary to the consumerist cliché of shopping as therapy, the simple exchange of money and goods can provoke anxiety, panic, or aggression because the buyers and sellers involved remain at some level acutely aware of the vital role that money has to play in securing both bodily survival and social identity.Google Scholar
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    The punitive and moralizing tone of these passages appears to represent a perversion of what Thomas Laqueur has called “the humanitarian narrative”— detailed legal, medical, and novelistic descriptions of bodily injury that evoke compassion for the injured while raising questions of causality, responsibility, and equitable redress (see Thomas W. Laqueur, “Bodies, Details, and the Humanitarian Narrative,” in The New Cultural History, ed. Lynn Hunt [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989], 176–204). However, as Wai Chee Dimock reminds us in her Residues of Justice, 140–167, nineteenth-century humanitarianism did not eschew the infliction of pain as a form of moral pedagogy, a “purgative” (154) or curative suffering whose long-term benefit was calculated to minimize suffering within the community as a whole. According to this fundamentally economic form of reasoning, pain was a resource to be “instrumentally distributed” (162) among criminals, the poor, and other socially marginal groups, both for their own good and for the higher good of the nation. If, as both Dimock and Laqueur point out, the utilitarian rationalization of pain coincided historically with the rise of capitalism and the consolidation of the field of tort law (a consolidation driven, in large part, by the expanding rate of industrial accidents), then the same mode of cognition that enabled compassionate identification with the pain of others worked simultaneously to limit compassion; for instrumental thinking not only extended but also circumscribed, quite narrowly at times (see Dimock, Residues of Justice, 158–161), the boundaries of legal and moral responsibility for different types of harm. In this context, the apparent distance between Zola’s social and moral sensibilities in Germinal, on the one hand, and Au Bonheur des Dames, on the other, may be seen to reflect a more general contradiction endemic to humanitarianism itself. This is once again a contradiction between recognition and disavowal.Google Scholar
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    The Roussel Law, which was designed in part to discourage wet-nursing, was adopted by the National Assembly on 23 December 1874. It required that all children under the age of two who were placed with paid nurses or guardians outside their parents’ homes were subject to the surveillance of the state, “with the goal of protecting their lives and health.” … The law required both the parents who placed their children and the nurses who took them to register these facts with the local authorities. (George D. Sussman, Selling Mothers Milk: The Wet-Nursing Business in France, 1715–1914 [Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press], 1982, 166).Google Scholar
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    Compare Nietzsche’s “mnemotechnics,” an official technology of memory that strategically inflicts pain (penal violence, for example) to overcome collective forgetfulness and instill within the citizen both a social conscience and a sense of intrinsic national destiny (Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals and Ecce Homo, trans. Walter Kaufmann and R.J. Hollingdale [New York: Vintage Books, 1987], 57–96). For a detailed study of the ways in which sociocultural contexts can shape traumatic memories,Google Scholar
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    Jean Borie (Zola et les mythes [Paris: Seuil, 1971], 43) reads the recurrent motif of the fêlure (crack or gap) in Les Rougon-Macquart as the biological analogue of original sin or of a primordial crime (such as the founding murder in Freud’s Totem and Taboo).Google Scholar
  49. For Naomi Schor (Zola’s Crowds [Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978], 18), the fêlure designates the “first organic lesion” (RM 1: 3), the “origin of the ‘curse’ of the Rougon-Macquart family alluded to in the preface of La Fortune des Rougon.”Google Scholar
  50. Gilles Deleuze (Logique du sens [Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1969], 378) identifies the fêlure as “Death, the death Instinct,”Google Scholar
  51. while Michel Serres (Feux et signaux de brume, Zola [Paris: Editions Grasset, 1975], 59–70) elaborates a theory of the crack, or flaw, as a simultaneously organic and thermodynamic interchange between loss and excess, equilibrium and disequilibrium, suffering and healing. For Serres, the Zolien fêlure is a kind of energetic tension, an economy that keeps the physiological, genealogical, and textual motor moving, working, producing. In a reading more specifically concerned with sex and gender, Janet Beizer links this mythical fêlure directly to the sexual “fault” of Adélaïde, the hysterical matriarch of La Fortune des Rougon, such that female sexuality becomes the symbolic source “not only [of] the propagation of the eponymous Rougon-Macquart dynasty, but also [of] the analogous textual generation” (Ventriloquized Bodies, 172).Google Scholar
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© Vaheed Ramazani 2007

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