Representation of commodities within The Old Curiosity

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This essay considers the use of commodities in the two novels The Ladies Paradise, and The Old Curiosity Shop. Both authors use commodities as symbols of cultural growth and change, and, at times, the commodity becomes a site through which to examine the influence that consumer culture has upon moral values. This essay will include close readings of selected passages, making comparisons between late Victorian London society, as expressed through the work of Dickens, and mid to late nineteenth-century Parisian culture as discussed by Zola.

In The Ladies Paradise Zola immediately presents the commodity as having a central place in his text - central not only to the desires and fortunes of his characters, but to the structure of the narrative itself. For example, when Denise first arrives at the department store we see her transfixed by the arrangement of goods outside:

Denise stood transfixed before the display at the main door. There, outside in the street, on the pavement itself, was a mountain of cheap goods, placed at the entrance as a bait, bargains which stopped the women as they passed by. It all cascaded down: pieces of woollen material and fabric, merino, cheviot, flannelette, were falling from the mezzanine floor, flapping like flags, their neutral tones - slate grey, navy blue, olive green - broken up by the white of the price cards. [1] 

This pause in time - before she steps inside, where Denise contemplates the objects - denotes a moment of reflection where she is effectively leaving behind her old role to adopt something new. Zola presents this moment almost as a rite de passage that initiates her into the world of consumer culture. The commodities are ascribed with a life of their own - as part of a movement that arrests the attention of the onlooker - it 'cascaded down'; different fabrics 'falling' and 'flapping like flags.' These references withhold more complex ideas about how Zola saw the place of commodities in his novel, and within his Parisian culture. His referring to the pieces of material as flags suggests that he intends the commodity of clothing to represent the idea that consumer culture was a major driving force behind the motivations and aspirations of nineteenth-century Parisians. In other words, consumerism had become emblematic in society, offering the potential of uniting people in their search for financial and material gain. Yet, set within this world in Zola's novel is the concern for the place of the individual in society. The exchange of commodities - within a department store environment - allowed women to experience an as yet unseen degree of freedom, which in turn altered their relationship between their inner world and their outer. As critic Barbara Caine notes, the introduction of the department store in the later half of the nineteenth century meant a fundamental change in the way of life for middle class women. An increasing range of commodities caused shopping to become an activity: department stores educated women about the presence of trends and fashions, thus broadening patterns of consumption and allowing them insight into the social and commercial world. [2] As Brian Nelson says in his introduction to Zola's novel:

The department store [..] is an ambiguous symbol of progress. It helped women to establish themselves historically in the public sphere, and it may appear to have increased the customer's power and autonomy' but, as Zola shows, the new codes of social behaviour and social discourses which it entailed for the shopper simultaneously organized a powerful network of constraints, providing a mere illusion of freedom and fulfilment.' [3] 

Victorian society witnessed when the exchange of commodities changed from a day to day necessity to become something high bourgeois and fashionable. This was what Walter Benjamin was to later refer to as the 'Hell' that is also the 'Golden Age' - when modernity gave birth to fashion, advertising, and consumerism, but also to a decline in the value of the individual, especially the woman. Brantlinger terms this the 'growing hegemony of commodity fetishism - a culture of "immediate sensible evidence" built on the phantasmagoria of consumerist desire' - where prostitution in the capitalist cities meant that the woman prostitute "appears not merely as a commodity but as a mass-produced article." [4] As Zola's novel highlights, it was not that women were necessarily forced into certain courses of action - as Denise manages to avoid - rather their natures were so that they were easily led by the idea that the accumulation of wealth and material goods held the illusive promise of a better life. An article written in 1886 by Otis Stuart commented on the spread of prostitution in America, calling it the "blackest spot upon our civilization [..] largely resultant from the low wages of women," yet it was the nature of women, who were keen to remain at the forefront of what was popular and entertaining:

"The nature of woman -- lively, sympathetic, shrinking -- craves protection and companionship and entertainment. Low wages [deprive a woman of these). She is starved, body and soul, for want of money. . . . But if the wages of labor will not bring her companionship and amusement, the wages of sin will, and woman, in utter desperation from selling her labor, stoops to selling herself." [5] Further commentary by Frank Copley suggested that behind the plight of women in poverty was their own inability to exist within a budget; furthermore, this was true also of men. As Glickman explains: 'for organized male workers this inability was a sign of their need for higher wages; but for women it was taken as a sign of depravity. Desire, it seems, gained men manhood and women whoredom.' [6] 

Zola's analysis of consumer culture observes how both men and women allow themselves to be manipulated by the financial significance of the commodity - to the extent where they forget how to engage in social interaction without the motivation of material gain. For instance, when the clothing assistant Hutin is trying to encourage a group of women to buy something he waits, 'hiding his impatience behind a smile which never left his lips,' while one of the ladies later answers: 'no, thank you, another time,' she replied coolly, not looking at him any more than she had at Mignot.' [7] It is these sort of selling techniques and the relationship between salesperson and the female consumer that were to alter traditional cultural and social values. A sense of the genuine became replaced by market manipulation, where products were placed in certain eye-catching positions and as much as possible was done on the part of sales representatives to encourage impulse buying. As G. R Searle observes in his book Morality and the Market in Victorian Britain:

middleclass Britons who broadly sympathized with the development of a commercial society grappled with the problem of how the logic of the market could be reconciled with what they took to be their irreducible religious, moral, and social duties. [8] 

Zola's department store was modelled on Le Bon Marche, a famous Parisian department store established in 1838. Like the fictional shop, the department store had the monopoly over other local shops, threatening their businesses, and forcing some to close. By contrast, Dickens' Old Curiosity Shop - a small, unique business - is a setting through which Dickens explores how the exchange of commodities can facilitate the disintegration of the sublime human state. We see how Nell and her grandfather, escape from the dwarf Quilp and his legal accomplice, Mr Brass - who is described as 'the ugliest of goods in all the stock'. Upon reaching the relative safety of the countryside, Nell and her grandfather lament how they wish to be free from the material trappings of their previous existence; 'away' from the city and its financial allures - 'I shall never feel ill again, now that we are once away [..] we must be further away - a long, long way further.' [9] In contrast to the constraints of city life as expressed by Dickens, Zola presents the Ladies' Paradise - as an ideal, yet unsustainable, 'place' to inhabit. The interior of the department store, structured around the arrangement of commodities, becomes an all-encompassing world to its inhabitants - where they routinely traverse the aisles between fabrics and clothing, sometimes making a 'detour' if the incentive is strong enough. On a more complex level, the consumer is participating in a self-deceiving reality - where the promise offered by wealth ultimately leads to nowhere.

For Dickens, the underpinning of society by economic and financial concerns has made inaccessible the original paradisal human state - what could be referred to as ancient or primordial state of being, existing before commerce. Nell seeks to realise the childhood that she never truly knew, while her grandfather imagines life without the strain of financial concern:

We will travel afoot through fields and woods, and by the side of rivers, and trust ourselves to God in the places where He dwells. It is far better to lie down at night beneath an open sky like that yonder - see how bright it is - than to rest in close rooms which are always full of care and weary dreams [..] poor Nell, thy cheek is pale and thy eyes are heavy with watching and weeping [..] Tomorrow morning, dear, we'll turn our faces from this scene of sorrows, and be as free and happy as the birds.' [..]

The child's heart beat high with hope and confidence. She had no thought of hunger or cold, or thirst, or suffering. She saw in this but a return of the simple pleasures they had once enjoyed, a relief from the gloomy solitude in which she had lived, an escape from the heartless people by whom she had been surrounded in her late time of trial, the restoration of the old man's health and peace, and a life of tranquil happiness. [10] 

Thus, Dickens' work is allegorical - suggesting a struggle between the instinctive ways of moral human conduct and the more sinister and manipulative desire for material gain. In the passage above we see how the mind - both young and old - seeks to transcend the limitations - the 'gloomy solitude' - imposed upon it by the world of the city. However, Dickens' vision offers only a temporary solution to this problem, as once out of London, Nell, notwithstanding the strain of her ordeal, eventually dies. Anthony O'Keefe suggests that the novel is centred around the notion of opposites - 'so distinctly at odds with each other that they create an immediate sense of the book's splitting irreparably into exclusive halves - sets of styles, characters, and ideas impossible to connect or relate.' [11] We see these opposites in Dickens' themes of poverty and wealth; vitality and illness; city and rural, and between the characters themselves. The commodity is the physical and metaphysical unifier of these disparate elements of the novel; the currency that links together the experiences of such diverse characters - first within the confines of the city of London, and then within the broader landscape of Britain.

To conclude, Dickens presents the commodity as easily transferable between people and circumstance, in its universality the commodity is both a unifying and destructive force within the novel: on the one hand facilitating the old man's cause to ensure a better future for Nell in the city - where life is underpinned by the exchange of commodities and services - and on the other facilitating his own, and his granddaughter's demise - in the country, where the commodity has less significance. It appears that the two novelists, working contemporaneously in Europe, wrote about the similar problem of morality and conduct being threatened by the unprecedented spread of consumer culture. As an 1883 article in John Swinton's Paper reminds us - the desire to consume was so prevalent that it was compared to the medical condition of 'consumption' [12] Both Dickens and Zola explore how the oppressive weight and responsibility of the world of commodities can wear the human character, and that it requires a degree of resistance to survive the temptations and manipulations involved in commercial exchange. What Zola distinguishes is the extent to which the importance placed on commodities monopolised towns and cities, and how department stores threatened the livelihoods of the smaller shopkeepers; he discussed this issue by ascribing the commodity with an exaggerated importance - both within the text and within the perspectives of the characters themselves. Whereas for Dickens the commodity was used as a unifying element of his story, linking together the lives of otherwise disconnected characters.