Louis XVI drawing room with brasses and brocatelleugly ceiling of old dark factory warehouse roomOne thing Émile Zola handles particularly well in his novel The Ladies’ Paradise is contrast.

The existence or absence of contrast in a novel is, in fact, a pretty good indicator of quality. After all, it is only in relation to other things that we are able to perceive anything with any degree of accuracy or understanding.

Can we fully understand and appreciate joy and excitement without having sometime seen sorrow and frustration? What is virtuous living—or to use a more modern and secular term, wholehearted living—if not something to be contrasted with despicable or tormented living?

And so we have, in Zola’s novel, a rich character who hosts a social gathering “in her large Louis XVI. drawing-room, the brasses and brocatelle of which shone out with a clear gaiety.”

Her well-off guests drink tea and eat sponge cake surrounded by luxurious brass furnishings and brocatelle—the word means “raised design on upholstery or curtains”—and it is all very fancy and sophisticated and immaculate and charming.

Meanwhile, the employees of The Ladies’ Paradise dine noisily in the damp basement: all packed in together, eating less than palatable food. Everyone feels crowded, overworked, and hungry. And then comes one of my favorite lines in the novel:

“The walls reeked with moisture, a slow asphyxia fell from the moldy ceiling.”

This is, of course, a translation from the original French; but in English, anyway, it’s a stunning line. Asphyxia cannot actually fall from anywhere—the word means “lack of oxygen” or “suffocation” . . . and yet we know precisely what is meant. We can feel it! I wish I could read this line in the original French and experience it as it was written; but I’ll have to remain content, for now, with this version—and I’m more than content with it!

What are the best and worst social dining environments you’ve experienced?

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