“Urban Agency: A Psychogeographical Reading of Denise's fuites in Au Bonheur des Dames

40th Annual Nineteenth-Century French Studies Colloquium
October 16th-18th, 2014
San Juan, Puerto Rico

This paper proposes an analysis of two scenes in Émile Zola’s Au Bonheur des Dames (1883): Denise’s initial arrival in Paris having escaped the relative poverty of Valognes, and her flight from Mouret’s emporium, after she is fired for suspected sexual deviance at the workplace. In each instance, Denise appears unable to control her trajectory through the streets of Paris, with the city itself redirecting her to the neighborhood’s hallmark department store. I argue that her experiences closely resemble the dérive, a psychogeographical concept developed by the Situationnistes of the 1950s, in which an individual abandons him- or herself to the guiding forces of the metropolitan setting.

Paris’s influence on the proceedings of the novel suggests that the city exerts agency over its residents. In his Roman expérimental (1881), Zola addresses this agency explicitly, declaring “dès ma vingtième année, j’avais rêvé d’écrire ce roman, dont Paris, avec l’océan de ses toitures, serait un personnage.” Describing an urban space as a character proves problematic, however, since the term character connotes the representation of a human being. I conclude, therefore, by challenging the term character itself and recentering the discussion around the Barthesian notion of participation, whereby human and non-human entities alike can affect the plot line. We are left to reconsider the relationship between the individual and his or her environment within the theoretical context of urban studies and geopoetics. Does the urban inhabit the human just as much as the human inhabits the urban?