This Time, Shop with Meaning

Books Blog tells us how shopping, for Emma Bovary and others, not only busts bank accounts, but expands horizons. It is a dream of the cosmopolis.

Now it’s true that Madame Bovary’s racking up of credit and her consequent response when the bailiffs come knocking should be a dire lesson for us all. But for me, Flaubert’s novel is less a moral tale than a high point in the realist novel, showing us how individual dreams are inextricably entwined with, and find expression in, society. And shopping is part of modern society. It is not simply that Emma Bovary wants things. Shopping is a key to her dreams, a way of widening the horizons of her provincial, bourgeois but boring, life. In a beautiful passage, Emma imagines following the local goods carriers with their carts to Paris: “She followed them up and down the hills, through the villages, rolling along the main road by the light of the stars. But after a certain distance, she always came to a blur and her dream gave out. She bought herself a street-map of Paris, and with the tip of her finger, she went shopping in the capital. She walked up the boulevards, stopping at every turning, between the lines of the streets, passing the white squares that stood for houses.”

Shopping in modernity is not a simple matter of material greed. As Emma’s musings demonstrate, shopping links the localised world with the expanding horizons and dreams of the modern world. The arrival of the department store literally brought the big wide world within ordinary people’s grasp.