Nana (novel)  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Nana (Zola), full text

Nana is a novel by the French naturalist author Émile Zola. Completed in 1880, Nana is the ninth installment in the 20-volume Les Rougon-Macquart series, the object of which was to tell "The Natural and Social History of a Family under the Second Empire", the subtitle of the series.



A year before he started to write Nana, Zola did not know anything yet about the Variétés. It was Ludovic Halévy who invited him to see an operetta with him on February 15, 1878, and took him backstage. Halévy told him innumerable stories about the amorous life of the star — Anna Judic, whose ménage à trois would become the model for Rose Mignon, her husband, and Fauchery — and also about famous cocottes such as Blanche d'Antigny, Anna Deslions, Delphine de Lizy, and Hortense Schneider, an amalgam of which was to serve the writer as the basis for his principal character.

Plot summary

Nana tells the story of Nana Coupeau's rise from streetwalker to high-class cocotte during the last three years of the French Second Empire. Nana first appears in the end of L'Assommoir (1877), another of Zola's Rougon-Macquart series, in which she is portrayed as the daughter of an abusive drunk; in the end, she is living in the streets and just beginning a life of prostitution.

The new novel opens with a night at the Théâtre des Variétés. The Exposition Universelle (1867) has just opened its doors. Nana is 15 years old (the number 18 mentioned in the book is not more than a fig leaf). Zola had taken care to make this clear to his readers by publishing an elaborate family tree of the Rougon-Macquarts in the newspaper Le Bien Public in 1878 when he started writing Nana. Zola describes in detail the performance of La blonde Vénus, a fictional operetta modelled after Offenbach's La belle Hélène, in which Nana is cast as the lead. She has never been seen on a stage, but tout Paris is talking about her. When asked to say something about her talents, Bordenave, the manager of the theatre (he calls it the brothel), explains that a star doesn't have to know how to sing or act: Nana has something else, dammit, and something that takes the place of everything else. I scented it out, and it smells damnably strong in her, or else I lost my sense of smell. Just as the crowd is about to dismiss her performance as terrible, young Georges Hugon shouts: "Très chic!" From then on, she owns the audience, and, when she appears only thinly veiled in the third act, Zola writes: All of a sudden, in the good-natured child the woman stood revealed, a disturbing woman with all the impulsive madness of her sex, opening the gates of the unknown world of desire. Nana was still smiling, but with the deadly smile of a man-eater.

The novel then goes on to show how Nana destroys every man who pursues her: Philippe Hugon, Georges' brother, imprisoned after stealing from the army, his employer, for Nana; Steiner, a wealthy banker who is ruined after hemorrhaging cash for Nana's decadence; Georges Hugon, who was so captivated with her from the beginning that, when he realized he could not have her, stabs himself with scissors in anguish; Vandeuvres, a wealthy owner of horses who burns himself in his barn after Nana ruins him financially; Fauchery, a journalist and publisher who falls for Nana early on, writes a scathing article about her later, and falls for her again and is ruined financially; and Count Muffat, whose faithfulness to Nana brings him back for humiliation after humiliation until he finds her in bed with his elderly father-in-law. Becker explains: "What emerges from [Nana] is the completeness of Nana's destructive force, brought to a culmination in the thirteenth chapter by a kind of roll call of the victims of her voracity" (118).

When Nana's work is done, Zola has her die a horrible death from smallpox: What lay on the pillow was a charnel house, a heap of pus and blood, a shovelful of putrid flesh. The pustules had invaded the whole face, so that one pock touched the next. While outside her window the crowd is madly chanting To Berlin! To Berlin! (the time is July 1870, after the Ems Dispatch), Venus is decomposing, her moral corruption is now physical. And this is, Zola implies, what is about to happen to the Second Empire.


Nana was received with outrage in its time, as were most of Zola's novels. And, while it is held up as a fine example of writing, it is not especially true to Zola's touted naturalist philosophy; instead, it is one of the most symbolically complex of his novels, setting it apart from the earthy realism of L'Assommoir or the more brutal realism of La Terre (1887). (However, it was a great deal more realistic than contemporary novels of the demimonde.) Nana's death is made to coincide with the downfall of the Second Empire, and Zola often slips into the sensational to deepen the symbolic downfall of the Empire.

Nana is especially noted for the crowd scenes, of which there are many, in which Zola proves himself a master of capturing the incredible variety of people. Whereas in his other novels -- notably Germinal (1885) -- he gives the reader an amazingly complete picture of surroundings and the lives of characters, from the first scene we are to understand that this novel treads new ground.

Nana became popular, in spite of the opprobrium it garnered.

Nana has been widely and excellently translated into English.

Jean Renoir made a film adaptation of Nana in 1926. Additionally, Jean-Luc Godard's film Vivre Sa Vie is heavily influenced by the novel. The film traces an aspiring actress's (also named Nana) descent into prostitution.

Nana était nue ("A thrill went through the house. Nana was naked")

Puis, à peine Diane se trouvait-elle seule, que Vénus arrivait. Un frisson remua la salle. Nana était nue. Elle était nue avec une tranquille audace, certaine de la toute-puissance de sa chair. Une simple gaze l’enveloppait ; ses épaules rondes, sa gorge d’amazone dont les pointes roses se tenaient levées et rigides comme des lances, ses larges hanches qui roulaient dans un balancement voluptueux, ses cuisses de blonde grasse, tout son corps se devinait, se voyait sous le tissu léger, d’une blancheur d’écume. C’était Vénus naissant des flots, n’ayant pour voile que ses cheveux. Et, lorsque Nana levait les bras, on apercevait, aux feux de la rampe, les poils d’or de ses aisselles. Il n’y eut pas d’applaudissements. Personne ne riait plus, les faces des hommes, sérieuses, se tendaient, avec le nez aminci, la bouche irritée et sans salive. Un vent semblait avoir passé, très doux, chargé d’une sourde menace. Tout d’un coup, dans la bonne enfant, la femme se dressait, inquiétante, apportant le coup de folie de son sexe, ouvrant l’inconnu du désir. Nana souriait toujours, mais d’un sourire aigu de mangeuse d’hommes.
Then scarcely was Diana alone than Venus made her appearance. A shiver of delight ran round the house. Nana was nude. With quiet audacity she appeared in her nakedness, certain of the sovereign power of her flesh. Some gauze enveloped her, but her rounded shoulders, her Amazonian bosom, her wide hips, which swayed to and fro voluptuously, her whole body, in fact, could be divined, nay discerned, in all its foamlike whiteness of tint beneath the slight fabric she wore. It was Venus rising from the waves with no veil save her tresses. And when Nana lifted her arms the golden hairs in her armpits were observable in the glare of the footlights. There was no applause. Nobody laughed any more. The men strained forward with serious faces, sharp features, mouths irritated and parched. A wind seemed to have passed, a soft, soft wind, laden with a secret menace. Suddenly in the bouncing child the woman stood discovered, a woman full of restless suggestion, who brought with her the delirium of sex and opened the gates of the unknown world of desire. Nana was smiling still, but her smile was now bitter, as of a devourer of men. tr. Ernest Alfred Vizetelly

Prepatory notes by Zola

The prepatory notes to Nana by Zola show a carefully planned novel. The English translation is by George Holden. It describes Nana as the typical fin de siecle femme fatale.

Le sujet de Nana est celui-ci: Toute une société se ruant sur le cul. Une meute derrière une chienne, qui n'est pas en chaleur et qui se moque des chiens qui la suivent. Le poème des désirs du mâle, le grand levier qui remue le monde. […] Une force de la nature, un ferment de destruction, mais cela sans le vouloir, par son sexe seul et sa puissante odeur de femme, détruisant tout ce qu’elle approche […]. Le cul dans sa puissance ; le cul sur un autel et tous sacrifiant devant. Il faut que le livre soit le poème du cul, et la moralité sera le cul faisant tout tourner […]. La mangeuse d’or, l’avaleuse de toute richesse […]. Et elle ne laisse que de la cendre […] Ne pas la faire spirituelle, ce qui serait une faute ; elle n’est que de la chair, mais la chair avec toute sa grâce. »
"Her character: good-natured above all else. Follows her nature, but never does harm for harm's sake and feels sorry for people. Bird-brain, always thinking of something new, with the craziest whims. Tomorrow doesn't exist. Very merry, very gay. Superstitious, frighted of God. Loves animals and her parents. At first very slovenly, vulgar; then plays the lady and watches herself closely. With that ends up regarding man as a material to exploit, becoming a force of Nature, a ferment of destruction but without meaning to, simply by means of her sex and her strong female odour, destroying everything she approaches and turning society sour just as women having their period turn milk sour. The cunt in all its power; the cunt on an altar, with all the men offering up sacrifices to it. The book has to be the poem of the cunt and the moral will lie in the cunt turning everything sour.
As early as Chapter One I show the whole audience captivated and worshipping; study the women and the men in front of that supreme apparition of the cunt. On top of all that, Nana eats up gold, swallows every sort of wealth; the most extravagant tastes, the most frightful waste. She instinctively makes a rush pleasures and possessions. Everything she devours; she eats up what people are earning around her in industry, on the stock exchange, in high positions, in everything that pays. And she leaves nothing but ashes. In short a real whore - Don't make her witty, which would be a mistake; she is nothing but flesh, but flesh in all its beauty. And, I repeat, a good-natured girl." prepatory notes to Nana by Zola, tr. George Holden


  • Édouard Manet, who was much taken with the description of the "precociously immoral" Nana in Zola's L'assommoir gave the title "Nana" to his portrait of Henriette Hauser. The painting was rejected by the hanging committee for the Paris Salon of 1877.
  • Niki de Saint Phalle, when asked about her own Nanas, is reported to have stressed that it was not an intellectual connection to Zola that she was aiming at, but more a kind of "fusion" with the opulent forms of Rubens. This in a way ties in with Paulus' description of Blanche d'Antigny, the principal model for Nana: Not a beauty in the classical Greek sense. But what a complexion! What an opulence of forms! A Rubens!!

Cultural references

Nana was named as Anna Coupeau by Alan Moore's The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which tells of her death at the hands of Edward Hyde, and the subsequent investigation by C. Auguste Dupin of the murder.

Other media

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Nana (novel)" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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