Reading Nana: On Beauty

Author: Emile Zola, 1880
Genre: Literary Fiction
Format: Paperback, 470 pages

It amazes me how different we perceive beauty as time passes. For centuries beauty was that fleeting state that royalty and common men alike were after. Beauty fueled bloody wars, altered and mutilated bodies, and caused much controversy.  For those who think that beauty is only skin deep, Nana might prove an interesting study of moral decay within a perfect nutshell.

Zola presents Nana to the audience as she makes her debut on stage of Théâtre des Variétés. Her appearance is highly anticipated by the French socialites, who are intrigued by the rumors of her beauty and talent. Unfortunately, it turns out the the girl cannot sing or dance to save her life, and at first the audience is bitterly disappointed. However, Nana possesses the looks to rival Venus, whose part she is to play in the theater, and a sensual aura that captivates the spectators. I think the passage below presents the best example of the mixture of awkwardness and unprecedented confidence that is Nana:

It was still the same shrill voice, but now it tickled the audience so deftly in the right place that it sent shiver through them now and then. […] When she came to certain rather spicy lines, she tilted up her nose with pleasure and her pink nostrils quivered, while a bright flush colored her her cheeks. She still swayed backwards and forwards, for that was all she knew how to do. And the audience no longer considered this ugly; on the contrary, the men pointed their opera-glasses at her. When she came to the end of the verse, her voice failed her completely, and she realized that she would never get through the whole song. So, without getting flustered, she thrust out one hip which was roundly outlined under a flimsy tunic, bent backwards, so that her breasts were shown to good advantage, and stretched out her arms. Applause burst forth on all sides.

Nana is described as a beautiful girl for 19th century’s standards: pale skin, long full hair, and voluptuous thighs. Yet I can’t help but feel repelled by her presence.I keep asking myself, what is Zola trying to achieve by creating this kind of character? Watching the scene unfold reminds me of a fun house mirror, where prim and proper high class is reflected as crooked and ugly, captured by vulgarity and the forbidden. I can clearly envision the author’s attitude towards French society as wasteful and doomed for extinction. The spectators keep referring to the place as “theater” or “opera”, but the owner is bluntly and appropriately correcting them on every occasion: “You mean my brothel.”

The next morning Nana is a star, and men of all status come to her door to stand in line in hopes of seeing her. Again we see her somehow unfitted to the status she is given. She greats her visitors in bed, and shows off her bare legs to her male hairdresser without a second thought. Her morning starts with setting up a schedule for all her lovers, each having his own day of the week. She knows that men desire her, so she makes them wait, pouting like a child at the thought of their persistence. It is definitely this brat-ish personality of hers that really gets on my nerves above all. Nana regards her body as a tool that she uses to obtain things, including her son she abandoned years ago. I find it so distorted, how all of a sudden she finds it amusing to have a child, and decides to get him back, with her auntie taking care of him, of course. Nevermind the obvious, her aunt sees Nana as a self-sacrificing saint:

But Madame Lerat declared that the past was the past, and a dirty past at that, with things in it which it didn’t do to stir up every day. She had left off seeing her niece for a long time, because the rest of the family accused her of ruining herself along with the girl. As if that were possible, for heaven’s sake! She didn’t ask her for any confidences; she believed that Nana had always lived decently, and now it was enough for her to have found her again in a fine position, and to see that she felt the right way about her son. Virtue and hard work were still the only things that mattered in this world. […] ‘When a woman’s a good mother, anything’s excusable,’ Madame Maloir said sententiously when she was alone with Madame Lerat.

And this kind of blindness happens with every character who encounters Nana, which stirs a little fury inside me. I am sure Zola created his character not to love her, but to slowly and meticulously destroy her. I love it when authors do not idolize their creations, but on the contrary make them flawed and self-destructive. Zola definitely succeeds at warping beauty and turning it inside out, exposing the ugly side of it. Can’t wait to see what he does next.

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