Reading Nana: On Author’s Intent

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

I find Nana rather difficult to follow at his point. It seems like the plot goes nowhere, but concentrates on excess partying and theater intrigue. First few chapters that actually tried to explore Nana as a character appealed to me much more; now I just find myself not caring at all. I can’t wait for the novel to jump into her self-destructive affairs, and I hope the chapters will fly by faster at that point.

I am asking myself what Zola was trying to achieve by including seemingly pointless chapters into the novel. Immediately I have to remind myself that he wrote the book with the idea of critique of the Second Empire, trying to show its demoralization and shallow pleasures. The rich and famous mingle among vulgar actresses that show their breasts for money, and courtesans are revealed to be nothing but high-end prostitutes with a steady income. An shepherd girl is taken from from her provincial town into the Parisian glamor society, and she suddenly has a count or a marquise for a lover. Will he marry her? No. They waste their fleeting youth on beautiful lifestyle, not realizing that it might not last that long. There are so many nuances that are still evident today, it seems the world had never changed since its conception.

One of the scenes, when Nana invites her new admirers and fellow socialites to a dinner party she organizes at her place, is hilariously painful. It is something about Nana’s pretense of being high class that gets on my nerves. There are only a few rooms furnished, and guests do not have enough chairs to sit on. The table is too small to accommodate everyone, so the ladies end up squeezing between drunken men and openly fighting for their attention. The food doesn’t seem to impress anyone, and the women keep complaining about the rooms being too hot. Nobody is enjoying the conversation, but somehow end up staying till the dawn breaks. The only word that comes to my mind to describe Nana at this point is a “fad”. Everyone thinks she ought to be the latest it-girl, but all she is can be summed up as mass hysteria.

Anything happening in the theater is still not that inspiring to me. Nana meets up with a prince in her dressing room, and is being expected to continue with her routine half-naked, which she of course uses to her advantage to infatuate the man. I did enjoy a few descriptions that made me wake up from my reading coma for a few seconds. I found them exceptional. I loved the accentuation of Mme Jules’ character by profession as a dresser, and Satin’s on-spot observation of the contemporary society.

Mme Jules was a woman of no age. She had the parchment skin and changeless features peculiar to old maids whom no one ever knew in their younger years. She had indeed shriveled up in the burning atmosphere of the dressing rooms and amid the most famous thighs and bosoms in all Paris. She wore everlastingly a faded black dress, and on her flat and sexless chest a perfect forest of pins clustered above the spot where her heart should have been. […] And there stood Mme Jules, waiting, cool and rigid as ever, while Satin, marveling in the depths of her vicious soul to see a prince and two gentlemen in black coats going after a naked woman in the society of dressed-up actors, secretly concluded that fashionable people were not so very particular after all.

Overall, I am rather bored with how the story is unfolding. I can see that Zola is trying to portray French society of the day through careful observation and minuscule development, but he is losing my interest. I wish for some more character and plot development. I believe in you Emile,  give me something to rave about.


  1. Like you I found the theatre parts boring and much more enjoyed Nana’s country stay.

    My favorite of Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series is L’Assommoir which is the story of Nana’s mother, Gervaise. Nana appears in it a precocious child.

  2. I am trying my best to stick with it, but it looks like I am going to take my time with Nana. I am also reading The Three Musketeers at the moment, which takes up all my attention. Another Zola novel that has interested me is Therese Raquin, but I don’t know if his manner of plot execution is my cup of tea. I will know for sure by the time I’m done with Nana.

  3. Therese Raquin is largely a psychological novel. I found it to be a compelling read in the same way as Crime and Punishment. Even when I was finding it disgusting and didn’t like it, I couldn’t stop reading. It is loosely based on a true incident about which Zola read in a newspaper. He decided he could write a book based on it and he did.

    For Dumas, I love The Count of Monte Cristo. It is long! and often abridged. Translations often seem to have been abridged with no note being made of the fact. If you find a copy with less than close to 1,000 pages, certainly less than 800, than you can be pretty sure it’s abridged. It’s long, but has something for everyone.

  4. Wow, Therese Raquin sounds scary! lol I should definitely read it someday! If it’s a change of style for Zola, I am intrigued. As for The Count of Monte Cristo, I have heard so many good things about it, it would be a crime for me not to add it to my reading list. The version that I was planning to buy is the Penguin Classics one, and it looks to be about 1300 pages. So hopefully it’s not abridged. I really do hate it when publishers cut things out without even mentioning it. Same with some movie tie-in editions. Thank for the heads up!

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