Emile Zola’s novel Nana (1880) is the story of a beautiful Parisian prostitute who develops a tremendous influence on the aristocratic society from which she has drawn her clients. Written and set at the end of the French Second Empire, the character Nana’s cumulative power and destruction becomes symbolic of the excess and decay of the nobility of France. She comes to represent an orgiastic loss of control that is coupled with a crippling shame and despair. Nana, born in poverty, seeks revenge for what was denied her as girl on the streets. The men who govern society, have enjoyed women like Nana and the other courtesans (such as Gaga—perhaps an inspiration for the Lady?) while duplicitously being able to live double lives. Unlike their wives and their lovers, the men can be a respected but still indulge in their secret vices without any repercussions. Nana changes this. This voluptuous strawberry blonde demands public respect and seems on a mission to reveal the “filth” she sees evident from the Emperor down. She has an enormous appetite for more—money, power, clothes, lovers but always remains dissatisfied. With more and more decadence comes more and more repulsion.
While she moves into an ever more powerful position in society, she is seen by some to be able to “infect” the upper classes with the filth of the slums—‘a fly the colour of sunshine that had flown from a dung heap’. It is perhaps easier for the nobility to see her as a sort of outside parasite that has come to feed on their goodness. However, rather than some sort of outside threat, she could also be read as a manifestation of the corruption in the upper classes. She becomes symptomatic of the hypocrisy, sexual repression and moral degradation for which the prostitution industry has only provided an opportunistic service. Until Nana, the duplicity of these upstanding men had only revealed itself in winks and nudges. Nana becomes more than just an adored and desired prostitute. Like the ‘Blonde Venus’ part she performs on stage in the opening chapter, Nana becomes a goddess of Jouissance—where pleasure is taken to the limits and becomes painful. These men suffer for their pleasure and become total slaves to it. Nana cripples them financially, she bankrupts them morally and she breaks them of their dignity and self-respect. In a frenzy of lust and greed, the men who chase her are brought down choking on their own sweet cake.
Nana is able to wipe her conscience clean. In her callous response to the suffering of her lovers she is able to say ‘...if they’ve kicked the bucket or lost all their money, they’ve only themselves to blame. I’d got nothing to do with it’. Nana is a selfish, vain narcissist who is in love with her superficial beauty and its magnetic power. She stands naked in front of her mirror admiring herself for hours. As the power of Nana builds we see this beauty as a mask for an internal decay. This is manifested through the piles of destruction she leaves behind. Like some reversal of an alchemist princess story; she is a pretty urchin who becomes a princess to be able to turn gold into straw.
Nothing remained intact in her hands; everything was broken or dirtied or withered between her little white fingers; a heap of nameless debris, twisted rags and muddy tatters followed her and marked her passage.
As readers we pity the destruction of the men who are destroyed in the same way that their gifts are and we are appalled at such waste. However, we can also see that their access to so much wealth for the sake of buying their moments of pleasure is where their waste and ruin begins.
Nana, as an agent of masculine self-destruction, embodies lack as a necessary component of pleasure. That she will never be satisfied by them is part of her allure. She will never be faithful, she will always detest them and be bored by them, she will always want more—she will smash their presents of Dresden china and throw their diamonds in the fire to see if they become coal. For all they sacrifice for her she will be irritated by their bankruptcy, imprisonment or suicides that leave annoying stains on her carpet. Nana, in her greed, stupidity and lack of empathy, reflects back to them their own boredom and that insatiable greed to have, to own, to possess. They would like to contain her, make contracts with her, and marry her in order to control a manic desire that continues to grow with her power.
Count Muffat, Nana’s most generous benefactor and most humiliated lover finds himself totally possessed by her in a way he once was in prayer and religious fervour. On meeting Nana in the din and sweat of backstage he becomes of aware of a sexual freedom that he didn’t know existed and equated it immediately with a path to destruction that he felt was out of his control.
He was hers utterly: he would have abjured everything, sold everything, to possess her for a single hour that very night. Youth, a lustful puberty of early manhood, was stirring within him at last, flaming up suddenly in the chaste heart of the Catholic and amid the dignified traditions of middle age.
It as though Muffat enters into this relationship aware of giving over his free will. In the course of the novel the austere religious world of the Count and his wife Sabine unravels into a reckless debauchery that ruins their family and their estate. Nana s advises Muffat that:
If you weren't brutes you would be as nice with your wives as you are with us, and if your wives weren't geese they would take as much pains to keep you as we do to get you.
Here Nana’s insight alludes to the sexual repression that keeps her in business. Muffat is a pitiful character whose naivety and cowardliness make him a man who needs to be directed through life. In the hands of his mother’s Jesuit lawyer he can find momentary fulfilment on his knees burning in pain in religious supplication and in the hands of Nana he can find fulfilment on his knees begging like a dog. These are the men in power - gripped by cycles of pleasure and shame.
The beauty, wealth and power that make the character Nana almost mythical represent the certain illusions of infallibility in a pleasure culture. Her inevitable rotting demise (that is as ugly as we can imagine) reads not so much as a punishment for the individual woman’s crimes but rather as sort of social tumour finally revealed from behind a mask. The novel ends at the eve of the war with Prussia with mobs of men chanting “Berlin. Berlin. Berlin”—their libidinal energy will turn to a similarly self-destructive avenue. We imagine, with their defeat on the battlefields of Prussia, the demise of the French Second Empire ended in a horror and shame that is echoed the tale of Nana.