Places: Nana

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1880 (English translation, 1880)

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Naturalism

Time of work: 1860’s

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Paris

*Paris. NanaCapital of France in which, apart from a brief section early in the novel, the entire novel is set. The initial action takes place in the cultural and social heart of the city during the 1860’s, in the section known as the “boulevards.” However, if Nana is a story of the fall of France, it is also the tale of the courtesan Nana’s rise and fall, ups and downs–literal and figurative. Nana moves widely in Paris during her career, in her pursuit of power, lost innocence, and material success.

Zola is also concerned with the ways in which traditional social distinctions have been blurred in France, how the country’s ruling classes have adopted the morality of the gutter. He frequently presents literary counterpoints, moving from places such as the swank home of the Countess Sabine on the rue de Miromesnil to Nana’s apartment. The Count Muffat de Beuville, who serves in the government, and his wife are known in Paris society as devout, virtuous Roman Catholics; however, while Muffat lusts after Nana, his wife sleeps with a theater critic. In consecutive chapters, the countess receives her elegant social circle; later, Nana presides at a drunken dinner party in her apartment. Still later, the same chapter that visits the countess in her country estate reveals that Nana has been set up in her own country place–quite nearby–by a wealthy Paris banker.

Early in the novel, Nana has an apartment on the boulevard Haussmann, not far from the home of the Countess Sabine and Muffat. Later, when she goes broke, she lives in shabby Montmartre–and still later, when she stages a spectacular triumph over men, she lives in the new, fashionable area around the Parc Monceau.

*Théâtre des Variétés

*Théâtre des Variétés (tay-at-treh day vehr-ee-ay-tay). Vaudeville theater located on Paris’s boulevard de Montmartre, on the southeast side of the Right Bank of the River Seine. There, the novel examines a topsy-turvy society in which many people are not what they seem–respectable people are guilty of gross immorality; some are people who have sprung from the gutter to rise to positions of power. As Émile Zola focuses on hypocrisy, he deals at some length with theater–in which deliberate illusion is the rule.

The setting of the novel’s first chapter, the Variétés is the scene of Nana’s stunning rise to fame, fortune, and destructive power. There, she gives her breathtaking sensual performances before audiences comprising all social classes, including men who have positions of power in the French government. Sex is what attracts all of these men.

Outside the Variétés is the teeming boulevard itself, with its nighttime crowds and their constant movement and potential violence. Inside the theater, in its dressing rooms, is an inferno smelling of sex and sweat. It is a hell in which at least one character, the Count de Muffat de Beuville, lucidly and shamelessly gives up his soul in exchange for Nana’s attentions. When Muffat first visits Nana’s dressing room, he has to climb a spiral staircase–on which his ascent is the reverse of his figurative fall. The colors that dominate the descriptions in the novel’s opening chapter, red and yellow, prefigure the flames seen at its end.

*Montmartre

*Montmartre (mon-MAR-treh). Area in the northern section of Paris located on a steep butte. After Nana has a falling out with Muffat and Steiner, her banker lover, she also falls into slums–landing first in Montmartre, a moral abyss. Nana had grown up on the east side of Montmartre, in the Goutte d’Or section, where she began her working life as a prostitute. After leaving Muffat, she returns to prostitution in Montmartre.

Country estates

Country estates. In the French countryside Nana sees the imposing estate of Irma d’Anglars, a former courtesan who has become so rich in her old age that she lives in a château once inhabited by a king. When d’Anglars attends church on Sundays, she is treated with the utmost respect by people who live in her village. Once again, those who seem respectable are not; those with shady pasts successfully dupe others. Deeply impressed with Irma’s stature, Nana vows to achieve the same success. Eventually she succeeds–by destroying the men for whom she has contempt. However, she dies of smallpox at the same moment France finds itself on the brink of war with Prussia.

BibliographyBaguley, David, ed. Critical Essays on Émile Zola. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1986. In “The Man-Eater,” Roland Barthes discusses the symbolic movement of Nana and the novel’s epic scope. He also lauds Zola’s comprehensive treatment of the Second Empire. Bibliography.Grant, Elliott M. Émile Zola. New York: Twayne, 1966. Chapter 6 discusses one of Zola’s prevalent themes, the destructiveness of love. Grant also explores Zola’s knowledge of the world of prostitutes and Nana’s symbolic significance. Chronology, notes, and bibliography.Knapp, Bettina L. Émile Zola. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1980. Chapter 4 discusses the role of prostitutes and coquettes in the Second Empire and Zola’s handling of them as symbolic characters. Chronology, notes, and bibliography.Richardson, Joanna. Zola. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1978. Chapter 16 discusses the conditions under which Zola wrote Nana and the reception of the novel. Analyzes Nana’s character and Zola’s rich evocation of society. Notes and bibliography.Walker, Philip. Zola. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1985. Chapter 4, “First Great Triumphs,” explores the novel’s impact on the public, its analysis of society’s susceptibility to corruption, Zola’s painstaking efforts to make his scenes real and accurate, and Nana’s symbolic presence. Bibliography.
Categories: Places