Asterisk denotes entries on real places.
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 (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 (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. 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.