Zola, Emile

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Annotated by:
Moore, Pamela
  • Date of entry: Mar-05-1998


As the book opens, Fauchery, a drama critic, is waiting for the hottest play in Paris to open. "The Blonde Venus" has bad music and bad actresses, but a new star, Nana, who appears on stage clad only in a diaphanous wrap brings down the house anyway. Nana is an experienced concubine. She exploits the hysteria caused by her nearly nude performance to win Steiner, a wealthy banker. Steiner buys her a country house where she entertains other lovers to win more gifts. Here she also has a brief affair with the penniless student George.

Steiner soon sets her loose and she takes up with Fontan, an actor. She tries to be domestic and kind, but Fontan beats her, then abandons her and she turns to streetwalking. Threatened by the police, who in order to prevent the spread of syphilis can imprison women and perform mandatory gynecological exams, she quickly searches for a new, wealthy lover. She finds Muffat whom she humiliates, trampling on his uniform and sleeping with whomever she likes. One day, Muffat finds her in the arms of young George and then with his elderly father-in-law. Nana also brings home Stain, a streetwalker, to be her lover and confidant.

Young George finally grows so jealous of Muffat and of his brother, another of Nana's conquests, he kills himself in her bedroom. Her other lovers must step over the bloodstain to approach Nana's bed. Soon after, Nana catches smallpox and dies miserably, the disease ravaging her beauty. She dies in 1870 just as the Franco-Prussian War begins.


Zola was strongly influenced by scientist Claude Bernard's "Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine." His goal was to use Bernard's thoughts in literature; he strives to scientifically describe life, leaving no phenomenon unexplained. Zola outlines his program in his essay "The Experimental Novel."

In Nana, Zola examines the nature of his heroine as well as her conquests. He is also criticizing the excesses, sexual and political, of France before 1870. The section of the novel that describes the system of policing imposed on Paris prostitutes provides an interesting study of the intersection between medicine and society. In this case, it is also clear that the penniless prostitutes are being punished for an economic decision beyond their control.


First published: 1880. Translated by George Holden.


Viking Penguin

Place Published

New York



Page Count