Thoughts On Nana by Émile Zola (and some thoughts on judging others)

This is my fourth ‘Thoughts On’ post of an Émile Zola book, and as well as talking about the novel Nana itself, I will also reflect on judging others, something the novel made me think about a lot.

What I would like to say right at the start is that after my rather disappointing experience reading an earlier novel in Zola’s Les Rougon-Macquart series of 20 books, The Kill, I very much enjoyed reading Nana.

It is hard to say sometimes why we just know near the start of the novel if we are going to get along with it or not, and with Nana, I had that feeling that I was going to enjoy it, and I did.

Maybe it is in the setting of the scene, in this case the Théatre des Variétés in Paris, or maybe it is the range of characters that are introduced, or perhaps more simply, it is just the way the story is told. The excitement of the novel built very quickly for me (perhaps because I had come across the character of Nana before), but before I get ahead of myself, let me go back even further, to explain who Nana is.

Nana (her nickname) was born Anna Coupeau, in some rather less than spectacular part of Paris in the early 1850’s, to Gervaise Macquart and her husband Coupeau (I don’t think he was given any other name?). I know this because it happened during the events of the novel L’Assommoir, that is centred round Nana’s mother Gervaise, and her struggle to keep order in her life after Coupeau is injured falling off a roof. It was going pretty well before that, but her life descends into chaos and alcoholism, as Coupeau falls off the wagon, as well as the roof, and becomes an alcoholic domestic-abuser. The situation gets further messy when Gervaise’s previous lover Lantier (don’t think he was given another name either?) returns to the scene. It is way off the messy scale by now, but you will have to read L’Assommoir to know what I am talking about.

What I can say, is Nana grew up throughout this uncertainty and chaos. By the age of six she is turning into a ‘real little devil’, misbehaving and causing havoc at every opportunity. This was almost certainly (in my psychological analysis) due to neglect. She needed attention, and got it by any means she could.

As L’Assommoir progresses, Nana becomes even more detached; spending a lot of time away, and enduring beatings by her alcoholic father when she does return home. Her parents are very concerned about the places she is inhabiting and the people she is inhabiting them with. They are certain she has become a prostitute. Eventually, she leaves the home for good, never to return in the novel.

It’s not certain (to me) how much time elapses between her last appearance in L’Assommoir and the beginning of Nana. It is definitely at the tail end of the 1860’s, and we find Nana at the beginning of the story playing a major part in a theatre production called The Blonde Venus. This is not because she is any way talented. The theatre manager Bordenave states in the opening chapter:

“Does a woman need to be able to sing and act? Don’t be stupid, my boy….Nana has something else, dammit, and something that takes the place of everything else.”

In the opening chapter we are introduced to many of the key characters in the novel; there is the journalist writing a report on the play called Fauchery, his cousin, Hector la Faloise, the banker Steiner, who is having an affair with the leading actress of the time, Rose Mignon, in full knowledge of her husband Mignon. A devout Christian, the Comte Muffat, has also come to see the play, and we also learn of an enthusiastic young boy named Georges Hugon.

What do we learn about Nana from this early chapter? Well, what she lacks in acting talent, she makes up for in sex appeal. This is her something else. Although initially amused by her poor performance, the audience become captivated with her. The men fall for her instantly. It states:

‘Her slightest movements fanned the flame of desire, and with a twitch of her little finger she could stir men’s flesh’

And this is a constant throughout the novel; Nana’s unrelenting lustful attraction from nearly all men that meet her. She is as George Holden (the translator of the Penguin Classics edition I read) describes her ‘a superhuman sex-symbol’, perhaps to a mythical status.

In the 2nd chapter, it is clear that she is making money as a prostitute. But this isn’t exactly ‘Roxanne, put on your red light’. Actually, scratch that, there is later on occasions where she wonders the street looking for business. But at this early stage in the novel, she has her clients arranged by a lady called La Tricon. She makes a lot of money doing this. She is a high end courtesan (look, I don’t know how I’m supposed to describe them here). And this is what Zola wanted to study in this novel; prostitution within the upper classes during the French second empire (1852-1870).

I don’t know how else to describe this either, but you learn through the novel that there is essentially direct and indirect prostitution. ‘Direct’ being clients who are paying up front there and then, and ‘indirect’ being the gentleman (uh-hum) who essentially pay her way through life; with mansions, apartments, horses, carriages etc. to try and keep her for themselves. She wraps men round her little finger and cleans them out. She drives some men to absolute madness. She uses men to make herself feel more powerful, and to help her get roles in plays that she is completely unqualified for.

But Nana is not a character like Saccard in the aforementioned novel The Kill, with little to like about her. She has very caring and loving qualities. She has a son from an unnamed father (prior to the events of the novel) called Louis, and loves him very much, albeit a son she rarely sees. She has a close circle of people such as Madame Lerat (an aunt who also appears in L’Assommoir), her loyal servant Zoé, and fellow prostitutes, one in particular called Satin, who she does her best to protect. As in the previous novel she appears, Nana is also a victim of domestic abuse in this novel.

Nana believes in being able to lead a more noble and good life, but probably doesn’t quite understand what that means or how to get there. There are times in life where she had all the resources to seek a better life, but she encounters boredom far too easily, and slips back into her old ways all over again.

So why did I like the novel so much? I think there is a great story that runs throughout the novel, and the action takes place over many great different scenes; from the opening scene at the theatre, to raucous parties in her apartment, great mansions in the French countryside, and also to a day at the races. The set pieces are fantastic and keep you reading for many pages at a time.

There are some people who are not a fan of this novel, and like other Zola novels, it caused outrage at the time of its release. I am certain that some of the dislike is due to the subject matter, and perhaps views of immorality, but I thought the tale was brutally honest and exciting at the same time. I can’t say that I was bored during any part of the novel.

This the seventh Émile Zola novel that I have read, and for me, Nana would rank 2nd behind Germinal. In fact, Nana is not a slow burner, which I felt Germinal was, but Germinal in the end is too great and mind-blowing to not be at the top spot of my favourite Zola novels. The novel that followed Nana in the Les Rougon-Macquart series is Pot-bouille (the English translation is called Pot Luck), which I think has many similarities to Nana, and is a good novel for people to read around the same time.

I am not reading the Rougon-Macquart series in any particular order, but if I had known, I would probably have left reading Nana towards the end of the 20 novels in the series, as Zola intended. This is because the events of the novel take place towards the end of the Second Empire, and the rumblings of the Franco-Prussian war are appearing on the horizon. But I have still to read The Earth and The Debacle, which are both set towards that time as well, so I will try to leave them as long as I can. I might read the final chapter of Nana again, before reading The Debacle.

Judging Others

One thing that the novel made me think about, is our attitudes and judgement towards others. On the face of it, the character Nana may look like an immoral figure, but is that fair?

As people may know, I am a practicing Christian, and so by Christian teachings, I am not meant to judge others, and I try to live my life this way. Is it easy? Of course not. But judging others is a natural psychological reaction to make ourselves feel better about who we are. And I think it is especially pronounced in people, who are perhaps not comfortable with who they are.

But judgement is such a normal and natural state, that we don’t even question why we do it. We see how people act and we judge them. We see what they say and we judge them. The political right judge the left, and the left judge the right, but do we ever ask ‘Why’?

Why do people think that way? Why do people act that way? Can I learn about myself and people more if I question not what they said, but where the thought comes from in them? Maybe I could be more compassionate towards others as a result?

When I am told of a certain way someone has acted, I will often say to the person telling, and ‘why do you think that is?’ It forces the person to think more deeply about where that thought or action comes from. Everyone has a back story that very few people know, and would cause people not to judge them so quickly if they knew.

And I am not saying that real evil does not exist, I believe it does. There are certain figures that have come into this world (any list would be too short to reflect on here), who have been on a path to oblivion since the day they were born. I do not know why that is, but it is something I just know is.

But the majority of people in this world I believe are good, and if they have gone astray in life, then there is some reason why, either from early in their childhood, or the circumstances that life has dealt them. As I said, everyone has a back story.

Nana is of course a fictional character, but one I think is not too far from reality. The adoration and attention she craves as an adult, comes from the abusive and neglectful upbringing she encountered in childhood. Had someone met her and saw how she acted at 18 years old, they would probably be quick to judge her as a bad person.

Of course, we are ultimately responsible for our own behaviour, but people such as Nana (again, fictional I know) are just another in a long line of undisciplined people, one taking after the next. They did not stand much of a chance to avoid the same behaviours and outcomes.

And I know this happens in real life from my conversations and learnings from social workers. One of the reasons a child is considered for adoption (especially foster-for-adoption), is because it breaks the cycle of habits and behaviour that is passed down from one generation to the next. The birth parents of a child taken for adoption, are probably the children of parents they themselves should have been taken away from.

It’s too simplistic and ambitious of me to say stop judging others, so all I will ask is when you are offended or angry at a certain thing somebody has said and done, just ask if there is any circumstance that may have happened to them, that might make you think differently about who they are? There probably is, and we should count ourselves lucky that perhaps that circumstance was something we were blessed not to have gone through.

3 thoughts on “Thoughts On Nana by Émile Zola (and some thoughts on judging others)

  1. Hello Pete. I want to give you a comment from May Lamberton Becker who said that Dick Swiveller was the only rival Dickens ever gave Sam Weller. By the same token, I think that Eula Varner Snopes was the most impressive rival Faulkner ever gave Nana. Eula is featured in Faulkner’s novel, The Town, which is part two of his Snopes trilogy. Her magnetic aura for the opposite sex is described by character Charles “Chick” Mallison on page six of that work in glowing terms and reminds me of the pull that Nana so effortlessly exerted over susceptible men. Eula’s fate, like Nana’s, was not to be mistaken for a pleasant one.

    Your description and recounting of Nana does the book full justice. It’s interesting that you had a positive feeling going in to your reading of it before you started. The detail and background provided brought memories of the story back to me. Well-done; descriptive and thorough as always.

    Thank you for sharing your concluding thoughts on judging others. Anyone who can lead us to a better understanding and tolerance for unkind behavior from people that is bewildering is regarded by me as a benefactor. Sydney Harris, a longtime columnist for the Chicago Tribune, advised to “See Him as the Child He Was”, to understand the possible misunderstandings or ill-treatment suffered as a child as underlying the actions of the obnoxious-seeming adult. Professor Charles Mathewes gives an Audible online course on Augustine’s The City of God that led me to another course of his titled, Why Evil Exists. This latter offering is nineteen hours long and, being no academic myself, is sometimes over my head, but I feel that whatever clarity I can glean from it will be worthwhile. I think one of the best things anyone could do on these book blogs is to share their deeper reflections about aspects of “the human condition.” You’ve done that here and Bravo!!


    1. Many thanks for your comment and kind words George! You mentioned the Professor Charles Mathewes Audible online course. Those are the ones by The Great Courses (Teaching Company), yes? I absolutely love The Great Courses, and have thought about mentioning them on this blog before. Of course, I especially love the courses that discuss and educate us on certain books, and any course by Elizabeth Vandiver is a must listen to! She helped me understand The Odyssey in particular on a whole different level. The City of God by Professor Charles Mathewes is on my Audible wish list, but I’d like to read the book first, or be reading it at the same time. I will look out for the Why Evil Exists course.

      Thank you as well for welcoming my thoughts on deeper reflections from the books we read. Of course, we should love the books we choose to read, but I also do it to help me understand the world, and myself, better. That is absolutely what I intended with this blog, hence the subtitle is ‘Notes on Classic Literature and Life’, because I want to discuss and share the ideas, philosophies and wisdom that comes from reading the classics.


  2. You are fulfilling the goals set forth in your blog title, Pete, and it is a pleasure to acknowledge that.

    You have rightly determined that the courses of study I mentioned were from The Great Courses (Teaching Company). Sussed it out, as they say. My approach to The City of God was to go through the Mathewes course on it first and to take notes so I would be fortified with some background familiarity before mentally setting foot through those gates of the City. Only with Joyce (Stuart Gilbert and Edmund Wilson) and Proust (Milton Hindus and Roger Shattuck) have I ever done preliminary studying in advance of starting into a new work, other than for sometimes reading the introduction to any given book. Let me say the prior preparation was helpful.

    The Why Evil Exists course by Mathewes, as far as I’ve gotten in it, is taken in large part from a Christian perspective that you will appreciate. I hope you will get a chance to take a look at it, (or rather a listen to it) someday, if interested. I read the Odyssey as a college assignment in a sophomore class called Great Writers, and one time more over the decades since. At this point in time I don’t have plans for a third complete reading but I still remember the “wine-dark sea” and “rosy-fingered dawn” as Homer characteristically described them. I will definitely look into Elizabeth Vandiver since you highly recommend her.


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