Cover image for Nana.
Zola, Émile, 1840-1902.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
[Harmondsworth, Eng. ;] [Baltimore] : Penguin Books [1972]
Reading Level:
1060 Lexile.
Format :

On Order



Born to drunken parents in the slums of Paris, Nana lives in squalor until she is discovered at the Théâtre des Variétés. She soon rises from the streets to set the city alight as the most famous high-class prostitute of her day. Rich men, Comtes and Marquises fall at her feet, great ladies try to emulate her appearance, lovers even kill themselves for her. Nana's hedonistic appetite for luxury and decadent pleasures knows no bounds - until, eventually, it consumes her. Nana provoked outrage on its publication in 1880, with its heroine damned as 'the most crude and bestial sort of whore', yes the language of the novel makes Nana almost a mythical figure- a destructive force preying on a corrupt society.

Author Notes

Zola was the spokesperson for the naturalist novel in France and the leader of a school that championed the infusion of literature with new scientific theories of human development drawn from Charles Darwin (see Vol. 5) and various social philosophers.

The theoretical claims for such an approach, which are considered simplistic today, were outlined by Zola in his Le Roman Experimental (The Experimental Novel, 1880). He was the author of the series of 20 novels called The Rougon-Macquart, in which he attempted to trace scientifically the effects of heredity through five generations of the Rougon and Macquart families. Three of the outstanding volumes are L'Assommoir (1877), a study of alcoholism and the working class; Nana (1880), a story of a prostitute who is a femme fatale; and Germinal (1885), a study of a strike at a coal mine. All gave scope to Zola's gift for portraying crowds in turmoil.

Today Zola's novels have been appreciated by critics for their epic scope and their visionary and mythical qualities. He continues to be immensely popular with French readers. His newspaper article "J'Accuse," written in defense of Alfred Dreyfus, launched Zola into the public limelight and made him the political conscience of his country.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 1

Library Journal Review

This rather risqué novel‘for 1880 that is‘tells the story of ruthless protagonist Nana's rise from the gutter to the height of Parisian society. The book's heavy allusion to sexual favors caused it to be denounced as pornography upon publication, which, of course, made it a big hit. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



From Luc Sante's Introduction to Nana Zola's star has risen and fallen since his death. In the first half of the twentieth century he was one of the most widely read authors in the world, his name virtually synonymous with the struggle for social progress. He was translated into all languages and was a staple, especially, in the Soviet Union. His role in the Dreyfus affair doubly assured his stature--because of it he was even the subject of a Hollywood film, The Life of Émile Zola (1937), with Paul Muni in the part. But the 1930s were probably the peak of his posthumous career. After World War II, especially, his work acquired a reputation as turgid, well-meaning gruel. The New Left more or less consigned him to the dustbin of history, and litterateurs everywhere decided he was clumsy, laborious, didactic. It is true that even in his lifetime and among his supporters he was never considered a particularly subtle author, and his most fervent disciples would have found it hard to make a case for him as a prose stylist--a fatal deficiency in France, where style reigns supreme, where his older colleague Flaubert, the model of the stylist, sometimes hesitated for weeks over a choice of words.             Nana , however, shows how wrongheaded all such approaches were in regard to Zola, and effects a demonstration of his unparalleled strengths. Zola may not have parsed ambiguities or dealt in fugitive emotions--he did not work close up, with a single-hair brush, but on a large scale, with a palette knife (perhaps, actually, like his old friend Cézanne, he could be said to have worked with a brush in one hand and a knife in the other). The analogy to painting is not idly chosen, and it is not simply because of his close connection to the Impressionists, although in many ways he resembles less the starkly graphic Manet or the dreamily approximative Monet or even the dramatically essentialist Cézanne than he does Gustave Caillebotte, the Impressionist most devoted to depicting the flotsam and jetsam of urban life, which he framed as radically as with a camera lens. For that matter, while it has become a terrible cliché to say of a writer of the past that had he lived in our time, he would surely have become a filmmaker, with Zola it might actually be true.             Zola is at his best when staging crowd scenes and major conflicts. This is no small feat, especially when you consider how often great writers have avoided such things--in how many classic war novels, for example, the principal action is set offstage or viewed through a narrow and subjective focus. And while most nineteenth-century novels begin and end with a major set piece--one to introduce the characters and set them in motion against the backdrop, the other to tie up loose ends and release us and the characters from our mutual contract--each of Nana 's chapters is a set piece. The chapters pass in succession, like so many acts of a tragedy: the theater, the dinner, the country house, the horse race. The chapters immediately call up a visual analogy: They are wide-screen affairs, like movies shot in Cinerama or like the panoramic photographs Zola himself took around 1900. Although in truth there are plenty of closeups and flurries of montaged action, we are given the illusion that the camera, as it were, takes in the whole scene, all at once and unmovingly, while characters pass across its unblinking aperture. Zola excels at directing his characters' points of view, listening to them talk while they take in the setting and the peripheral action surrounding them, and then following their gaze to some other characters some distance away. Upon being introduced by the commentary of the first set of characters, these become in their turn the focus of the author's attention for a while before passing the baton to yet more people in some other corner of the setting. This provides for a powerful spatial illusion.             Zola's method appears to all but eliminate the omniscient narrator--he is present at all times, of course, but Zola is so clever at inserting exposition into casual dialogue that it feels as though we are witnessing eeverything for ourselves without mediation. The direct authorial commentary, meanwhile, discreetly dissolves into the scene setting, since almost all of it is parenthetical, the most significant observations being either delivered by the characters in the course of apparently banal chitchat or else built into the fabric of the plot. The final chapter, for example, tells us everything we need to know about Zola's attitude toward the Franco-Prussian War, but it does so incidentally, in hubbub rising up from the street while our attention is focused on Nana's plight as she lies in bed in her hotel room. Like a great documentary painter (anyone from Bruegel to Courbet to Seurat) or filmmaker (perhaps Jean Renoir, who was the son of the Impressionist painter Auguste, an acquaintance of Zola's, and who made a spectacular silent adaptation of Nana in 1926), Zola unfolds for his audience the entire social fabric of his setting, in lavish detail, and conveys exactly what he thinks about it all while pretending to be no more than passively subjected to it, as if it were weather, and keeping his eye on a few central figures, as if their actions were not crucially interwoven with and wholly dependent upon their background.             The story of Nana is simplicity itself--thanks largely to the movies, it has become a thumping cliché in the intervening century and a quarter, although it wasn't yet one at the time. It is, classically, the story of the poor girl who uses her body to advance through society, nearly to the very top, before being finally betrayed by her fate, or her genes, or her hubris, or her lack of education, so that she falls back down, metaphorically or otherwise, to the muck of her origins. Meanwhile men of all shapes, sizes, ages, and stations have become besotted with her, all of them at some cost, whether to their money or their marriages or their dignity or their lives. Besides the obvious titillation factor, the story is so potent and durable because, like all the most mythopoetic stories (consider Don Quixote or Moby-Dick , for instance), its plot and its central metaphor are one and the same. Nana herself is a perfectly rounded, three-dimensional character, whose strength and generosity are as apparent by the end as her vanity and cruelty and selfishness, but she is also a metaphorical linchpin, the embodiment of the vapid decadence and dull hypocrisy of the Second Empire, whose fall she enacts in boudoir scale. Excerpted from Nana (Barnes and Noble Classics Series) by Émile Zola All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.