Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1253
Monsieur Fauchery, theatrical reviewer for a Paris paper, is attending the premiere of The Blonde Venus at the Variety Theatre because he had heard rumors of Nana, the Venus of the new play. Paris’s smart set is well represented at the theater that night, and Fauchery and his cousin Hector de la Faloise note a few of the more interesting people. In the audience are Steiner, a crooked but very rich banker who is the current lover of Rose Mignon, an actor in The Blonde Venus; Mignon, who serves as procurer for his own wife; Daguenet, a reckless spender reputed to be Nana’s lover for the moment; Count Xavier de Vandeuvres; Count Muffat de Beuville and his wife; and several of the city’s well-known courtesans.
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The play, a vulgar travesty on the life of the Olympian gods, is becoming boring until Nana finally appears; with beautiful golden hair floating over her shoulders, she walks confidently toward the footlights for her feature song. When she begins to sing, she seems such a crude amateur that murmurs and hisses begin to sound. Suddenly a young student exclaims loudly that Nana is stunning. Everyone laughs, including Nana. It was as though she frankly admitted that she had nothing except her voluptuous self to offer. Nana, however, knew this was sufficient for her audience. As she ends her song, she retires to the back of the stage amid a roar of applause. In the last act, Nana’s body is veiled only by her golden locks and a transparent gauze. The house grows quiet and tense. Nana smiles confidently, knowing that she had conquered them with her flesh.
Thus Nana, product of the streets of Paris, starts her career as mistress of the city. To get money for her scrofulous little son, Louis, and for her own extravagant wants, she sells herself at varying prices to many men. She captivates Steiner, the banker, at an all-night party after her initial success as Venus. He buys her a country place, La Mignotte, a league from Les Fondettes, home of Madame Hugon, whose seventeen-year-old son, George, was the one who called Nana stunning the opening night of The Blonde Venus and who had been enraptured with her at Nana’s party. Nana, making no pretense of belonging exclusively to Steiner, invites a number of friends to visit her at La Mignotte.
Madame Hugon entertains Count Muffat, his wife, Sabine, and their daughter, Estelle, at her home in September. George, who had been expected several times during the summer, suddenly comes home. He had invited Fauchery and Daguenet for a visit. Mme Vandeuvres, who had promised for five years to come to Les Fondettes, was likewise expected. Mme Hugon is unaware of any connection between the coming of Nana to La Mignotte and the simultaneous visits of all of these men to Les Fondettes.
George escapes from his doting mother and leaves in the rain to Nana, who finds him soaking wet as she is gathering strawberries in her garden. While his clothes are drying, he dresses in some of Nana’s clothes. Despite Nana’s feeling that it is wrong to submit to such an innocent boy, she finally gives in to George’s entreaties, and she is faithful to him for almost a week. Muffat, who had lived a circumspect life for forty years, becomes increasingly inflamed by passion as he pays nightly visits to Nana’s place, only to be rebuffed each time. He talks with Steiner, who likewise was being put off by Nana with the excuse that she was not feeling well. Meanwhile Muffat’s wife attracts the attention of Fauchery, the journalist.
Eleven of Nana’s Parisian friends arrive in a group at La Mignotte. George is seen with Nana and her friends by his mother, who later makes him promise not to visit the actor, a promise he has no intention of keeping. His brother, Philippe, an army officer, threatens to bring him back by his ears if he has anything more to do with Nana.
Being true to George is romantically pleasing, but financially it is unwise, and Nana at last gives herself to the persistent Muffat the night before she returns to Paris to see if she can recapture the public that had acclaimed her in The Blonde Venus.
Three months later, Muffat, who has taken the place of castoff George, is having financial troubles. During a quarrel with Nana he learns from Nana that his wife, Sabine, and Fauchery are making a cuckold of him. Nana, by turns irritated or bored by Muffat and then sorry for him, chooses this means of avenging herself on Fauchery, who had written a scurrilous article about Nana.
Having now broken with Muffat and Steiner, Nana gives up her place in the Boulevard Haussmann and lives with the actor Fontan. Fontan, however, becomes increasingly difficult and even vicious, beating her night after night and taking all of her money. Nana returns to her old profession of streetwalking to pick up a few francs. After a close brush with the police, Nana grows more discreet. She leaves the brutal Fontan and seeks a part as a grand lady in a new play at the Variety Theatre. Given the part, she fails miserably in it; but she begins to play the lady in real life in a richly decorated house that Muffat purchases for her. Despite Nana’s callous treatment of him, Muffat can not stay away from her.
In her mansion in the Avenue de Villiers, Nana squanders money in great sums. Finding Muffat’s gifts insufficient, she adds Count Xavier de Vandeuvres as a lover. She plans to get eight or ten thousand francs a month from him for pocket money. George Hugon reappears, but he is less interesting than he had once been. When Philippe Hugon tries to extricate his young brother from Nana’s net, he also gets caught. Nana grows bored. From the streets one day she picks up the prostitute Satin, who becomes her vice.
In a race for the Grand Prize of Paris at Longchamps, Nana wins two thousand louis on a horse named for her, but de Vandeuvres, who owns the filly Nana as well as the favorite Lusignan, loses everything through some crooked betting. He sets fire to his stable and dies with his horses.
Muffat finds Nana in George’s arms one evening in September; from that time on, he ceases to believe in her sworn fidelity. He becomes more and more her abject slave, submitting meekly when Nana forces him to play woolly bear, horse, and dog with her and then mocks his ridiculous nudity. Muffat is further degraded when he discovers Nana in bed with his father-in-law, the ancient Marquis de Chouard.
George, jealous of his brother Philippe, stabs himself in Nana’s bedroom when she refuses to marry him. He dies of his self-inflicted wound, and Nana is briefly sorry for him. Nana also breaks Philippe. He is imprisoned for stealing army funds to spend on her.
Nana thrives on those she destroys. Fate catches up with her at last. Visiting her dying son after his long absence and many conquests in foreign lands, she gets smallpox from him and dies a horrible death in a Paris hospital. The once-beautiful body that had destroyed so many men lay a rotting ruin in a deserted room; outside were the sounds of the French battle cry. The Franco-Prussian War of 1870 had begun.