Émile Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series (1871-1893), including Nana, ran to an aggregate of twenty novels, exploring the naturalistic philosophy of literature. This philosophy was strongly influenced by the scientific method outlined in Claude Bernard’s Introduction a l’étude de la médecine expérimentale (1865; An Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine, 1927). Zola himself explained the relationship between science and literature in his theoretical works: Le Roman expérimental (1880; The Experimental Novel, 1893; a direct application of Bernard’s principle to literature), Les Romanciers naturalistes (1881; The Naturalist Novel, 1964), and Le Naturalisme au théâtre (1881; Naturalism on the Stage, 1893). According to Zola, naturalism combines scientific determinism, pessimistic and mechanistic views of human behavior, pathological assumptions about human motivation, and a predilection for examining the life of the lower socioeconomic classes. Thus, Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series, designed after the model of Honoré de Balzac’s seventeen-volume La Comédie humaine (1829-1848; The Human Comedy, 1895-1896, 1911), seeks to portray the society of the Second Empire by “scientifically” describing conditions of life.
Zola, however, did not recognize that hereditary (biological) determinants cannot rationalize behavior. His attempt to trace through twenty novels a family epic of neuroses and alcoholism was therefore less than successful. Nevertheless, it did produce some memorable character studies—among them, Nana—in the multifaceted collection of one-thousand-odd characters who appear in the series, depicting various social classes, circumstances, and places that Zola knew well.
Indeed, so attentive is Zola to naturalism’s scientific principles that he paints in words as vivid a portrait of Nana as could be painted by the most adept realists. Of course, attention to detail as well as to psychological motivation is paramount in the naturalistic canon. Just as scientific experiments require exacting attention to statistical data, so also do naturalistic novels demand factual accounting. Thus, Nana satisfies its philosophical imperatives by providing such meticulous details as would be necessary for a laboratory report. These details evolve not only from the physical description of Nana herself but also from the development of the plot. Each twist and turn in Nana’s life and fortune, for example, is as carefully documented as a research paper. No phenomenon is left unexplained. Zola’s approach to Nana—novel and character—is that of a scientist who leaves no possibility unexplored. Hence, in Nana, the protagonist is fully explored, fully psychologized.
While Nana is being thoroughly explored, Zola also develops the theme of the novel. He presents in the novel an unrelenting account of a fashionable but decadent society. In much the same manner as a twentieth century commentator on the jet-set phenomenon, Zola chronicles the debaucheries of mid-nineteenth century Paris. Money, power, and sex dominate French society, according to Zola: Money buys power, and power gets sex. Thus the central characters, obsessed with the power of money, buy and sell themselves and one another with kaleidoscopic turnover. Monsieur Mignon pimps for his wife; Madame Hugon, wittingly or unwittingly, sets up her son, George, for seduction by Nana; Nana herself accumulates an incredible number of lovers from Daguenet to Steiner to George Hugon to Count Muffat to Fontan to Count Xavier de Vandeuvres to Philippe Hugon to Satin to the Marquis de Chouard. The moral rot endemic in all of these people reaches its culmination in Nana’s literal and symbolic contracting of smallpox from her neglected son.
Zola lays bare the political, social, and ethical bankruptcy of the Second Empire. He does it through plot development and characterization. Nana’s sequential—and sometimes simultaneous—liaisons constitute the thread of plot development. Her fortunes depend not upon her theatrical talents but upon her contacts with...
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monied men who can keep her in style. Her only errors are those that involve sentiment rather than cold analysis and rational evaluation of her prospects for survival. Plot development reveals the theme of the novel as a study in how the economically disadvantaged cope with an inherently inequitable system. Zola’s implication is that they do it tenuously and insecurely. For in his characterization of Nana, Zola depicts a woman who is utterly insecure. Nana has no solid resources of her own other than her gorgeous body. She is vulgar; she is cheap; she is sordid. She is all of these degraded things because she has no confidence in her own worth as a human being. Hence, in her view, and in society’s view, once she has lost her attractiveness to the debilities of disease, she is worthless.
Still, for all of Zola’s professed adherence to naturalistic principles, his work has been judged at its artistic best precisely where he lapses from his systematic method into the natural rhythms of a novelist. The kernel of truth in this judgment certainly applies to Nana. Although the protagonist is most often described in great detail, she appears in the mind’s eye of the reader at her seductive best when she is limned in only a few bold strokes. Likewise, the inexorable logic of the sordid and predominantly deterministic plot is occasionally softened, and not a little enhanced, by such tender scenes as Nana’s meeting with George in the rain-drenched strawberry patch.
Similarly, Zola’s dispassionately analytical language is brightened from time to time with passages of near-poetic prose. Above all, the naturalistic dictum that all characters, including the protagonist, must represent types and not be extraordinary is belied by Nana herself, for Nana is nothing if not extraordinary—in her beauty, in her greed, in her vulgarity. Indeed, these contradictions, the unlikely combination of qualities, render her character atypical. Zola was quite distressed over his romantic tendencies, seeing them as flaws in the naturalistic scheme of things; however, he seemed blind to the flaws of naturalism systematically applied, especially its morbidity, its monotony, and its fundamental mediocrity. In the final analysis, however, Zola’s genius as an artist stems from his inability to follow any one theory undeviatingly, and the best of Nana can be attributed to that characteristic.