Monsieur Fauchery, a journalist, arrives at the Variety Theater thirty minutes early because his cousin Hector de la Faloise is excited about seeing a new production entitled The Blond Venus. There is a general air of anticipation awaiting the appearance of a new actress named Nana, who will play the role of Venus.
Bordenave, the producer of the play, meets the two young men and embarrasses the naive la Faloise by insisting that the theater be called a whorehouse. He describes his new actress Nana, as a cheap whore "who sings like a crow" and "has no notion what to do with her hands and feet." However, he is confident that both Nana and the show will be a success because "Nana has something else, something as good as all the other things put together."
Monsieur Mignon appears with the wealthy German-Jew banker, Steiner, who is having an affair with Mignon's wife Rose, the leading actress. Mignon, who arranges his wife's love affairs, tries to lead Steiner away from the discussion about Nana. A handsome young man, Daguenet, passes the group and is identified as Nana's lover. Count Xavier de Vandeuvres comes forward to speak to Fauchery just as a crowd on the street begins to chant Nana's name. Everyone goes to his seat to await the curtain. While waiting, Fauchery identifies many of the famous courtesans seated in the boxes. Fauchery is surprised when la Faloise greets the famous Count and Countess Muffat de Beuville and her father, the Marquis de Chouard.
The first act of The Blond Venus begins. Rose Mignon, as Diana, complains that Mars has been neglecting her in favor of Venus. Others appear and complain that Venus is causing various troubles between lovers. Only at the end of the first act does Nana appear. She does sing badly and has no concept of how to conduct herself onstage. Just as the audience begins to hiss and shout, a young boy cries out, "She's wonderful." Both the audience and Nana laugh. Suddenly, Nana gains control of the audience and no one cares if she has no talent because "she has something else."
At intermission, everyone agrees that the production is idiotic, but the main subject is Nana. Several people think they have seen her somewhere, yet no one can make a positive identification. The audience is delighted with the second act. All of the gods from Mount Olympus, dressed incognito, are seen in a Parisian dance hall. Nana is disguised as a fishwife and delights the audience with her natural earthiness.
At the second intermission, la Faloise pays his respects to Countess Muffat. He introduces his cousin Fauchery, who is received with cold dignity by the count. The countess, however, invites him to accompany la Faloise next Tuesday to their ancestral home. After they take their leave, they meet a streetwalker named Satin who is so vulgar that she is sometimes amusing.
The third act begins and a tremor runs through the audience when Nana appears: "Nana was nude. With quiet audacity, she appeared in her nakedness, certain of the sovereign power of her flesh. Some gauze enveloped her, but her rounded shoulders, her Amazonian bosom, her wide hips, which swayed to and fro voluptuously, her whole body, in fact, could be divined . . . in all its foamlike whiteness of tint, beneath the slight fabric she wore. . . . The good natured girl was suddenly transformed into a voluptuous woman who brought with her the delirium of sex and opened the gates of the unknown world of desire." Furthermore, the audience had never before witnessed such a passionate seduction scene on the stage. No one on the stage now mattered except Nana: "A wave of lust flowed from her, as from an animal in heat."
After the play, the audience leaves with mixed emotions. La Faloise assures Bordenave that the play will be highly successful.
Nana is a part of a large series of novels that Zola was at the time writing called the Rougon-Macquart series, which consists of twenty novels published between 1871 and 1898. Nana is the ninth novel in the series and was published in 1880. In general, the series is a rather loosely connected group of novels which depict varying aspects of life during the second empire in France. Even though the title of the series suggests that the novels will deal with two families, this is not so. There are, however, some points of connection between certain novels in the group. For example, Nana is the daughter of Gervaise Macquart, whose husband died of alcoholism while she died of starvation in the novel L'Assommoir (1877). Several times during the novel Nana makes a reference to the background from which she emerged.
In its largest sense, Nana fits into the Rougon-Macquart series as depicting an influential aspect of the second empire. Zola thought that his series would not be complete unless he showed the role which prostitution played in the collapse of the empire. Consequently, the reader should note how much moralizing and condemnation is present in the novel. Zola, dropping his scientific objectivity, often describes his main character and her activities so as to show how thoroughly sexual disorders affect a nation.
Throughout the entire novel, the reader should be aware of how often the individual chapters are filled with crowd scenes. Perhaps no writer of the nineteenth century filled his novels with so many scenes of such great diversity. Few writers can equal Zola in his ability to render the emotion gripping an entire mass of people. This ability is amply illustrated in the first chapter of the novel, as Nana stands on the stage in her nudity and entrances an entire audience of diverse people. On an initial reading, Zola's beginning offers much difficulty for the inexperienced reader since he refuses to focus his attention on one dominant character. But his intent is to try to capture as much as possible the diverse elements which succumb to the spell of Nana's sexuality.
The manner in which Zola casually introduces most of his main characters attests to the careful planning that went into the novel. A cursory review of the characters and their ultimate destinies will substantiate the artistic unity of the novel. The first characters to appear are Fauchery and his cousin Hector de la Faloise. Later Fauchery is to write a good review of Nana's initial performance; still later he will write a condemnation of her ("The Golden Fly"); he will also become the lover to the wife of Nana's lover. La Faloise will later be delighted to be ruined by Nana. Steiner is introduced in the presence of the Mignons and later his entire fortune will collapse under Nana's destructive desire. Count Xavier de Vandeuvres will commit suicide when Nana has devoured his fortune. Both the Count and Countess Muffat de Beuville will be utterly ruined because of Nana, and the final ruin will be brought about by the discovery of the old Marquis de Chouard, who is now seen sitting with his daughter and son-in-law. Georges Hugon, who will later stab himself, is seen as the enthusiastic admirer during the performance.
The picture of the Count Muffat sitting icy cold and distant with his family contrasts well to the final degradation to which he is brought. This is foreshadowed by the manner in which Count Muffat reacts to Nana's appearance in the third act of the drama. His puritan righteousness is replaced by deep blotches of passionate red all over his face.
Besides the emphasis on the mass reaction of the audience, Nana's sexuality is equally emphasized. The entire novel will concern itself with the sexual desires aroused by the physical appearance of Nana's voluptuous body. We must throughout the rest of the novel be constantly aware that there are two Nanas. One is the simple girl of the streets who seems to possess no particular or outstanding attributes, but the other is that symbolic Nana who represents all the sexuality inherent throughout society. The first Nana is simpleminded and gives herself to anyone at any time. The other Nana is the voluptuous incarnation of the love goddess, Venus, who reclines on sumptuous beds costing a small fortune and who evokes hitherto latent urges in everyone.
The above idea is first formulated by the theatrical production in the first chapter. The Blond Venus is the symbol of all that Nana is to become. First of all, the play uses the classical goddess of love who had degenerated in modern society to become no more than the goddess of eroticism. Likewise the content of the play, which Zola narrates in detail, foreshadows what is to happen to the entire society. The play suggests that the gods of Mount Olympus will be involved in all sorts of scandals and will be revealed in all of their absurdities. The gods lose their dignity and are dragged through the filth of corruption. Furthermore, the audience enjoys seeing "this carnival of gods . . . being dragged in the mud." Later, people like la Faloise consider it an honor to be ruined by Nana, and the entire society seems to get some vicarious satisfaction in Nana's completely corrupting influence.
Nana's initial appearance on the stage suggests how talent and ability are insignificant in the presence of something more important — Nana's sexuality. In the final act when Nana appears naked (and Zola emphasizes Nana's nudity), we understand instantly how Nana is able to mesmerize her audience by her physical presence. Without being aware of what she was doing, Nana arouses animal lust in the beholder. The casual descriptions suggesting the animal instincts aroused by Nana will become a dominant motif throughout the novel. In fact, almost every naturalistic writer emphasizes some aspect of the animal nature inherent in every human being. This idea rises to its climax in Chapter 13 when Nana forces Count Muffat to conduct himself like a vulgar beast.
From the ironic view, The Blond Venus becomes the theme song of the entire empire, and since Bordenave repeatedly insists that his theater be called his "whorehouse," we can subtly see the connection that Zola is implying. The audience is composed of the best of society, and this group becomes corrupt as it comes under Nana's influence. Consequently, the song is appropriate as the theme song for the entire generation because Nana does intrude into every aspect of society in one way or another.