Summary and Analysis
At the thirty-fourth performance of The Blond Venus, the excitement backstage is due to the fact that the prince is in the audience for the third time that week. Fontan, the leading actor of the theater, is unaware of this because he is busy arranging to have champagne delivered backstage to celebrate his "name day." The members of the troupe are aware that the prince has earlier taken Nana to his place. It is said that he refuses to go to Nana's apartment and prefers to take her to his own rooms.
Nana has now become rather influential. She has convinced Bordenave to give her old friend Satin a position in the theater. Steiner has left Paris to buy her a country house. Furthermore, the prince has just requested permission to come backstage to greet and congratulate Nana in person. As members of the troupe look out on the audience, they recognize that the prince is accompanied by Count Muffat and his father-in-law, the Marquis de Chouard.
In the midst of the changing of the scenery, there is a sudden commotion and everyone notices that the prince and his two companions are backstage. The prince "had the distinguished air peculiar to a sturdy man of pleasure." While he feels perfectly at ease backstage, Count Muffat is extremely nervous and uncomfortable in the presence of so many strange and mysterious objects. He begins to sweat and feels suffocated by the heavy female odors which permeate the place.
Bordenave leads them directly into Nana's dressing room. She is at first angry that someone has burst into her room without knocking, but when she learns the identity of her callers, she comes out from behind the curtain. Count Muffat is so affected by the heat and the feminine odor intensified by a low ceiling that he must sit down to keep from fainting. Nana tries to apologize for receiving the gentlemen in her chemise, but the prince assures her that they are to blame for the intrusion. Nana pretends to scold Count Muffat for not coming to her party, and the count can hardly answer.
Suddenly, Fontan appears with the champagne and not knowing that the prince is in Nana's dressing room charges in offering champagne. The prince is delighted to accept. Nana entertains the entire troupe while standing half naked. The room becomes so crowded that she cannot move unless her breasts touched Count Muffat's arms. Soon the bell announcing the beginning of the last act rings, and everyone leaves except the three gentlemen.
Nana must excuse herself and apply her intimate makeup. Count Muffat, who had never even seen his wife put on her garters, "was now exposed to all the intimate details of a woman's toilet." He slowly realizes that Nana is taking possession of him, but he is determined to fight against her. But at the same time, he resents the fact that Nana thinks of him as being a highly virtuous man. Just as Nana finishes, the gentlemen leave with the intention of watching the remainder of the show from the wings of the theater.
Just as Rose Mignon is about to make her entrance, she suddenly notices her husband and her lover fighting on the floor of the theater. She goes on and sings her song while Bordenave stops the fight. When he returns, he assures the prince that the incident was of no importance.
At one slight break in the performance, Madame Tricon shows up and goes straight toward Nana, who immediately refuses the procuress' offer. Bordenave is horrified that someone let the procuress backstage while the prince is also there.
When Nana goes onstage in her nude scene, Count Muffat is entranced by the spectacle since he now sees her from an entirely different and closer perspective. He feels himself becoming more and more in her power, and he can do nothing to fight against the emotion. Fauchery comes up to the count and offers to show him the other parts of the theater. He takes the count to the ladies' dressing rooms, where once again Count Muffat feels stifled by the presence of so many strong feminine odors. In one of the dressing rooms on the upper level, he discovers his father-in-law sitting between two of the actresses. Clarisse, at Fauchery's insistence, comes forward and lightly kisses the count on the cheek. Suddenly finding himself alone, he wanders back toward Nana's dressing room when he sees her walking down one of the corridors. He silently slips up behind her and kisses the back of her neck. At first Nana is surprised, but when she discovers who it is, she tells him that she now owns a house in the country in a region which the count often visits. She tells him to come and see her there.
A few minutes later, Count Muffat sees Nana leave with the prince. When he escapes from the confines of the theater, he realizes now that Nana possesses him and he would repudiate and sell everything to "possess her that very night for a single hour."
Chapter 5 returns to the theater for its setting. The reader should note how Zola is alternating his scenes between Nana's house, large parties, and the theater. In both the house and the theater, Zola creates an aura of illicit sex as we catch (according to Martin Turnell, The Art of French Fiction, 159) "tantalizing glimpses — of shoulders, breasts and thighs. Actresses dodge coyly behind screens if a visitor arrives, only to emerge provocatively when the visitor turns out to be a wealthy old man or an English prince."
Justifying his title as a naturalist, Zola does not allow one detail to escape his notice. He catalogs all the various odors, sounds, and details connected with the theater. He is not content only to suggest, but at times he burdens down the reader with this accumulation of details so as to substantiate fully his case-study of corruption.
The thirty-fourth performance of The Blond Venus suggests how completely Nana has made the show a success. Furthermore, the fact that the prince is there to see Nana for the third time within a week suggests that her appeal is more than a local oddity. The prince serves another function in the novel: Since he is visiting royalty and since Count Muffat's position in the service of the emperor demands that he oversee the pleasures of the visiting royalty, the prince's desire to see Nana causes Count Muffat to be brought back into Nana's presence and to become enslaved to her sexuality.
During this chapter, we hear that Steiner has just bought Nana an estate out in the country. This fact attests partially to Nana's success as a courtesan, but more important, it provides Nana with a place close to the country house where Count Muffat visits and consequently serves conveniently to move the plot forward.
Nana's success with Steiner should not be overrated. Zola uses him mainly as a pawn who contributes to the larger case study in corruption. From the first descriptions, we know that Steiner is not a difficult prey to capture. Throughout the novel, he is there only as someone who can provide Nana with the things immediately needed. His is a secondary role.
When the prince comes backstage to congratulate, Nana he brings Count Muffat with him. For the count, who has never been behind the scenes, this is an entirely new world opening up for him. This simple new experience initiates him into a new awareness of himself also. For a man who has repressed his sexual urges to be placed suddenly amid the suffocating heat laden with the strong odors of female nudity creates emotions so confusing that he cannot understand himself. His cheeks become flushed, his face is red, and he has "small drops of sweat on his forehead." The feeling of dizziness, which he had experienced when he visited Nana in her apartment "once more overwhelms him," and he sits down to keep from fainting. Then when Nana emerges from behind the screen half naked, she stands in the crowded room next to Count Muffat in such a position that he cannot move without touching her breasts. Finally the repressed, pious man begins for the first time to realize that there is a freedom in sexual matters that he has never known to exist: "His whole being was in turmoil. He was terrified of the possession Nana had been taking of him for some time." He is determined to rely on his religious training, but suddenly the Marquis de Chouard says that the count is "virtue personified." When Count Muffat resents Nana knowing this instead of being proud that he is a virtuous man, his downfall is assured.
As Muffat watches Nana from behind the scenes as she goes onto the stage in her nudity, he becomes more and more affected by this woman. A trip through the rest of the theater and then, at the end, a sudden glimpse of Nana returning to her own dressing room break him completely as he slips up behind her and kisses her on the neck. He is now defeated and knows it; it will only be a matter of time before he is completely ruined. At the end of the chapter, he realized that "he was hers utterly: he would have abjured everything, sold everything, to possess her for a single hour that very night. Youth, a lustful puberty of early manhood, was stirring within him at last, flaming up suddenly in the chaste heart of the Catholic and amid the dignified traditions of middle age." With this realization on his part, it will only be a matter of arrangements before he does repudiate everything and dissolve his fortune and family to possess Nana.
Zola is also careful to mix royalty and decency with almost every aspect of the lurid and vulgar. While the prince and Muffat are backstage, Fauchery and Mignon get into a common brawl. The procuress, Madame Tricon, comes in soliciting. Ironically, Nana does not have time for the procuress, who easily arranges for another actress. This ease reminds us that, in the opening chapter, Bordenave said to call his theater a whorehouse, and now it is vibrantly true.