The Variety Theater is now rehearsing The Little Duchess, a new play written by Fauchery, but the rehearsals are going exceptionally badly. Nana is in one of the boxes watching the play before accepting the role of the prostitute which has been offered to her. Rose Mignon is playing the part of a grand duchess even though her husband has informed the troupe that she has been offered a much better part at another theater at twice the salary that she is presently receiving.
After watching the play for a few minutes, Nana turns to her companion, Labordette, and asks him when Count Muffat will come. She is assured that the count will soon appear. Nana continues watching the confusion and the arguments resulting from the early stages of rehearsal. When they finally spot Count Muffat arriving, Labordette sends Nana upstairs and promises to deliver the count to her shortly. On her way, she is accosted by Bordenave, who tries to get her to sign for the part of the prostitute. Nana delays answering for the present moment.
In a few minutes, Count Muffat appears in the small dressing room where Nana is waiting. He is so emotionally distraught over seeing Nana again that he can hardly breathe or speak. Nana tells him that all is forgiven and she is willing to be friends with him again. He tells her that he wants to take her back again as his mistress and promises to give her all the things that she wants. When Nana refuses, he tells her all the things that he will offer her if she will only promise to be his alone. Nana, however, tells him that he can't give her the thing that she wants most. She then explains that she wants to play the role of the duchess and be known as a respectable woman. She demonstrates how well she can act the part of a refined lady. Count Muffat tells her he will give her anything but that, whereupon Nana accuses him of being afraid of Rose Mignon. She suggests that Fauchery owes it to the count to give in to his wishes, but she is afraid to mention directly the relationship between Fauchery and the Countess Sabine. Instead of arguing with him, she takes him in her arms, kisses him passionately, and then sends him to secure the role for her. As he is leaving, she makes him confirm his offer to buy her a house, diamonds, and carriages.
Count Muffat seeks out Bordenave and tells him of Nana's request. At first Bordenave thinks it is ridiculous, but quickly summing up the situation, he agrees, knowing that Muffat will pay huge sums in support of the theater in order to get his way with Nana. At first, Fauchery will not even listen to the proposition, but after some cajoling on the part of Bordenave and, more important, some desperate pleading on the part of the count, Fauchery agrees to have Nana play the role of the duchess.
Monsieur Mignon refuses to allow his wife Rose to be dropped from the role but finally consents by suggesting she be paid ten thousand francs for releasing the part. Muffat agrees to pay that sum. When Rose discovers what has transpired, she threatens revenge. On opening night, she sits in one of the boxes and screeches with laughter every time Nana appears. The play "was a great disaster for Nana. She was atrociously bad in it." Afterward, however, she swears to get even with everyone who laughed at her. She maintains she will show all of Paris "what a great lady is like."
At the end of Chapter 8, Nana was at the low point of her career. With the beginning of Chapter 9, she begins her rise, and from here to the end of the novel, we watch Nana's emergence as a strong destructive character instrumental in the slow and final degeneration of Count Muffat. As in the opening chapter where Nana gained her first reputation in the theater, so does her second rise to fame now begin in the theater. The opening of this chapter is also another one of Zola's famous crowd scenes where many people are seen reacting against one another.
The interrelationships of the characters in this scene almost reach the point of incredibility. Nana has always wanted to be respected and thought of as a great lady. She resents the fact that she must always be cast as the loose woman. Therefore, when she sees that Fauchery's play has the part of a grand lady in it, she wants to play that part even though everyone wants her to play the part of the prostitute. Fauchery, furthermore, has already written a bitter satire against Nana previously published as "The Golden Fly," and he has also been Countess Sabine's lover. His relationships with both Nana and with the countess therefore reflect themselves in the characterizations in the play he has written.
Nana knows that she can only get the part by forcing Muffat to deal with Fauchery and by buying off the owner of the theater, Bordenave. Nana uses her sexuality to get Count Muffat to plead with Fauchery to allow her to have this particular part. Since Fauchery is now the lover of Count Muffat's wife, he finds that he cannot refuse the count's pleading request. Consequently, Zola loads the scene in a manner that is almost unbelievable.
Count Muffat's actions in this chapter indicate how much he is still in Nana's power and how much he is willing to degrade himself in order to pacify and possess her once again. Zola writes that "forces still at work within him and Nana conquered him again . . . by the weaknesses of his flesh." Descriptions such as these reemphasize Zola's inherent naturalistic view of humanity as unable to control those animal instincts working toward its destruction. Other descriptions suggest these animal instincts as Count Muffat falls to his knees in the dirty dressing room so as to "lay his face between her knees." When Nana makes her request, Count Muffat knows immediately that he will have to make overtures to his wife's lover, and he pleads with Nana: "I'll do anything you want, except that." But Nana is unrelenting and decides that argument is not as good a weapon as is her sexuality. She then begins to fondle Count Muffat and sends him to fulfill her request.
The extent of Muffat's degradation is seen in the manner in which he must beg his wife's lover for a favor for his mistress. He prances before Fauchery trying to demonstrate how well Nana can play the part of a grand lady, and in doing so loses his last remnants of dignity. To beg from Fauchery is the most degrading act he has yet performed.
The change that is made makes Rose Mignon hate Nana more than ever. She promises to get even with her. Yet as Rose makes these violent threats, the reader should remember that she is the one who will look after the dying Nana.
The play was a dreadful failure because too many outside forces were conflicting with the artistic function of the drama. When the private lives of the actresses, the writer, and the various lovers and mistresses intervene with the production, it is doomed to failure from the very beginning.