Summary and Analysis
On the Sunday of the famous race for the Grand Prix de Paris, Nana is as excited about the event as if her entire fortune depended upon it. The most talked about horse in the race is a filly owned by Count Xavier de Vandeuvres, which he names "Nana." To conform with the mood of the day, Nana is wearing the same colors as those of the Vandeuvres stables, which will be the same colors worn by the filly Nana.
On the way to the race, Nana explains to her companions that Count Muffat has been sulking for two days. Out of boredom, Nana picked up a man on the street and later Count Muffat found the man's hat in Nana's room. But today, Nana is not going to let anything interfere with her pleasure. She also tells how a man named Monsieur Venot came to see her to plead with her to give up Count Muffat.
At the race track, Nana is excited to find out that her namesake has fifty to one odds against her. Nana decides that "she," that is, her namesake, is not worth very much. She gaily tells her friends: "Bet on any horse you like . . . except Nana — she's a nag." Nana then asks advice of everyone before she decides to bet any money. She gives a thousand francs to Labordette, who will choose a horse for her. He refuses to tell her which horse he will place her money on. All the men in the group are betting on various horses, but when la Faloise decides to bet twenty francs on Nana for fun, the other gentlemen follow suit and place small bets on Nana. Soon, the odds drop to forty to one.
As the crowd begins to gather, Nana sees Count Muffat, who is in service to the empress. Rose Mignon and many other of Nana's friends arrive. Monsieur Mignon comes to try to persuade Nana to make up with Rose, who is still furious because Nana took her part in The Little Duchess. He tells Nana that Rose has a letter which the Countess Sabine once wrote to Fauchery, and she plans to use the letter to get even with Nana. Nana, however, is not concerned with Rose but is more puzzled about why the odds are dropping on the filly Nana; suddenly they are only fifteen to one.
When Count Vandeuvres comes and takes Nana inside the enclosure, where loose women are not allowed, she feels proud and aristocratic. She questions him about why the odds are dropping but is told abruptly to mind her own business. Nana is not offended with his rudeness because she and everyone know that Count Vandeuvres is playing "his last card that day." Everyone also knows that Nana is the "voracious woman" who is finishing him off.
The race begins and the favored horses take the lead, but Nana is never far behind. By the first turn, there are only four horses still in the contest and Nana is one of them. At the finish of the race, there are only two horses and finally Nana wins by a head. Since the other horse was English, the entire crowd is ecstatic that the French horse won, and Nana's name reverberates throughout the grandstand. Even the empress applauds. "Standing up straight on the seat of her landau, Nana felt as though it were she who was being acclaimed." Labordette returns and tells her he had bet her money on Nana; consequently, she has won forty thousand francs.
Immediately after the race, there ensue some quarrels in the stables. Vandeuvres had been preparing for Nana to win for years by holding her back in other races and then secretly manipulating bets in such a way as to win a fortune. But he is trapped in his own net of intrigue, and carrying out an earlier promise, he locks himself and his horses in the stable and sets fire to everything.
That night in Paris, Nana is celebrated everywhere she goes. Two days later, Nana maintains that Count Vandeuvres ended his life in real style. She is disappointed when she hears a rumor that the count escaped out a back window. The burning was such a beautiful idea.
Chapter 11 presents another of the crowd scenes where there is no chance for a close or intimate view. But not since the opening chapters in the theater has Zola presented the mass reaction in so effective a manner as he does here during the racing scenes. The entire chapter captures the madness and frenzy of a society whose values are disrupted by attention to pleasure.
Nana is at her height as she arrives in her elegance at the race track. The chapter brings together almost all of the personages in the novel from the procuress Tricon, who bets on the filly Nana, to the various lovers and actresses who refuse to bet on Nana, to the royalty, which includes the empress and the prince from England, both attended by Count Muffat.
The use of the name Nana to apply to both the main character and the horse in the race provides Zola with ample ironies. From the humorous side, Nana delights in referring to the horse as "Nana, the nag." But more important are the various uses of the animal imagery to imply the destruction of Count Vandeuvres and to clarify varying opinions about Nana the courtesan. Count Vandeuvres ends his life because of some shady transactions made in connection with the filly Nana, leaving Nana the courtesan as an equal partner in his destruction.
Since the race has developed into a race between an English horse and a French horse, Nana the filly becomes the apotheosis for the French Second Empire. As the contest is reduced to a two-horse race between the English horse and Nana, the crowd becomes frenzied in shouting for "Nana, the Nag; Nana the slut" to win. Nana represents the pleasure-seeking second empire, and the juxtaposition of horse and courtesan sums up the values which dominated this society. Even after the race, Nana the courtesan is toasted and cheered. Even Nana begins to associate herself with the nag and feels that the crowd is indeed cheering her.
Perhaps nowhere in Zola's many novels does he capture so completely the spirit of an age and the mass excitement engendered by dualistic motives.