Summary and Analysis
The Countess Sabine receives every Tuesday in the drawing rooms of the family mansion. On entering the rooms, one feels the "cold dignity and ancient customs" of a vanished age. The countess, however, feels the continuity of tradition and has "no intention of changing her drawing room."
On this Tuesday, there are only a few old acquaintances; among the guests is Count Xavier de Vandeuvres, who owns a famous racing stable and who is famous for the large sums he spends on his mistresses. Also present is the banker Steiner, who has gained a reputation for becoming infatuated with actresses and spending fortunes on them.
The main topic of conversation concerns the forthcoming exposition to be held in Paris and the suspense connected with how many of Europe's royalty will attend it. During the discussion, Fauchery and Hector de la Faloise arrive. After paying his respects to the countess, Fauchery contacts Count Vandeuvres and lets him know that Nana is having a party the next night in her apartment. Nana also wants Fauchery to invite Count Muffat, but Vandeuvres thinks it impossible that the count will accept.
Fauchery questions his cousin about the countess and learns that she has the "coldness of pious virtue." If she has ever been unfaithful, she has certainly been discreet about it because there has "never been any gossip about her." As for the count, Fauchery learns that Muffat is an extremely pious Catholic who is cold, distant, and formal. In spite of the austere appearance of this noble family, Fauchery notices that the countess has a birthmark almost identical to Nana's.
Steiner comes forward bragging about also having been invited to Nana's party. At the same moment, Georges Hugon enters and Fauchery recognizes him as the young boy who had openly cheered Nana in the theater. His mother, Madame Hugon, has known the Countess Sabine since childhood. After some polite conversation, Madame Hugon says that Georges took her to the Variety Theater the night before to see some strange play, but no one in the group mentions or discusses The Blond Venus. As the conversation continues, Vandeuvres moves about the room recruiting men who can bring pretty women to Nana's party.
As the evening passes, Fauchery decides he must hazard inviting the count to Nana's party. Vandeuvres promises to help. At first, the count says he does not know Nana, but then he is reminded that he paid her a visit recently. Count Muffat explains that the nature of his business was for charity, and he then refuses the invitation. He assumes a lofty and haughty attitude as though the subject should be dismissed. During the conversation, young Georges Hugon reveals that he has also been invited to the party by Nana.
The conversation is interrupted by the appearance of the countess' father, the Marquis de Chouard. Later, Vandeuvres and Fauchery renew their entreaties, this time including the marquis in the invitation. Both are wavering when suddenly the count emphatically refuses. As Fauchery leaves, the ladies are inquiring if Count Bismarck will make war on France.
Even though Chapter 3 shifts to the reception given by the Count and Countess Muffat de Beuville, the emphasis is never away from Nana. She pervades the party from beginning to end, suggesting to what degree she has already become a force on every level of society. For example, Fauchery arrives and lets selected people know that Nana is giving a party the following night and that he is to invite certain people. Count Vandeuvres, who is to be invited, has spent a fortune on mistresses: "Every year his mistresses devoured now a farm, now some acres of land or forest." This early description is later picked up and emphasized when Nana takes him on as a part-time lover, and it also begins to prepare us for his ultimate fate.
The main person whom Fauchery is to invite is Count Muffat. Count Vandeuvres emphasizes Muffat's religious tendencies as proof that he will not compromise his virtue. Throughout this chapter and others, Muffat's strong religious traits and his piety are emphasized so that his fall is more complete than the fall of a natural libertine such as Vandeuvres. When Fauchery asks Count Muffat the second time, we should note that the count is about ready to yield and would have done so if it had not been for the influence of Monsieur Venot, the former ecclesiastical lawyer who holds a strong influence over Count Muffat and who, in the end of the novel, finally rescues Muffat after he has been broken by Nana.
Nana intrudes upon the party when Madame Hugon announces that her son took her to the theater last night. Madame Hugon is so naive that she did not understand the play. No one in the group mentions Nana's name, but it is present in everyone's mind. Then we discover that even young Georges has been invited to Nana's party.
At the beginning of the reception, Countess Sabine is introduced as a person who is very pious and devoted to the traditions of her society. She is very proud of the ancestral home and "certainly would not alter her drawing room after having lived in it for seventeen years." Yet later in the novel, as she becomes corrupted, she tries to make her drawing room as glittering as Nana's. It is furthermore interesting to note the various ways in which Zola suggests and foreshadows the countess' later debaucheries. Aside from the conversation concerning her looks and the suggestive talk about her thighs, Fauchery, the man who will later become her lover, notices a birthmark on her face: "He was surprised by a birthmark he noticed on the Countess' left cheek, near her mouth. Nana had exactly the same kind of birthmark." This small physical characteristic tends to align Nana with the countess, and later we see that the countess becomes as passionate and capricious as Nana. Furthermore, Vandeuvres and Fauchery make a comparison between Nana and the countess and notice several other parallels which suggest that beneath the "coldness of her pious virtue," there is a mysterious magnetism.
A large amount of the conversation during the party deals with Count Bismarck and his popularity with ladies, his charm, and his ambitions. The novel, of course, ends with Bismarck and the Prussians declaring war on France. At present, however, he is merely a subject for polite conversation.