Summary and Analysis
Nana decides that she wants to celebrate her success with a dinner that everyone will talk about, so she decides to have the affair catered. Daguenet and Georges have accompanied Nana from the theater and help her repair a tear in her dress. Soon, guests begin to arrive — Rose Mignon with her husband and the banker, Steiner; Count Vandeuvres with an actress; and Fauchery, who tells Nana that Count Muffat refused her invitation. Soon the room is packed with guests so tightly that people can hardly move about. Nana had expected twenty-five or thirty and had made arrangements for seating only that number at dinner. As guests continue to arrive, Nana becomes somewhat annoyed.
When dinner is served, there is such confusion that Nana tells everyone to sit where they please. She places a mysterious gentleman on her right and keeps the rich banker on her left. The table is so crowded that no one has room to eat. Just as the first course is being served, three people whom Nana has never seen appear. They had been invited by Count Vandeuvres. As they squeeze into places, the table becomes almost intolerable. In spite of the closeness of all the guests, there is scarcely any conversation. Young Georges finds the guests "prosaic and sedate."
As the guests drink more and more wine, the conversation begins to liven up somewhat, but the waiters serving the meal become more careless and begin to spill things on Nana's rug. Inevitably the subject of the table turns to the forthcoming exposition. All the ladies wonder how much royalty will attend the exposition, which leads to inquiries about the looks and charms of various famous men. It is reported that Count Bismarck is a charming man and someone jokingly says that he now has thirty-two children. As the evening progresses, the banker Steiner becomes more and more infatuated with Nana and begins offering her large sums to sleep with him. Nana pretends not to be interested in order to keep Steiner intrigued. Lucy Stewart warns that Nana never "gives back the men who are lent to her." Meanwhile, young Georges wants to crawl under the table and lie at Nana's feet like a trained puppy.
As the party increases in tempo, Nana suddenly feels that she is no longer in her own home. Everyone else seems to be taking over and ordering the servants around. By the end of the meal, she is furious and her anger only excites Steiner more and causes him to offer even larger and larger sums to Nana. She tells everyone to go into another room to have coffee as the party becomes too loud and raucous. One person, Foucarmont, passes out in the middle of the room after bragging that he has never been able to get drunk.
After a few minutes, several people at the party notice that Nana has disappeared. Daguenet and Georges call Vandeuvres into Nana's room, where she tells the men that she wants to be respected. Vandeuvres tells her that she is drunk, but Nana still wants to be respected even if she is drunk. She is also disappointed because Count Muffat did not come. Vandeuvres warns her to forget the count, who is much too religious to come to such parties.
At four o'clock in the morning, some card tables are set up, and various games and dances start. Even this late, some more people show up, but Nana stoutly claims that she did not invite them. The newcomers remind her that she had extended the invitation in a restaurant only two nights ago.
At five o'clock, the dancing stops, but the young men begin drinking heavily. One drunk young man pours champagne into the piano, announcing that champagne is very good for pianos. Later, others find liquors of various colors and add them to the champagne in the piano. Finally realizing that Count Muffat is not coming, Nana offers herself to the fat banker Steiner, who is almost overcome by her sudden burst of generosity. However, Nana suddenly decides that she wants to go to the Bois de Boulogne for a glass of milk. She invites one of her friends, and Steiner can only acquiesce in impatient silence.
Chapter 4 presents another of Zola's magnificent crowd scenes as people throng into Nana's apartment for the dinner party which she is giving. Although it has not yet become a dominant image of the novel, notice that even now Zola is using the crowd to suggest animals being fed. This scene has many similarities to Flaubert's scene in Madame Bovary wherein the citizens congregate for the Agricultural Show.
Nana's constant desire is to be considered a respected and elegant lady. Therefore, she decides to have her dinner catered since this is more fashionable. Also, she wants to give a party "that everyone would talk about." The irony is that Nana is constantly talked about, but not for the reasons she desires.
The animal imagery becomes more dominant as Georges kneels on the floor "with his hands buried in her skirt." This image serves also to suggest the manner in which Nana's sexuality is worshiped. Later during the party, Georges wants "to crawl under the table on all fours and to go crouch at Nana's feet like a little dog." This image again emphasizes the idea of worshiping Nana's sexuality, but the animal image is equally important. For the naturalist such as Zola, man is in constant danger of reverting to the bestial instincts inherent in his nature. Any particular incident can bring out the brutish animal nature in an otherwise civilized person.
During the serving of dinner, Zola has a heyday with ironies. The dinner itself consists of many courses, but since the table is filled with many more guests than were invited, there is scarcely room for a person to breathe. Furthermore, all of the women are either prostitutes, courtesans, or women of questionable reputations. Yet there is an attempt to act the part of a lady. As the party progresses, the waiters who are catering the party become careless and begin to spill gravy and sauces on the carpets. Gradually, Nana loses control of the party, and what she wanted to be a great success becomes instead a wild orgy which will be talked about for different reasons.
Zola does not directly point out the similarity or the difference between Nana's party and the reception at the countess. But there are implied similarities. For example, the same subject is discussed at both parties. The ladies of each group are interested in the numbers of royalty who will come to Paris for the exposition. But whereas in Countess Sabine's group, the ladies are interested in the royalty for the sake of social prestige, in Nana's group, they are interested in future prospects who will spend money for them. The difference and similarity centers on the personage of Count Bismarck. When Vandeuvres hears him discussed again, "he felt that he was again back in the Muffats' drawing room, the only difference being that the ladies were changed." Then, too, Nana's company emphasize that Bismarck has thirty-two children; and even though this is said in jest, it still underscores the sexual interest of the ladies in someone like Bismarck.
With the arrival of Steiner, whom Nana places next to her at dinner, it becomes obvious that Nana will soon take him from Rose Mignon. The image is that "Nana was now showing her white teeth," another animal image to reinforce the general devouring quality possessed by Nana. Yet at the same time Steiner is presented in such a way that it is no particular triumph on Nana's part to make him become infatuated with her. He contributes equally to his own ruin. He serves only to provide Nana with testing ground for her own sexuality.
As Nana had in the previous chapter intruded upon the Muffat's party, so now the count intrudes upon Nana's party. She is disappointed that he did not come and only listens when Vandeuvres says that "the priests have too strong a hold on him." Nana knows better because she has already noted the effect that she has upon Muffat.
Nana's whimsicality is also revealed in these chapters. Part of her personality is that she wants to be respected as a lady and yet seldom does anything to command respect. Her actions are often erratic. For example, after she offers herself to Steiner, she then suddenly decides that she wants to go to the Bois de Boulogne to drink milk. This idea occurs almost at dawn after a party that has become impossible to control. But the fact that Steiner concurs in this whimsy points out the degree to which Nana dominates her men.