Summary and Analysis
Three months later, Count Muffat is pacing in front of the Variety Theater hoping to see Nana. He has been living during this time "in such a whirl of sensual excitement that he had no very distinct impressions beyond the need to possess her." When she sends him a note saying that she is going to spend the night with little Louiset, who is ill, Muffat becomes suspicious and goes by her apartment. He discovers that she is at the theater.
As Count Muffat waits, he is so plagued with fears and jealousy that he is no longer discreet about being seen haunting the sidewalks of the theater district. Finally Nana emerges alone from the theater and is surprised to see Muffat. She feels at first like a trapped woman but decides to play along with him. She asks him to take her for some oysters. At the restaurant, Count Muffat slips into a private room to avoid being seen, but Nana sees her old lover Daguenet, who tells her that he has decided to be practical and marry a woman with a large dowry. When Nana asks him about an article written about her by Fauchery, Daguenet is surprised that Nana is not angry.
Before leaving, Daguenet tells Nana that Muffat is a cuckold. She learns that the Countess Sabine de Beuville is sleeping with Fauchery, who has just published an article about Nana. At first Nana is disgusted by the news, then she begins to feel sympathetic for Count Muffat. She takes him with her to her apartment but wants to get rid of him before midnight so that she can receive another visitor.
At home, Nana undergoes a ritual before her mirror. She likes to take off her clothes and examine her nude body from every angle. When Muffat objects, she reminds him that her performance is only for herself. While admiring herself, she also caresses various parts of her body. To occupy Muffat's time, she gives him Fauchery's article, "The Golden Fly," written about her. The article is a story about a girl from the lowest sector of society who has grown into a superb physical specimen. She is using all the force of her sex to destroy the aristocracy: "Without wishing it, she had become a blind power of nature, a ferment of destruction corrupting and disorganizing Paris between her snow-white thighs." At the end of the article, Nana is compared to "a sun-colored fly which has flown up out of the dung, a fly which sucks death from the carrion left on the roadside, and then, buzzing, dancing, glittering like a precious stone, enters the windows of palaces and poisons men merely by settling on them in her flight."
The article reminds Count Muffat how much Nana has corrupted his life and how he is tainted to the "core by filth which he could never even have suspected before." And as he watches Nana's disgusting exhibition of her nakedness, he cannot resist the mounting passion in himself. Nana questions him about his relations with his wife. She discovers that he was a virgin on the night that he married, and she forces him to reveal all the intimate details connected with his married life with the countess.
Nana begins to tell the count stories about men who do not satisfy their wives and how the wives look elsewhere for satisfaction. For a long time, the count does not understand Nana, and when he begins to see the light, he is infuriated. Goaded on, Nana tells him that the countess is now in bed with Fauchery. Count Muffat tries to beat her but is unable to carry out his intent. He escapes as quickly as possible from Nana's apartment, and she tells Zoé to let in the other visitor.
Count Muffat goes to the building where Fauchery lives. After watching for some time, he sees some shadows in Fauchery's apartment and thinks that one shadow resembles the Countess Sabine. He decides to stand vigilance the entire night, but after dawn, he wanders into a church, where he prays for strength. Leaving the church, his feet carry him automatically back to Nana's apartment She is astonished to see him and orders him to leave, but Count Muffat wants to go to bed with her immediately. As they are arguing, Steiner also arrives, bringing the thousand francs that Nana had told him to collect for her. She then reveals that she has a lover in her bed, Fontan the actor, and orders both men to leave. On arriving home, at about nine o'clock, Muffat notices that the Countess Sabine looks as though she had spent a sleepless night.
After an interval of three months, Count Muffat is seen watching the exits of the theater. For the first time, he knows that Nana has been lying to him. To such a man as Count Muffat, who has always lived in a world of honesty, this spying is an indication of his degradation. Muffat is aware that Nana no longer responds to him in the same degree of playfulness. But now, for the first time, he is aware that Nana has a separate life. Until today, Count Muffat "had been living in such a whirl of sensual excitement that he had no very distinct impressions beyond the need to possess" Nana. He frantically watches every possible exit at the theater in order to stop her from keeping an assignation with someone else. Earlier, the count would never have allowed himself to be seen parading before the theater or becoming a man of the streets. Now, however, in his anxiety, he commits actions foreign to his nature. Realizing this, he becomes aware of just how much Nana has made him an object of humiliation and scorn. Nevertheless, Zola points out, the count cannot control these basic urges. This is the naturalist emphasizing the animal nature of humans.
For the first time in the novel, Nana feels a sense of being trapped in a situation. Earlier, in her relations with Steiner, she could send him off to bed pleading sickness and then go to sleep with Georges. But with Count Muffat, she has entered upon a career where she must answer for her every action and where each moment is evaluated. She particularly resents Count Muffat because "he did not know how much a man ought to give a woman, so she could not hold his stinginess against him." Nana must, then, corrupt him completely before she can dominate him.
Whereas Fauchery had originally written a favorable review of Nana's performance in The Blond Venus, now he writes a scathing attack upon her corrupting influence. The relations become complicated since the man who wrote the article is now sleeping with Count Muffat's wife, the Countess Sabine. Ironically Nana is pleased about the article because, being unable to interpret the subtleties, she can only note that it is a long article, that it is about her, and that it appeared in the leading journal.
Daguenet, who tells Nana about the article, is not without some degree of duplicity. He has been one of Nana's lovers in the past and is now trying to win Count Muffat's daughter. Nana's reaction to Count Muffat's being made a cuckold by his wife indicates something of her values. She is constantly disgusted throughout the novel when she discovers that respectable people conduct themselves without discretion. Her saving grace is that she is a courtesan and is only doing her business. Further irony is that she always wants to be treated like a lady in spite of anything she does.
While Nana is undergoing one of her nightly rituals in which she examines and admires her nude body and then caresses it, she gives Muffat the article to read. The combination of Nana's action and the content of the article is enough to force Muffat to attempt to evaluate his relationship with Nana and to try to recover some aspect of his own decency. The article makes it crystal clear that Nana is a destructive force corrupting everything she comes into contact with. The nature of the article leaves no doubt that Zola is here moralizing about the harm of abnormal sexuality and about the destructive effects that courtesans played in undermining the second empire.
Count Muffat's reactions reemphasize how trapped he is by Nana's sexuality. He knows that "in three months she had corrupted his life, he already felt himself tainted to his very marrow by filth hitherto undreamed of. Everything inside him would soon be rotten. For an instant, he understood the effects of this evil, he saw the ruin caused by that ferment, he saw himself poisoned, his family destroyed, a segment of the social fabric cracking and collapsing." Yet there is some animal instinct in him which draws him down further and further into this corruption. In spite of the overt implications of the article and in spite of Nana's disgusting exhibitionism, Muffat cannot control himself and resorts to brutality as he seizes Nana. Again Zola is emphasizing the brutal or animal instinct which controls humanity's actions at the sacrifice of the higher values.
Even though Muffat is able to understand the implications of the article while Nana cannot, the table reverses as Muffat cannot understand Nana's sly allusions to Countess Sabine's infidelity. She forces him to shed his last remnant of shame by relating the most intimate details of his marriage night with the countess; but when Nana begins to allude to women who seek pleasure elsewhere when their husbands will not give it to them, Muffat is very slow in understanding.
Nana does not maliciously hurt the count; she is not capable of this type of culpability. Instead, she only wants to get rid of him so she can join her other lover waiting in the kitchen. This other lover is Fontan, to live with whom she will later give up everything. Also, Nana has come to believe that "high or low, women are all the same: not one of them has any morals." And we remember that when Nana first saw the Countess Sabine, she knew then that the countess was a woman who possessed a passionate nature.
Muffat's complete collapse into the gutters is seen clearly in the closing pages of this chapter. As he haunts the streets starring at the window where he thinks his wife is having a love affair, his last vestiges of dignity are falling from him. He tries to evoke divine aid and to return to the safety of his previous religious life. In the church, he asks God to help him, but his heart apparently isn't in his plea because he soon finds himself being led automatically back toward Nana's apartment. Once back at Nana's, he can only beg to be allowed to go to bed with her. He is now so lost that he cannot even become angry when Nana insults him. His manliness and his resolution have deserted him, and he is reduced to the level of an animal.
The chapter ends with Nana in bed with Fontan. Furthermore, Nana has reached a turning point in her career. She now rejects both Steiner and Muffat and decides to devote herself to love without recompense. This ends the first part of the history of Nana's career.