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"Gender Blending in Emile Zola’s Nana"

-- Deborah B. Beyer

In his novels, Emile Zola constructs differing models of male and female behavior and interaction. In several of his works, he portrays women as victims of harmful male domination and a socialization process that eventually entraps them in a submissive role. In true naturalist style, he displays the effects of various stifling environments on both male and female characters, thereby attributing much of their behavior to their surroundings. Zola bases his work on real-life observations and creates character types that betray his perceptions of the world around him.

In the novel Nana, Zola undermines traditional notions of male and female roles and responsibilities, putting them into question through his construction of the female protagonist, Nana, and her entourage. He leads the reader into the public and private worlds of this powerful courtesan and outlines the way in which the familiar pattern of domination/submission is restructured to form a new gender identity. In so doing Zola details Nana’s attempts to subvert the limitations of patriarchal society. Assuming neither a traditional masculine nor feminine role, Nana embodies both male and female characteristics, and as such undertakes a sort of "gender blending." Her assorted affairs with men and women alike, as well as her cross-dressing and homoeroticism, serve to empower her. Further, it differentiates her from her mother Gervaise, a passive recipient of male attention and pursuit. In contrast to her mother, who essentially remains a victim of male exploitation and socialized behavior, Nana rises above her social standing and learned ideas of subjugation to become an active exploiter, with men serving as her primary targets.

In Nana, Zola questions the notions of male and female gender roles by intertwining themes of role reversal, homosexuality, and androgyny. Nana is perhaps his most daring novel in its depiction of sexuality, yet his interest in androgyny and sex roles here is not an unusual phenomenon for the period. As Naomi Schor points out:

The proliferation of androgynous protagonists in nineteenth-century French novels bespeaks a generalized breakdown in valid criteria for sexual classification, reflecting no doubt a questioning of traditional male/female roles in contemporary society.

It is precisely Zola’s textual exploration of these evolving male and female roles that I will discuss here, focusing in particular on the themes of role reversal and gender blending, and their implications to the characters in the novel. For the purposes of this discussion, I define "gender blending" as the amalgamation of male and female characteristics (stemming from dress, comportment, mannerisms, attitude, and even environment) in an individual.

Many books and articles have been written in an attempt to explain and categorize the main character, Nana, and her role as a prostitute in the decadent Second Empire. While the majority of these critics adorn this character with titles such as "an antifeminist projection," and "the femme fatale," and equate her corrupt presence with the decline of society, I seek not to label her but to examine the way in which Zola constructs her character within the novel and defines her position in Parisian society in so as to undermine certain gender assumptions of the period.

The opening scene of the novel provides the reader with important insight into Nana’s character. We are introduced to the protagonist not by her presence, but by her absence and the excitement that builds in anticipation of her arrival on scene for a musical show of which she is the star. Whereas in the novel L’Assommoir, her mother Gervaise is established from the outset as a passive figure awaiting the return of her lover, Nana, on the contrary, is anxiously awaited on stage. The gossip that circulates among the impatient spectators creates an aura of mystery and intrigue around the heretofore unseen character. Significantly, Zola presents her as indefinable and unable to be categorized, as having– "autre chose" (something else), "quelque chose" (something) – thereby making her identity uncontrollable by those around her. She is depicted as a controlling, not a controlled, force from the beginning. While in the initial scene of L’Assommoir Gervaise is cloistered in a small hotel room with her two young boys, underlining the woman’s place in the home and her role as a mother, in Nana Nana is in a public place, waiting to overtake a large theater with her mere presence. Her occupation of this space already sets her apart from the typical woman’s role of the time, which confined her largely to the home and to domestic responsibilities.

Gervaise’s submissive and tearful resignation in initial scenes of L’Assommoir are replaced here by an aura of violence surrounding Nana’s imminent appearance. In the opening scene Zola creates a hostile, unsettled and aggressive atmosphere, which foreshadows the arrival and effect of Nana, "mangeuse d’hommes" (devourer of men) (1118), and categorizes her as powerful, capable of shattering gender stereotypes and overpowering men. Her position on center stage prefigures the important role she will play throughout the novel. Similarly, the hold she maintains over her male audience in particular: "Peu à peu, Nana avait pris possession du public, et maintenant chaque homme la subissait" (Little by little, Nana had taken possession of the public, and now each man was under her influence) (1119), applies to her life outside of the theater as well.

Moreover, Nana’s power extends to all of the classes in Parisian society. The members of the audience are a mixture of all social classes as is evidenced by this description: "Paris était là...monde singulièrement mêlé, fait de tous les génies, gâté par tous les vices" (Paris was there...a singularly mixed world, made up of all the geniuses, spoiled by all of the vices) (1103). In Nana the class structure becomes less separated in social functions and hence less distinct, a phenomenon characteristic of an advancing Second Empire, a period deemed by historians as bringing about "the most rapid economic and social change in French history." This combining of the classes serves to give even more force to Nana’s power and eventual control, ascribing to her a role not held by any other of Zola’s female characters.

In fact, the majority of the women in this novel assume a dominating role, generally attributed (by Zola elsewhere and thus, by extension, by his society) to males, whereas the men become the more submissive and vulnerable characters. A study of male and female spaces substantiates these reversals in Nana. The predominance of female-dominated domains, such as the dressing room, bedroom and private sitting room, symbolize from the start of the novel women’s control over men. More often than not, it is the men who invade the female domain, and who must succumb to its "rules," as is the case in the area of the theater designated the waiting room, where the men, with "l’air patient et soumis" (a patient and submissive air) (1203), passively sit and await a reply from the actresses. Although these men make up the traditionally-dominating sex and hold an important rank in society, in this setting they are emasculated and demoted. This space is supervised and the action orchestrated by Mme Bron, the concierge, who, in a sense, is their lifeline, since they depend on her for the transmission of their messages. Nana’s male clients face a similar fate as they are forced to await her company in various rooms of her apartment. The men are frequently subject to the women’s will, waiting passively for their cue.

Through his conventional depictions of gender roles, as well as the many instances of role reversal in Nana, Zola discloses the courtesan’s power and ability (despite her low social rank) to dominate the men who depend on her for their carnal pleasures. Yet this is but one manifestation of Zola’s questioning of male and female roles. His portrayal of "gender blending" and sexual anarchy in this novel challenges the notion of socially-constructed gender lines and leads to an even greater questioning of social roles.

One way in which Zola examines gender blending in Nana is through his descriptions of men possessing female qualities and vice versa. All three of the following examples are taken from the initial scene at the Muffat hotel, where Sabine is holding her salon. First, Zola describes the Count Vandeuvres as "le dernier d’une grande race, féminin et spirituel" (the last of a great race, feminine and witty) (1146). Later, the son of one of the guests is presented as having "les yeux clairs et ses frisures blondes de fille déguisée en garçon" (light eyes and curly blond hair of a girl disguised as a boy) (1152). Finally, in contrast with the above two cases, Mme de Chezelles is presented as "mince et hardie comme un garçon" (thin and daring like a boy) (1154). Such illustrations of somewhat androgynous figures direct the reader’s attention to issues of gender and gender differentiation by calling them into question.

In addition, Zola presents the theme of cross dressing as a means of further reducing sex and gender distinction. When Georges comes to visit Nana in her country home, he is soaking wet from the rain and Nana decides to dress him in her clothing. It is she who takes the upper hand in this "game" and undermines sexual roles while Georges passively accepts to do as she requests. She is enchanted by this cross dressing, as Georges becomes symbolically transformed into a female, "là-dedans, il semblait une fille" (in these clothes he seemed like a girl) (1236).

This is not the only example of transvestism in the novel. When Nana enters Laure’s restaurant for the first time with her female lover Satin, she is struck by the androgyny of one character in particular. "

Un instant, elle fut intéressée par un jeune homme, aux cheveux courts et bouclés, le visage insolent, tenant en haleine, pendue à ses moindres caprices, toute une table de filles....Mais, comme le jeune homme riait, sa poitrine se gonfla.
"Tiens, c’est une femme!" laissa-t-elle échapper dans un léger cri.
(One instant, she was interested by a young man, with short, curly hair and an insolent face, holding captive to his smallest whims a whole table of girls....But, as the young man was laughing, his chest swelled up.
"Hey, that’s a woman!" she [Nana] let escape in a small cry) (1301).

The narrator’s delay in revealing the true sex of this person, and his persistence in calling him a "jeune homme", lead to a greater surprise at the discovery of his true identity as a female. The fact that Nana mistakes this character for a man forces the reader to imagine the masculinity of her dress and mannerisms, in short, her androgynous features. This character’s ability to captivate her listeners shows the great sway she holds over her audience and thus juxtaposes her commanding presence with the timidity of the men in the room, described as having "l’attitude humble" (a humble attitude) (1300). In this way, Zola overturns the concept of male and female identity, subverting conventional views and interpretations of gender roles and characteristics.

The author also presents varying themes of gender blending and empowerment under the auspices of Nana’s boredom. She is portrayed as needing to investigate her own sexuality, since she finds such little satisfaction in the lovers she retains. Continual allusions to her restlessness and unhappiness: "Nana se vengea des ennuis qu’on lui causait" (Nana avenged herself for the troubles one caused her) (1136), "Mon Dieu! que les femmes sont malheureuses!" (My God! How women are unhappy!) (1189), "elle coucha avec Muffat, mais sans plaisir" (she slept with Muffat, but without pleasure) (1258), "elle s’ennuyait mortellement" (she was bored to death) (1295), "elle sentait comme un vide quelque part" (she felt an empty hole somewhere) (1357) explain her exploration of alternative avenues, such as lesbianism, transvestism, and homoeroticism to find some happiness and fulfillment. The desire and ability to subvert traditional male and female pairing, therefore, are manifestations of the protagonist’s discontent and subversion insomuch as she breaks out of conventional socially-dictated gender roles.

When Nana is unable to find satisfaction in male companionship, therefore, she turns to women as a possible source of pleasure. Through his very treatment of Nana’s influence and control over both men and women, as well as her constant search for emotional and sexual satisfaction, Zola strays from depictions of the woman as the passive victim of male exploitation, concentrating instead on her empowerment. By introducing the theme of lesbianism, Zola both depicts its effect on men and explores its deviation from and resemblance to conventional male/female pairing.

Nana’s initial relationship with Satin is one of friendship and bonding, as they commiserate about "la saleté des hommes" (the nasty character of men) (1298). It is Satin who introduces Nana to Laure’s restaurant. Zola does not remain neutral in his description of this establishment, but describes the majority of those who frequent it as "énormes...des bouffissures de vice noyant les bouches molles" (enormous...the swellings of vice drowning the fleshy mouths) (1300). As for Laure, the matriarch, she is described as "ce monstre" (that monster) (1300), "une vieille idole de vice" (an old idol of vice) (1302). The repetition of the noun "vice" in reference to both the owner and the clientele, in addition to expressions such as "dans la fraternité des mêmes perversions" (in the fraternity of the same perversions) (1301) and "un goût pervers" (a perverse taste) (1302) convey a negative and disgusted male point of view concerning these surroundings.

Despite the descriptions outlined above, however, Zola paints lesbianism as an added source of power for the women. After Nana is kicked out of the house by her boyfriend, Satin becomes her lover and consoler. When Nana and Satin are reunited later in the story, the same link is established between lesbianism and vice... "Satin fut son vice" (Satin was her vice) (1360). In this case, Zola shows it to be a revolt by Nana against the responsibilities and binding ties of her "profession." Satin, her female partner, offers her an escape from the men she despises: "Oh! que les hommes m’embêtent!" (Oh! How men annoy me!) (1360). Eventually Satin is placed on even footing with the men.."Satin fut installée dans la maison, ouvertement, sur le même pied que ces messieurs" (Satin was installed in the house, openly, on the same level as the men) (1362), enjoying a status equal to theirs. In addition, she is treated like a man, causing in this case a lack in differentiation between the sexes.

Although Zola often alludes to the tender aspects of the relationship between Nana and Satin, such as "cette étreinte si douce...des paroles d’amour" (that very close hug...some words of love) (1319), and "des après-midi de tendresse...des mots caressants" (afternoons filled with tenderness....caressing words) (1360), it is not without its brutality. Satin is physically abused by Nana and her rival Mme Robert– "mordue, battue, tiraillée entre les deux femmes, elle disait simplement que....Ca n’avançait à rien de la gifler, elle ne pouvait se couper en deux, malgré sa bonne volonté d’être gentille pour tout le monde" (bitten, beaten, pulled between the two women, she would simply say that ....It got them nowhere to strike her, she couldn’t cut herself in two, despite her good will to be nice for everyone) (1361)-- thus attributing to these two women an aggressive quality that equates their abusive tendencies with those of male characters in other Zola novels. In such a way, Zola creates a sort of gender blending through the parallels he draws between these women and their homosexual relationships, complete with their pattern of female brutality/female submissiveness, and his more conventional portrayal of male brutality/female submissiveness. Eventually Nana reaches a point at which she cheats on Satin like she cheated on the Count, invoking yet another parallel between female/female and female/male relationships. Just as she cheats on Muffat with other men, Nana is also unfaithful to Satin with other women, and her actions cause a marked similarity between the two situations.

To depict another dimension of subversion in Nana’s character, actions, and relationship, Zola adds the theme of homoeroticism, or deriving pleasure from observing and touching her own body, as a further source of sexual empowerment. Zola explains in great detail Nana’s enjoyment as she engages in self-admiration and stimulation...

Nana se pelotonnait sur elle-même....Et rengorgée, se fondant dans une caresse de tout son corps, elle se frotta les joues à droite, à gauche, contre ses épaules, avec câlinerie....Elle allongea les lèvres, elle se baisa longuement près de l’aisselle, en riant à l’autre Nana, qui, elle aussi, se baisa dans la glace.
(Nana snuggled up to herself....And puffed up, melting in a caress of her whole body, she rubbed her cheeks on the right, on the left, against her shoulders, with tenderness....She stuck out her lips, kissed herself for a long time near her underarm, laughing at the other Nana, who also kissed herself in the mirror) (1271).

Her self-absorption, signaled through the inordinate use of the pronoun "her", employed over six times in this abridged quote alone, conveys her focused concentration on her own desires. Muffat’s reaction to this self-admiration, while showing his frustration, "Muffat eut un soupir bas et prolongé. Ce plaisir solitaire l’exaspérait" (Muffat gave a low and prolonged sigh. This solitary pleasure exasperated him) (1271)-- reveals yet another aspect of Nana’s sexual explorations, her ability to pleasure herself. In addition, it shows ownership of her body and herself, and the conscious choice and control she exercises in the use of this body.

The varied sexual exploits of Nana lead to a sort of sexual anarchy, in which conventional gender roles and socialization are confounded. If Gayle Rubin’s explanation of gender is valid–"Gender is not only an identification with one sex; it also entails that sexual desire is directed toward the other sex"-- then Zola’s character portrayals clearly challenge notions of gender, through the phenomenon of gender blending, as well as through themes of homosexuality and autoeroticism. In conclusion, although Zola associates Nana with evil and corruption, condemning the damaging effects of her sexuality, he instills in her strength and resourcefulness. Through her character he attests to the power and influence of women in society and their ability to subvert both gender identity and class hierarchy.


Works Consulted

Rubin, Gayle. "The Traffic in Women: Notes on the ‘Political Economy’ of Sex." Toward an Anthropology of Women. Ed. Rayna Reiter. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1978.

Schor, Naomi. "Mother’s Day: Zola’s Women." Diacritics 5 (Winter 1975): 11-17.

----. Zola’s Crowds. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978.

Warren, Jill. "Zola’s View of Prostitution in Nana." Intro. and Ed. Pierre L. Horn and Mary Beth Pringle. The Image of the Prostitute in Modern Literature. New York: Unger, 1984: 29-41.

Wright, Gordon. France in Modern Times. 4th ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1987.

Zola, Emile. Les Rougon-Macquart: Nana. Vol. II. Ed. Henri Mitterand. Paris: Editions Gallimard, 1961.