The Passing Lane is No Place for a Lady – Gendered Social Mobility in Emile Zola’s Nana
by Lauren Jackson
In Emile Zola’s novel Nana, we find that female social mobility is rigid in its birth, yet there are character’s that defy it and create fluidity despite commonly accepted values. It is true that women could ‘marry above themselves’ to gain higher positions, but even these were constricted in relation to their husband’s wishes and power. To garner and wield actual power, to have real versus imagined or representative power, women have to make bold steps that are rather controversial.
Nana is the obvious participant of this mobility in the novel; she quickly eclipsed her rivals and her star shone brighter than all others through her own wiles and charms. She beds those that can give her wealth and favors, and in this way gains a bit of freedom. She becomes a woman of fashion and wealth. To have followed propriety would have been to remain in one sphere of society – the poor and wretched. Because she defied this paradigm, she was able to shift upwards through the use of her body and looks, to become a powerful woman. She in essence ,was the controlling factor of the entire mid to upper class at this time. Her hand held the whip and what she demanded was acquiesced to, even to the point of ruin, destruction of families, and the eschewing of long-held religious beliefs.
Zoe, Nana’s maidservant-cum-orchestrator, is a wonderful example of social mobility through immoral means. Although it is accepted for men to acquire wealth through business practices and come from ‘new money’, it was not an established acceptance for women to do the same. They had no means to do so. Zoe defies all by: “…leaving her mistress to set up on her own…” (404). Zoe had been quietly saving money from the beginning of her position in Nana’s household. After amassing a sum she explained quietly: “…Zoe herself intended to take over Tricon’s business, a plan which she’d been hatching for a very long time, in an ambitious bid to make her fortune…” (404). The only way Zoe was allowed to make her money was through illegal prostitution, and the only way for her to own a business and earn more money was through illegal prostitution. Although one would assume that this is a position that still caters solely to men, there was the character of Satin to dispel some of these notions.
Overall, the ability for women to attain power was through sexuality, while they were quietly despised for wielding such weaponry. Those of the female nobility such as Countess Sabine, also gave in to such evil panderings by sleeping around on her cheating husband. This gave her a sense of independence and power in freedom of choice, where she had been stifled and controlled before. Sexuality seems to be the skeleton key of female power and agency throughout the novel. Zola apparently spits upon the notion, by destroying Nana and all that she represented, by killing Satin off quietly and unceremoniously, by returning Countess Sabine ruined to her husband, and by failing to mention what happens to Zoe after leaving Nana’s establishment. It seems safe to say that women should remain in their position, and not attempt to surpass any man in ambition or position. It appears we are to denounce Nana when she stands above Count Muffat: “…while the fiery red of her pubic hair glowed triumphantly over its victims stretched out at her feet, like a rising sun shining in triumph over a bloody battlefield” (409). The fact that her power eclipsed that of a man, and all the men she held in her palm was unthinkable. It was not for sexual pleasure that Nana indulged in her business, it was merely to gain money and position. Nana herself tells of her boredom in the bedroom: “I never enjoyed it, I got absolutely no pleasure out of it at all, it was just a chore…” (408). It was only a job, not the ravings of a morally depraved individual, but one seeking a place higher in society than that of a rag-woman.
The power paradigms in Nana are truly startling. To climb the social ladder as a woman, one must eat or be eaten, quite literally. To have your fleshy thighs and your supple wrists admired is an evil to be borne and a punishment to be meted out. Those women in the novel who utilized such power were scandalous yet independent. The cost of freedom is high, towering above in the elevated sex of Whoredom.
Zola, Emile. Nana.