Critical Inquiry 16 (1):1-32 (1989)

A major preoccupation of that novel [Zola’s Nana] is the undressing of the courtesan Nana. One could even say that a major dynamic of the novel is stripping Nana, and stripping away at her, making per progressively expose the secrets of this golden body that has Paris in thrall. The first chapter of the novel provides, quite literally, a mise-en-scène for Nana’s body, in the operetta La Blonde Vénus. When she comes on stage in the third act, a shiver passes over the audience, for, we are told, she is nude. Yet, we quickly discover, not quite nude: she is covered by a filmy shift under which her splendid body lets itself be glimpsed: se devinait. “It was Venus born from the waves, having only her hair as a veil.”2 The denuding of nana progresses in chapter 5 when Comte Muffat and the Prince make their way backstage to her dressing room . They surprise her naked to the waist, and she then covers herself with a bodice, which only half hides her breasts. Despite the repeated references to nana as nude, it is only in chapter 7, at the very midpoint of the novel, that Nana is finally completely naked. In this scene, she undresses before her mirror while Comte Muffat watches, especially looking at her looking at herself. Thus she is fully unveiled, frontally in the mirror, and from the backside in Muffat’s direct view. And yet, as we shall see in a moment, even the completely naked woman’s body bears a troubling veil. 2. Émile Zola, Nana , p. 47; hereafter abbreviated N. I wish to thank Helen Chillman, Librarian of the Slides and Photography Collection, Art and Architecture Library, Yale University, for her help in assembling the illustrations accompanying this essay.Peter Brooks is Tripp Professor of Humanities and Director of the Whitney Humanities Center at Yale University. The author of The Melodramatic Imagination and Reading for the Plot , he is currently working on a study of narrative and the body, tentatively called “Storied Bodies.”
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