Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century French Studies

Nana, Prostitution and the Textual Foundations of Zola's Au Bonheur Des Dames

Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century French Studies

Nana, Prostitution and the Textual Foundations of Zola's Au Bonheur Des Dames

Article excerpt

The rotting, putrefying, decomposing body of Nana--the most notorious insoumise in a distinguished tradition of nineteenth-century romans de la prostitution--draws attention to the biological degeneration Zola associates with unchecked desire and the threats posed to society more generally. Thus, critics often read Nana for what it tells us about the relationship between prostitution and nervous disorders, hysteria and madness (Matlock 164-65), or the fantasmatic dimension to plot construction which attempts to control and contain perceived sexual deviance (Bernheimer, Figures 200-33). However, it is important to recognize that Zola's prostitute engenders a cycle of textual production as well as sexual destruction. (1) To date, this duality has been considered largely within the limits of the novel to which she lends her name. Peter Brooks, for instance, points out that of the many "engines" of Zola's Rougon-Macquart, which "represent the dynamics of the narrative [and] furnish the motor power by which the plot moves forward," the most generative machine of all is Nana, "who by the end of the novel becomes the very motor principle of production" (Reading, 45-46). This article proposes that Zola's eponymous prostitute, put into textual circulation at the very heart of the author's narrative cycle, makes her force felt well beyond the confines of this one novel. My argument, therefore, is that Nana serves as a textual foundation from which new writings can clearly be seen to emerge. In particular, the sense of excess associated with Zola's depiction of the prostitute is discernable in Au Bonheur des Dames, in which the circulation of goods, capital and bodies is the guiding principle of the department store's success. The way in which Zola thinks about Nana, the very embodiment of consumption and desire, provides a template for understanding the textual dynamics at work in Au Bonheur des Dames. As such, a comparative study of these two novels permits an examination of the textual reverberations that emanate from Zola's depictions of prostitution.

Zola's novel on the modern urban department store has long been read for its portrayal of a world defined in terms of its exchange value. (2) The Bonheur des Dames is, of course, a site of social and economic exchange. But, as its title suggests, it is a place of bodily pleasure too; as Brian Nelson has proposed, its economy may be characterized as a "noeud d'enjeux erotiques et monetaires" (Nelson, "Desir" 30). Trading in Eros and Mammon, or more precisely the exchange of capital for pleasure, Zola's commercial enterprise is truly a beacon of modernity. The novel has been amply read for its treatment of the modern commercial techniques pioneered at the time of the Second Empire. (3) Much recent criticism--by Nelson, Hannah Thompson and Naomi Schor among others--has also tended to focus on the store as an erotic, sexualized space, powered by female desire. In this context, a great deal of attention has been afforded to the novel's portrayal of the female consumers who are constructed and conditioned by an emerging capitalist society. (4) As Brooks purs it in his study of the operation of desire and seduction in the department store, "what is for sale, in Zola's view, always leads us back to the woman's body" (Body Work 150). As this observation suggests, "the woman," defined and fetishized by the market economy in all her fascinating, yet unknowable, unrepresentable otherness, is often thought to be the source of the store's commercial energy, and thus "the origin of the dynamic narrative" (Body Work 159). Such Fantasmatic analyses, which seek to identify generative impulses and frustrated attempts at mastering the sign of difference, flourished with the rise of psychoanalysis. (5) But Zola's work famously refuses interpretation on any one level; hence, in the context of new textual and intertextual approaches now being applied to his writings, such as by Valerie Minogue, and in the light of Janet Beizer's reading of the various textual pleasures embedded in the narrative of Au Bonheur des Dames in particular, this article considers the textual forces operating in Zola's novel on modern commerce, focusing above all on the presence of Nana and prostitution as woven into its very fabric. …

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