Fig. 1 — Édouard Manet (French, 1832–1883). Nana, 1877. Oil on canvas; 154 × 115 cm. Kunsthalle, Hamburg.

Power to the Prostitute: Gender Subversion in Manet and Zola’s Nana

[1] Nineteenth-century Paris literally and figuratively trapped the whore. She could not escape the paintbrushes of pioneering artists, pens of ambitious writers, the reality of physical enslavement, and the freshly-focused, glaring eyes of society. She was at the mercy of all. Yet some combinations of these gazes ultimately moved together to challenge public understanding of Parisian courtesans as simple subjects of control. Both Manet’s 1877 painting, Nana (Fig. 1) and Émile Zola’s 1880 work of the same title use opulent, saturated imagery and setting to characterize the prostitute Nana as both subversive and allegiant to nineteenth-century gender roles. Each work suggests that Nana draws power from controlling her surroundings and clients.

In this essay, I will argue that both works also characterize Nana’s contemporaries as subversive of their gender roles. I contend that observing the two works together reveals that the works stoked public fear of the prostitute as an “instrument of…class vengeance” not only because they subverted gender roles, but also because they combined masculine energy and female physicality in a single body that was at the time considered neither male nor female.[1] The dangerously seductive combination of multiple gender roles in a person who was not supposed to possess those qualities truly challenged public concept of the prostitute as powerless and controllable.

[2] Our first visual and sensory impression of Nana in each of Manet and Zola’s works is not of gender subversion, but rather the embodiment of feminine “delicacy, sensibility, grace, [and] sweetness.”

[2] Zola’s Nana opens with wondrous visual and tactile imagery of a successful and aristocratically beautiful prostitute, literally the verbal translation of Manet’s image. Zola’s heavy use of ostentatious adjectives to accompany his descriptions of Nana contributes to the image of bombastic indulgences. She exists in a world of extravagance and exploitation, but it is “reckless extravagance and brazen exploitation” and her rise to fame must be upped a notch with “meteoric” [emphasis is my own].[3] The details are exquisite: the girl “in her loose dress with her tiny blonde curls” looks “lithe as a snake…elegant…refined and supple as a pedigree cat.”[4] Manet renders Nana just as beautifully. Her statuesque figure reaches tall heights; her clothing pleases the eye. Fine layers of gossamer lace encircling the armholes of her corset and the hem of her petticoat lend her character a gentle delicacy. Curving white strokes meld with the pale, icy blue bodice and nip in her waist to bring an airy lightness to the corset. Manet curls the oranges and browns of her hairdo in a perfectly aristocratic coif. Her jewelry drapes daintily; her makeup is natural. Manet paints Nana quite as lovely as does Zola describes in his introduction. In this sense, he and Zola both paint Nana to physically embody the expectations for feminine beauty and grace in allegiance to nineteenth-century female gender expectations.

The mirror faces her, the sofa’s golden frame curves in parallel with the gentle roundness of her belly, and the blue of the painting behind her echoes the blue of her bodice.

[3] However, both artist and author also use opulent, saturated setting to characterize Nana as the most important and influential subject in their respective works, assigning her the gender qualities of “majesty…energy…[and] authority” normally associated with men at the time.[5] Not only does Manet paint Nana as a beauty, he also extends that aristocratic sense of refinement to her surroundings. He frames the sofa behind her with stately, golden hues and upholsters the cushions in a plush, deep velvet red. Specks and vertical strokes of white embroider the sofa pillows with raised lines of delicate designs. The filling presence of similar furniture at the left of the painting and the largeness of the painting on the wall suggests a room that is not lacking. However, the lavishness of the setting does not only derive from the monetary value or visual charm of the furniture, but also its placement. Manet draws the lines of the furniture ever so carefully so that they point to or echo Nana’s appearance. The mirror faces her, the sofa’s golden frame curves in parallel with the gentle roundness of her belly, and the blue of the painting behind her echoes the blue of her bodice. The luxurious manner in which Nana’s surroundings mirror her appearance almost renders her one with the furniture. Manet paints the room as an extension of Nana’s body, literally augmenting her presence and figuratively her power and authority.

[4] In Zola’s Nana, the atmosphere and furniture’s function as the literal and symbolic extensions of Nana’s corporal being also amplifies our sense of her power. Her ability to select the furniture and control her environment suggests her position as head of the household, a position that was atypical of the normal nineteenth-century woman, who lived under the “paterfamilias…representative of patriarchal authority.”[6] Like Manet uses careful furniture placement and luxurious design to convey Nana’s gender-subversive authority, Zola similarly assigns Nana such authority with grandiose sensory imagery of the atmosphere and furniture in her house. We can almost see the warm glow of the “flesh-coloured golden light”, brush the cool surface of the “bare-breasted marble female”, and inhale the heady “scent of violets.”[7] Zola’s description of a rich variety of furniture, “Chinese cloisonné vases…antique Persian rugs…[and] Gobelin tapestries” strikes us if not as evidence of Nana’s “instinctive feel for elegance of every sort” and worldly refinement, then as proof of her current monetary agency.[8] Of course, one might argue against that claim of splendid refinement because symptoms of Nana’s lowly past crop up in images such as that of her “few silly, sentimental touches and…gaudy magnificence recalling the tastes of the flower-girl who once used to stand day-dreaming in front of the shops in the arcade.”[9] However, I argue that the small ratio of gaudy touches to opulent furniture sharply contrasts past and present, significantly bolstering the impressiveness of Nana’s current surroundings, and thus her present power. Furthermore, the crude traces of her past suggest her active grasping for status and refinement, characteristic of a vibrant woman far more energetic and authoritative than any complacent, gender-affirming courtesan sitting in a perfectly furnished room.

[5] Both Manet and Zola also convey Nana’s possession of and thirst for power through the characterization of the men around her. Manet emphasizes Nana’s power by placing her at the center of the painting, her eyes gazing out, alert of the viewer. Much like Olympia’s gaze in Manet’s Olympia, whose “bloodshot eyes appear[ed] to be provoking the public”, Nana’s gaze challenged the status quo of the time.[10] While the modern day viewer may not consider her gaze and position scandalous, both were surely shocking to the painting’s first audiences. Viewers probably felt uncomfortable in her gaze, bold and unheard of for the lowly courtesan. Nana’s back faces her male client, who in comparison, is painted off to the side, confirming his lesser importance. In addition to the man’s seated position, Manet’s truncation of half of the man’s body and face further bolsters Nana’s power and importance. Unlike Nana, the man’s dark clothing starkly contrasts with the setting of the scene, suggesting that he is an anomaly; he does not belong and the room does not belong to him.

[6] Zola similarly renders Nana’s power through his belittling characterization of the men who surround her. However, Zola characterizes Nana much more dramatically subversive of masculine gender roles than Manet does. This primarily results from the range of men Zola involves in Nana’s life. Zola portrays Count Muffat as the compliant client who has no backbone in the face of Nana’s demands, providing her “every consideration, absolute control in her own house.”[11] Then he introduces Count Xavier de Vandeuvres, who is spending the last of his fortune paying for Nana’s services. Next, the author acquaints us with Georges, a pitiable young man who is “rather like the little dog” that Nana only plays with when she is “bored and lonely.”[12] To this combination of pushover, profligate, and crybaby, Zola finally adds in Philippe, George’s brother whom Nana handles with a breezy, “’Madam will sort things out.’”[13]

[7] Zola further subverts masculine presence and dominance in the text through narrative focus on Nana that almost renders the men as background noise. Zola fully develops the reader’s sense of her character, even pausing the plot of the story for two long paragraphs to describe her daily routine.[14] Of the men’s habits and lives, all we know pertains to Nana. Their presence in the plot seem to be according to Nana’s whims and wishes, demonstrated by the “clear programme” she lays down for her relationship with the count.[15] In the entirety of Chapter 10 of Nana, not one male figure uses the imperative towards Nana in dialogue. In addition, the multitude of imperatives in Nana’s dialogue bolsters the image of Nana as the all-powerful controller.[16] Zola’s denial of the men’s right and access to their normal gender roles perhaps amplified the seeming menace of the powerful prostitute. Of course, one may say that Manet’s painting by default of medium shows a much more limited snapshot of Nana, and therefore cannot dramatize her dominance as thoroughly, but I would argue that Manet decidedly did not continually pursue the feminization or de-masculinization of the prim, proper, albeit diminished gentleman off to the side. He could have been worse off; Manet could have painted an expression of pathetic desperation on his face.

[8] Despite Zola’s numerous, blatant characterizations of Nana as a destroyer, statements such as that Nana took “pride in ruining her lovers”[17] were not the sole support for McMillan’s description of Nana as a “horrifying portrayal of how a prostitute could be the instrument of class vengeance.”[18] Zola’s characterization of the men in Nana could also be interpreted as a covert attack on upper-class males. Unlike the man in Manet’s painting, who despite his small role still maintains some shred of refined dignity in his polite dress and top hat, the upper-class men in Zola’s text end up tasteless, penniless, powerless, enabling the prostitute to seize from them all of the trappings of upper-class living. Zola’s scathing portrayal of weak upper-class males not only denied them their masculine gender roles, but actually assigned them the gender roles normally associated with women: obedience and dependence.

[9] However, if we wish to understand why both Nanas appeared so subversive and threatening to nineteenth-century Parisian ideals, we cannot only look at their simple dichotomy and reversal of gender roles. For in both painting and novel, as explored previously, Nana seems to embody not only traditionally masculine, but also conventionally feminine qualities. Of course, one may argue that nineteenth-century prostitutes were expected to eschew the standards of femininity held by bourgeois women, and therefore Nana’s masculine essence should not have come as a surprise. Nevertheless, gender expectations for nineteenth-century prostitutes, however removed from gender expectations for bourgeois women, still leaned towards the feminine. They were merely sans “bourgeois woman’s virtue…[and] chastity”[19] I argue that in her acquisition of masculine gendered qualities, not only does Nana subvert aspects of the female-gender role, she also confounds facets of the prostitute’s peculiar gender role.

In short, she embodies a dangerously seductive combination of masculine energy and female physicality.

[10] Manet and Zola’s characterization of Nana as the beautiful, immoral, powerful prostitute place her beyond comparison to any man, woman, or street prostitute, giving her an omnipotence that terrified many nineteenth-century spectators. In Zola’s novel, her enchanting allure is evidenced by her ability to attract numerous types of upper class men in addition to another prostitute, Satin. In Manet’s painting, the visual aggregation of beauty, power, and sartorial indecency creates an unusual, alluring dynamic even without the benefit of paragraphs of description and character development. Critics may argue however, that both Manet and Zola’s Nanas foreshadow the end of Nana’s power and influence, and that this ephemerality undermines the threatening, powerful prostitute that Manet and Zola each create. They correctly claim that Zola’s description of the “queen ending up literally in the gutter” confirms the evanescence of Nana’s sovereignty, and that Manet’s painting achieves the same through the depiction of half-used, extinguished candles in addition to flowers that will eventually wither away.[20] However, I maintain that this evanescence served to stoke public fear of the prostitute because it subtly highlighted the transience of power, its ability to inhabit even the used, sullied body of a lowly prostitute, its capacity to be indiscriminate in its choice of host. As Nana grows more and more enamored with Satin, she rejects the men for her and accepts her domination, demonstrated by Satin’s command to “’Just watch’” towards the close of the chapter, the only command in dialogue ever directed towards Nana.[21] Power comes and goes quickly, and is not limited to upper-class men and virtuous women — an alarming concept for nineteenth-century Parisian society.

Perhaps the largest threat could be found in their demonstration of the capricious nature of power, its fluidity, its capacity to exist without gender and class boundaries.

[11] Manet and Zola’s separate depictions of the regal, beautiful, powerful prostitute were not in themselves terrifically threatening. Each presented an individual courtesan’s subversion of traditional gender roles to become an alluring amalgam of the most seductive qualities of each. However, because each work does this to different degrees, we must discover elsewhere the underlying dynamics that made them so threatening. Perhaps the largest threat could be found in their demonstration of the capricious nature of power, its fluidity, its capacity to exist without gender and class boundaries.

Figure List

Fig. 1 — Édouard Manet (French, 1832–1883). Nana, 1877. Oil on canvas; 154 × 115 cm. Kunsthalle, Hamburg.


[1] James F. McMillan, “Housewife or Harlot: The Place of Women in French Society, “(New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1981), 23.

[2] McMillan, 9.

[3] Émile Zola, “Nana,” trans. Douglas Parmee (1880; repr. Oxford University Press, 1998), 274.

[4] Ibid.

[5] McMillan, 9.

[6] McMillan, 12.

[7] Zola, 275.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] T.J. Clark, The Painting of Modern Life, (London and New York: Thames and Hudson, 1985), 94, 96, 139–140.

[11] Zola, 278.

[12] Zola, 281.

[13] Zola, 283.

[14] Zola, 286–287.

[15] Zola, 277.

[16] Zola, 277.

[17] Ibid.

[18] McMillan, 23.

[19] McMillan, 21.

[20] Zola, 304.

[21] Ibid.