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The Gender Roles In Emile Zolas Nana English Literature Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 2155 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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The majority of the women in the novel seem to assume a dominate role over their male counter-parts, whereas the male characters begin to become more and more submissive and vulnerable to the women’s will. This role reversal is very obvious in the novel. In the beginning of the novel the women have female-dominated areas, such as the bedroom, changing room, and private waiting rooms. This symbolizes that from the start of the novel women already have had power over the men. Throughout the novel it was common for the men who came into the female’s area to yield to the “rules” of the room. This is shown when the men are in the waiting room area of the theater,

where the men, with “a patient and obedient air,”(8) [1] sit and await an answer from the actresses.

During the 19th century men were perceived to be the dominate sex in a relationship and hold the important rank in society, but in the waiting room they are completely stripped of that and are emasculated and demoted. The waiting room is the territory of Mme Bron, the owner, who seems to act as a courier between the actresses and the eager men, delivering messages between the two groups. She is indispensable to the men because of this.(7) [2] Nana’s male clients face a similar situation. They are forced to wait for her company within the various rooms of her apartment.(15) [3] These men are frequently subjected to the will of the women as they wait. The author’s use of traditional gender roles, as well as the very many instances of the reversal of these roles in the novel. He lets readers see Nana’s ability to control her male counter-part, despite low social rank and traditional gender roles, due their dependency on her for their sexual desires. But, this is only one instance out of many that comes about throughout Zola’s novel. His depiction of role reversal and sexual disorder in the novel challenged the traditional views of the society in the 19th century, and shows an even deeper view into gender roles.

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Another way the author depicts role reversal in Nana is by using his idea that men posses female attributes and women posses male attributes. Sabine is taking care of her salon at the Muffat Hotel (55) [4] during one scene of the novel, this one scene contains numerous examples of the possession of attributes of the opposite sex. Zola describes Count Vandeuvres as “the last of a great race, feminine


and witty.”(64-65) [5] Another example of this role reversal is when he describes the son of a guest of the hotel as having “light eyes and curly blond hair of a girl disguised as a boy.”(69) [6] The last depiction of role reversal in this scene is the exact opposite of the above mentioned examples. The author tells us that Mme de Chezelles, a friend of Sabine’s, is a “thin and daring like a boy.”(65) [7] His depictions of these characters contradict who and what the characters really are, but these illustrations call the attention of the reader to issues of gender and role reversal by pointing them out and having the reader question gender roles even further.

Zola uses the theme of cross dressing throughout his novel. He uses it as a means to advance the idea that sex and gender distinction is only a perceived human thought. When Georges visits Nana in her house out in the country, he is soaked to the bone due to rain. She then dresses Georges up in her clothing.(112) [8] This is the scene where she seems to take the upper hand over her male counterpart and subdues his traditional role as a male. Georges willingly accepts to do as she requested. [9] In turn she has become the male in the relationship. She is mesmerized by the cross dresser in her house. Georges, however, has now been transformed physically and symbolically into a woman. Zola writes “in these clothes he resembled a girl.”(115) [10] However, this is not the only scene where a transvestite has been included. When Nana goes to dine at Laure’s restaurant with her female lover, Satin, she is struck by


the masculine features of one character. “One instant, she was intrigued by a young man, with short, curly hair and an bold face, holding captive to his smallest whims a whole table of girls…But, as the young man was laughing his chest swelled up.”(234) [11] 

Zola’s delay in telling readers the true sex of this character, and his willingness to call the woman a “young man,”(234) [12] made for a fantastic surprise to readers when one discovers that she is in fact a he. As soon as Nana reveals the mistake she made and the true identity of the character it forces the reader to imagine the style of clothing and the way the character acts in a public setting. This is a clear portrayal of transvestism. The character has the ability to capture her audience’s attention, which shows the influence she holds over her listeners. It establishes a contrast between the way he acts and the way the other men in the restaurant act, who Zola describes as having “a humble attitude.”(200) [13] By doing so, he demolishes the idea of male and female identities.

He also establishes role reversal and gender depiction using Nana’s constant boredom. She is shown as wanting to explore her own sexual desires, due to the fact she finds little to no happiness with her previous partners.(213) [14] The author uses allusion to show the reader this by telling readers details about Nana such as “She avenged herself for the troubles one had caused her.”(211) [15] He continues on with such things as “My God! How women are unhappy”(221) [16] and “she slept with Muffat, but with


no pleasure.”(224) [17] The author finally establishes her thoughts to explore her sexuality by telling readers “she was bored to death”(230) [18] and “she felt an empty hole.”(230) [19] Here, the author establishes Nana’s want to try lesbianism and transvestism to fill this “hole” and to find happiness. The ability to reverse gender roles, such as male and female couples, gives Nana hope to break out of her socially acceptable role as a woman. As soon as she has given up on finding sexual and spiritual satisfaction with a man, she turns to women. This gives her hope to find pleasure in a whole new field. Using Nana’s control and power over both males and females alike, as well as her long lasting search for emotional and physical gratification, Zola wanders from the traditional idea that woman are victims of male abuse and exploitation, and instead focuses on her control over men. By making her a lesbian, the author depicts lesbianisms effects on men and ventures further into the question of traditional male and female couples.

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Nana’s relationship with her lover Satin contains the elements of friendship and bonding. The couple talk about “the disgusting character of men.”(245) [20] Satin is the one who introduces Nana to Laure’s.(239) [21] Zola does not keep a liberal view about the restaurant. He states it as “enormous…. the swelling of vice drowning the fleshy mouths.”(241) [22] As for Laure, the owner, she is described as a


“monster”(248-249) [23] and “an old idol of vice.”(249) [24] the author’s use of the word “vice” as a way to describe both the owner of the restaurant and the clients who frequent it, give off a negative and almost grotesque view of the restaurant from a obviously male point of view.

Even though Zola’s view of the restaurant is clearly a male, he portrays Nana’s lesbian qualities

as another reason for power women posses. At one point in the novel she is told to leave her boyfriend’s house. Satin then takes his place as Nana’s lover and emotional support. Later in the novel when Nana and Satin find each other once more, the same concept is depicted between lesbianism and vice. “Satin was her vice”(410) [25] Zola writes. He portrays Satin as an object to help Nana deal with the commitments of her profession. She gives Nana the opportunity to finally be free of the men she hates so much. “Oh how men annoy me”(441) [26] she states at one point. This is a clear representation of her frustration and anger towards males. As their relationship grows, Satin finally becomes equal to her male counterparts. “Satin was welcomed in the house, openly, on the same level as the men.”(446) [27] Satin enjoys her new found status, and in addition to being equal to men, she is also treated as one. This causes a vast lack in distinction between men and women.

Throughout the novel various gender roles are exploited. These exploits add up to form a kind of sexual disorder, in which traditional gender roles and society itself is put into question. Zola’s


portrayal of gender roles and sex is irrefutably a challenge to the ideas of gender. The use of role reversal as well as homosexuality and sexual gratification completely and undoubtedly express this challenge. Even though the author seems to suggest that his character is filled with evil and corruption,

while at the same time criticize the harmful effects of her sexuality, he gives her the attributes of strength, control, and resourcefulness. Through the actions of his character, the author testifies to the power and influence of women in society and their power to obliterate both gender and social identities.


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