Disclaimer: Whereas I usually try to be objective with my ratings and reviews, with this specific one, I allowed my gut to lead me.
I hated this novel for it's sanctimonious preaching and its rank offensively aggressive misogynism (or perhaps, as has been remarked, it is misanthropy, plain and simple? ..since both men and women are ripped to shreds by the sharp lash of Zola's tongue pen ).
The general milieu in the period of history that this novel is set in, was very unkind to the poor, so good luck, I say, to those who could manage to claw their way out of the gutter of poverty by whatever means possible.
Yet, the impression I get from the way Zola describes things and the language he uses, is that he seems to be condemning those who managed to do so.
He is supposed to be writing from the point of view of a paradigm of naturalism, but take it from a pro-Darwinst who believes to a large extent that humans are made up of reasonably equal parts of nature and nurture, that Zola sounds pretty judgmental for someone who is trying to show that people are merely the results of their circumstances.
One of the things that caused me a high level of discomfort with this novel, is that to me it felt (I suppose that part of the impressions I got might be due to the translation - it's often quite hard to gauge a translated work appropriately) as if the 'special' quality about Nana seemed to be presented as something animal, some animal charisma, something that resounded in her admirers in their most base natures, the most animal part of their psyche.
Perhaps that is what made me feel so uncomfortable; -is how readily Zola's characters responded to this animal aspect. I think it was a clever device by Zola to add to the reader's disgust. Perhaps his aim was to induce a feeling of shame in his contemporaries?
Which brings me to the point that I don't think feminist readers will necessarily see Nana as symbolic of ALL women, but rather symbolic of "the sexual woman".
I think that on an instinctual level, I saw her as symbolic of women who embrace their sexuality, and in this case, one of the women who uses her sexuality to gain power over men and destroy them.
No doubt there are such women, of course there are (I know some of them and are myself repelled by a few of them). ...but Zola, in this specific novel, doesn't seem to try and counterbalance the typical stereotype of the scary, nasty man-eater with any positive female in juxtaposition with the nasty disgusting creature, who uses her animal cunning, her pheromones and her vagina to devour men whole.
To make matters worse, Nana can't even be credited with really having used her brain (or possessing anything of the sort)- she is simply a thoughtless, base, ball of cunning. Her selfish exploitation of other humans seems to be of an instinctive, thoughtless variety, like the scorpion who stings simply because it is in the creature's nature.
I think I'm probably a bit tired of the spectre of the vagina dentata myth, and my reaction (admittedly a visceral one) can probably be explained in light of my exasperation with it.
I sometimes post images on my reviews. A picture is worth a thousand words, they say. Well, the following portrait doesn't quite contain 1000 words, but it does give you a good picture of Nana:"She alone was left standing, amid the accumulated riches of her mansion, while a host of men lay stricken at her feet. Like those monsters of ancient times whose fearful domains were covered with skeletons, she rested her feet on human skulls and was surrounded by catastrophes...The fly that had come from the dungheap of the slums, carrying the ferment of social decay, had poisoned all these men simply by alighting on them. It was fitting and just. She had avenged the beggars and outcasts of her world. And while, as it were, her sex rose in a halo of glory and blazed down on her prostrate victims like a rising sun shining down on a field of carnage, she remained as unconscious of her actions as a splendid animal, ignorant of the havoc she had wreaked, and as good-natured as ever."
..and would you call Zola classist, perhaps? Dang, i should have done a Marxist review of this...- would have had a field day.