Nana and Lily:
The Basic Economics of Beauty
San Francisco State University
In Nana (1880) by Emile Zola and The House of Mirth (1905) by Edith Wharton, each of the two female protagonists is enmeshed in an economic system that renders her the object of commerce, a system in which the male gaze determines her value. This system of valuation is based entirely on looking as a precursor to male appropriation of the female body. Thus, the male gaze figures prominently in these texts and this value-determining gaze both objectifies the protagonists' bodies and elevates them to a status worthy of worship. Within this economic system, these constantly staring eyes objectify and subsequently commodify according to different principles depending on the woman in question: the body of Nana, a prostitute, is visually broken up into pieces in order to be sexually consumed, while Lily, a woman trying to sell herself into marriage, is visually constructed into a perfect,
yet untouchable image of beauty in its purest form.1 As a consequence, their bodies are de-humanized; they are stripped of any significance other than that of their value as objects of commerce.
This "market" echoes another commodity exchange system of objectified bodies that is expounded in Marx's works, notably The Communist Manifesto and Capital. In these works, Marx describes a dark industrial world where the worker is stripped of his humanity until his body is indistinguishable from the machine. In section 1 of The Communist Manifesto, Marx says that workers are a commodity and that they "must sell themselves piecemeal" (227) to the labor market. The disembodiment and commodification of the worker in Marx parallels the fate of Nana's and Lily's bodies. Just as the worker's hands are inseparable from the machine as he "becomes an appendage of the machine" (Manifesto 227), Nana and Lily become "just a screw or a cog in the great machine [. . .] called life" (Wharton 319). Like Marx's workers, their humanity is stripped away in exchange for the function of the body's use in an economy that belongs to the dominant class: the two women are valued for the useful functions of their bodies -- these functions especially include sexualized visual pleasure (in the case of Nana) and idealized decorative visual pleasure (in the case of Lily). The women behind the bodies are not necessary to the useable functions of their bodies, and therefore they become enslaved to the machine of the society which uses/consumes them.
Ultimately, through their dehumanization, the women's bodies become a sort of spectacle onto which men can project their visual fantasies, turning the women's bodies into objects to fetishize. In "The Fetishism of the Commodity and its Secret," section 4 of the first chapter of Capital, Marx takes the term "fetish," which originally referred to a religious faith in an idol, and uses it to refer to a capitalistic religious faith in objects that are imbued with value beyond their uses. Later, in Freud, the word "fetish" takes on a new sexualized meaning. Reading Marx and Freud together then, "fetish" becomes a worship of the commodity which is sexually-charged. This relates back to Nana and Lily, who as objects are looked at and worshipped as sexualized and fetishized commodities imbued with a strange sort of mystical value, that has little to do with their existence as human beings.
Significantly, for Marx and Freud, commodification and fetishism are indeed grounded in "seeing," not only in the very basic way in which seeing is "a physical relation between physical things" (Capital 165) but also in the way that Freud places significance on looking at women. In Freud's essay, "Fetishism," he argues that the fetish is a substitute for the woman's (the mother's) penis that the little boy once believed in" (152-53). Essentially, the little boy "sees" that the mother does not have a phallus, this moment causes a trauma, and the fetish is the last thing the little boy saw before he saw the missing phallus. The importance of "seeing" the fetishized object in Marx and Freud is appropriately expanded upon by Laura Mulvey, who examines the fetishization of women in Hollywood films. For Mulvey, fetishistic looking at (passive) women by (active) men leads to the overvaluation of
the female image, and, I would add, the undervaluation of the woman as a human/non-object. Beyond the visual overvaluation, there is also a construction of the object as the ideal recipient of a male visual fantasy: "The determining male gaze projects its fantasy on to the female figure which is styled accordingly" (Mulvey 62). "Seeing" takes on an even more powerful signification in Mulvey, since "in their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness" (62). Mulvey applies the term "fetishistic scopophilia" to refer to this overvaluation of the female body that arises from turning her into a fetish object in order to alleviate the castration anxiety.
Mulvey's concept of the male gaze, though initially applied to the study of film, works nicely nonetheless in the novels in question in two important ways: first, because Nana is an actress on stage and because Lily is figuratively on stage; second, because not only are the women's bodies displayed in front of predominantly male gazers within the narratives, the novels are written in a voyeuristic style that invites the reader to also engage in this looking. The result is a double objectification of the protagonists' bodies, as they are overvalued in a specular economy, until the physical beauty of the object is enough in itself. This fetishization of their beauty is where the disintegration of the subjectivity of Nana and Lily originates, and it ultimately leads to the destruction of their lives, and, in the case of Nana, the destruction of the lives of the men who fetishize her.
But it is not only the men in the novels who commodify and fetishize Nana and Lily. The women define themselves by the roles that they play in these societies, and they strive to commodify themselves just as much as the men commodify them. Indeed, these are not just any commodity; these women are highly specialized products, and they take great care to ensure that their value is unsurpassable. In fact, in this economic system, Nana and Lily are the greatest capitalists of all, as they devote their lives to capitalizing on their beauty and on displaying the product (their bodies) to the fullest advantage. They inherently believe in the very system of valuation that ultimately destroys both of them because their whole lives led them to become the objects that they are. Their fates were determined the moment they came into existence.2
In the opening chapter of Nana, the reader discovers Nana's coarse environment as he/she enters into the world of Bordenave's theater, where Nana, a former street prostitute, is about to make her stage debut. But this is no typical debut, nor is Nana a typical star. To begin with, Nana sings like
"une vraie seringue" (38) ["like a corncake" (3)], and she has no idea "où mettre les pieds et les mains" (39) ["what to do with her hands or her feet" (4)] when she is on stage.3 But theatrical talent is not central to Nana's success because she has a pleasing body that she is willing to display naked with no bashfulness. This scene introduces the basis of Nana's value throughout the novel. Nothing else Nana does matters, as long as she is willing to capitalize on her body, or let it be capitalized on by others, like Bordenave.
By having Nana first appear naked on stage to be physically scrutinized by the audience in the novel as well as the reader-made-voyeur, Zola makes it absolutely clear in this first chapter that Nana's purpose is to be gazed at both within the novel and without. And true to Bordenave's promise, she sings terribly and acts horribly, inciting the laughter of the crowd, while she, with her bawdy sense of humor, laughs right along with them, unabashedly exploiting her unrefined sexuality in order to detract from her "failure" as an actress. In fact, her stage début is actually quite a success, and her most successful moment is when she appears on stage almost naked, imitating the birth of Venus:
Nana était nue. Elle était nue avec une tranquille audace, certaine de la toute-puissance de sa chair. Une simple gaze l'enveloppait; ses épaules rondes, sa gorge d'amazone dont les pointes roses se tenaient levées et rigides comme des lances, ses larges hanches qui roulaient dans un balancement voluptueux, ses cuisses de blonde grasse, tout son corps se devinait, se voyait sous le tissu léger, d'une blancheur d'écume. C'était Vénus naissant des flots, n'ayant pour voile que ses cheveux. Et, lorsque Nana levait les bras, on apercevait, aux feux de la rampe, les poiles d'or de ses aisselles. (63, italics added)
[Nana was naked, naked and unashamed, serenely confident in the irresistible power of her young flesh, her well-rounded shoulders, her firm breasts with their hard, erect pink nipples which seemed to be stabbing at the audience, her broad hips rolling and swaying voluptuously, her plump golden thighs. Covered by a simple veil, her whole body could be seen, or imagined, by all through the diaphanous, white frothy gauze. It was Venus being born of the waves, hidden only by her hair. And when she lifted her arms, in the glare of the footlights you could glimpse the golden hair in her armpits. (25, italics added)]
Though Nana is wearing a tunic of thin material, she is initially described as naked, creating the fantasy that defines Nana: the fantasy that she is naked and willing to be the object of those always staring eyes.4 Posing as a visual imitation of paintings of the goddess of love, Nana's (apparent) willingness to expose and exploit her physical body renders her the ultimate dehumanized sexual object. Becoming like another of these paintings of Venus, Nana erases her own existence beneath the "canvas" of her body. In this way, she becomes the ultimate sexual fantasy. Her so-called nakedness encourages this fantasy; the thin tunic and her hair cover her strategically so that the men are able to project their own fantasies of their ideal of Nana's body onto the reality of her body. Essentially her "nakedness" becomes the male construction of her body, and thus there is enough room for the imagination to create her objectified perfection.
While Nana's body is re-constructed by the male fantasy in the Venus scene, it is also de-constructed, or broken up into pieces in this examination of her. This de-construction provides intimate details about individual parts of Nana's body, inviting not only the men in the audience to gaze, but also the reader (both male and female).5 The description of Nana's armpit hair is slightly grotesque, and it is the first of many indications of an animalistic vision of Nana. This animalism both attracts and repels her admirers, just as the fetishized actresses in Mulvey's essay both replace the anxiety of the phallus as the actress becomes the fetish (attraction), and painfully remind the man of his castration anxiety (repulsion). The fragmented pieces of sexualized images such as shoulders, breasts, and thighs, also echo the disembodied laborers who become nothing but "hands." Nana a
workers are associated only with those pieces of their bodies that are immediately useful to the structure of the particular market that uses them.
In the novel, there are several "marketplaces" where Nana is the commodity. In the case of this first chapter of Nana, the marketplace in question is Bordenave's theater in which Nana becomes the most important commodity. In this "centre of capitalist commerce of the flesh" (Nelson 419), Bordenave is seller, master, pimp and slave-trader, and women like Nana are product, laborer, prostitute, and slave. And this is explicit in the text when we are introduced to him: "C'était donc là ce Bordenave, ce montreur de femmes qui les traitait en garde-chiourme" (38) ["So this was Bordenave who put women on show and drove them like galley slaves" (3)] and later in the chapter: "il en vendait, il savait ce qu'elles valaient, les graces" (40) ["he knew what the sluts were worth, he sold them" (5)]. And if the point did not get across, Bordenave himself drives it home when he twice insis
ts upon the theatre being referred to as brothel (38, 39). Additionally, as Peter Brooks points out, "Nana is a kitsch Venus" (2). Imitating high art, such as paintings of the birth of Venus, this street prostitute with her unrefined behavior becomes a low-brow goddess of love in this factory of sexualized female bodies. On stage, she echoes the cheap, mass-produced highly-commodified drawing room art of the nineteenth century. She is a cheap product for sale during the rise of consumer culture.
But Nana's value actually varies throughout the text. Sometimes she is a cheap imitation Venus, sometimes an expensive courtesan kept by wealthy aristocratic men and sometimes a common street prostitute for anyone who will pay her. Nana understands all too well the economics of her position. At her least capitalizing, she seems to resist selling her body, fruitlessly trying to explore the role of a mother or of an independent woman. But each impulse to escape the "marketplaces" she is a product of is checked by the reality that she must capitalize on her body in order to survive. At her most capitalizing, she knows just how to manipulate the men to make them pay a higher price. Trying to elevate her value with the banker Steiner, she continually refuses his offers while flirting with him and providing him the opportunity to gaze at her and ascertain her costliness: "le banquier offrait davantage, à chaque movement câlin de ses épaules, aux légers renflements voluptueux de son cou, lorsqu'elle tournait la tête" (140) ["each time the banker saw the flirtatious twist of her shoulders or the voluptuous little rolls of flesh on her neck as she turned her head, he increased his offer" (97)]. And in this way she bankrupts and ruins half of Paris aristocracy. Bringing the men into the special market where her flesh is the product, she initiates them into a system of values, both economic and moral, that directly conflicts with the "appropriate" systems in place in Parisian aristocracy.
There is another marketplace that serves as a backdrop for the novel in chapter 11, when all the characters meet at the Grand Prix de Paris, where, upon arrival, the women parade in their carriages before the crowd, displaying themselves like the horses. During this "parade," some of Nana's regular customers visit her carriage, flirting and "lancant des chiffres, commes ils s'étaient disputé Nana aux enchères" (365) ["throwing figures about as if they were bidding for Nana at an auction" (315)]. And the line between Nana and the horses is further blurred, as one of them is named after her and is described in the same sort of disjointed bits of beauty that often describe Nana the woman. When the horse enters the track, the audience and the reader repeat the opening scene as they all gaze at this objectified and commodified animal: "Elle luisait à la lumière comme
un louis neuf, la poitrine profonde, la tête et l'encolure légères, dans l'élancement nerveux et fin de sa longue échine" (382) ["She gleamed in the sun like a red-headed blonde, as golden as a freshly minted guinea, deep-chested but with a light head, neck and withers flowing into her long, lean, slender but sinewy back" (331)]. It is not immediately clear if we are looking at Nana the woman or Nana the horse. Furthermore, the description of the horse as resembling a "louis neuf" (a new gold coin) brings the central issue of economics to light. Both Nanas are gazed at commodities whose value is only as high as the pleasure they bring to the onlookers.
In the final scene of the novel, we go from looking at Venus to looking at destruction: everything that gave Nana any value is destroyed when she dies of small pox, and her desirable face and body is so disfigured that the men who had worshipped her are not even willing to visit her deathbed. They do not wish to see her in a non-sexual way. Conversely, all of her fellow prostitutes spend her last moments with her, while they mourn the beauty that is lost in this deformation. She has one visitor in particular, her longtime bitter rival, Rose, who keeps watch over her bedside for days, not leaving until after Nana dies. There is a poignance in this final chapter as the women, particularly Rose, face the reality of their value to their clientele. After hating Nana for the entire narrative, Rose spends these last days with her in order to give her some value as a human woman and not a fetishized commodity. And Rose's husband/pimp is not happy with Rose's compassion because he makes his living on her beauty: "'Elle sera gentille, si elle y passe, avec des trous dans la figure! Ça nous arrangera bien.' [. . .] Cette idée que Rose pouvait perdre sa beauté l'exaspérait. Il lâchait Nana carrément" (463) ["'She'll look nice if she catches it and ends up with her face all pitted! That's all we need!' [. . .] He was enraged at the thought that Rose might lose her good looks and wanted Nana to be left on her own" (412). He does not care about how Nana feels in her dying moments, and he does not consider Rose's face to be hers to do with as she chooses, echoing and enforcing the theme that runs throughout the narrative of male indifference toward anything but the useable surface of the female body.
But the fact that the women visit Nana in her death is not all born out of compassion. There is also a morbid curiosity to "see" Nana in her final incarnation. In fact, "un besoin de voir les clouait sur la tapis" (469) ["they felt riveted to the spot by the urge to look" (418)]. In the opening scene of the novel, Zola creates a suspenseful delay while the audience (and the reader), wait impatiently for the spectacle of Nana's body. The same effect applies here in the final scene as the women in the hotel room (as well as the reader) wait impatiently for enough light to be able to catch a glimpse of the grotesque corpse. When the light is finally adjusted so that we can all satisfy our need to look, what we see is a horrifically detailed picture that replaces the image of Nana as Venus on stage. This is not the birth of Venus, but the death of Nana and of her value:
C'était un charnier, un tas d'humeur et de sang, une pelletée de chair corrompue, jetée là, sur un cousin. Les pustules avaient envahi la figure entière, un bouton touchant l'autre; et flétries, affaissées, d'un aspect grisâtre de boue, elles semblaient déjà une moisissure de la terre, sur cette bouillie informe, où l'on ne retrouvait plus les traits. Un œil, celui de gauche, avait complètement sombré dans le bouillonnement de la purulence; l'autre, à demi ouvert, s'enfonçait, comme un trou noir et gâté. Le nez suppurait encore. Toute une croûte rougeâtre partait d'une joue, envahissait la bouche, qu'elle tirait dans un rire abominable. Et, sur ce masque horrible et grotesque du néant, les cheveux, les beaux cheveux, gardant leur flambée de soleil, coulaient en un ruissellement d'or. (476-477)
[A pile of blood and pus dumped on a pillow, a shovelful of rotten flesh ready for the bone-yard, her whole face covered in festering sores, one touching the other, all puckered and subsiding into a shapeless, slushy grey pulp, already looking like a compost heap. Her features were no longer distinguishable, her left eye entirely submerged in discharging ulcers, the other one a sunken fly-blown black hole. A thick yellowish fluid was still oozing from her nose. Starting from the left cheek, a reddish crust had overrun the mouth, pulling it into a ghastly grin. And on this horrible and grotesque death-mask, her hair, her lovely hair, still flamed like a glorious golden stream of sunlight. (425)]
Once again, as in the first description of her, she is broken up into pieces in order to be described and then consumed. But this time the pieces are certainly not sexualized. Instead they manifest the rot and decay of the value of her body, paralleling the rot and decay of the value of Nana as human that had already taken place by the time she steps onto the stage as Venus.6 And once again, the description ends with the mention of her long flowing hair. This hair, which in the opening scene helped to veil her body from the audience in order to excite imagination, changes its role in the final scene, where the contrast of its beauty highlights the horror of her destruction. But also, by recalling the imagery of sunlight, her beautiful red hair perhaps leaves our image of Nana on an optimistic note. In the moment of her death, in a hotel room rented by Rose, no man keeps
She dies independent of a man's ownership and independent of the beauty that kept her as an object of commerce throughout the novel.
But Nana is not really an optimistic book. Nana's death and decay in the final chapter more generally represents the decay of her society. She becomes a germ, "la mouche d'or" (236) ["The Golden Fly"] (190) who like "une plante de plein fumier" (236) ["a plant flourishing on a dung-heap" (190)] pollutes all levels of society with her corrupt sexuality. This uncontrolled female sexuality is depicted as animalistic and dangerous to the authority of male sexuality. Brian Nelson aptly suggests that "any woman [who] is sexually powerful poses an ontological problem for the male, who must figure her as a fantasy in order to avoid rupturing his ideological framework" (409). For Nelson, the discomfort of this power is related to the often monstrous depictions of Nana. But it also relates back to Mulvey's castration anxiety discussion, where the voyeurism impulse is related to guilt and to the fe
ar of castration. This anxiety manifests itself particularly in the character of her most important client, Count Muffat, who becomes completely emasculated, as well as financially and emotionally ruined, by their relationship. Nonetheless he is compelled to gaze at her and to desire her.
This upsetting of the balances of sexuality and the general corruption inherent in Nana's upbringing in the "dung-heap" streets of Paris destroys Nana and all those who touch her until it becomes clear that "Vénus se décomposait. Il semblait que le virus pris par elle dans les ruisseaux, sur les charognes tolérées, ce ferment dont elle avait empoisonné un peuple" (477) ["Venus was decomposing; the germs which she had picked up from the carrion people allowed to moulder in the gutter, the ferment which had infected the whole society, seemed to have come to the surface of her face and rotted it" (425)]. Nana cannot escape the gutter from which she rose like some kind of doomed Venus. Her death recalls the rot and ferment of the world of poverty, which she escaped, and the rot and ferment of the morals of Paris aristocratic circles where Nana's sexualized body becomes bigger than life. Her body is the product of both these worlds and it is the common link between them, as it moves from market to market, from street prostitute to expensive courtesan, where the always sexualized worship of her body is welcomed in any environment. In the process the thing that gets lost is Nana herself, Nana as a subject/human/woman. Whether the final scene re-humanizes her by rotting the body that took over her subjectivity, or whether it exposes externally the rot that had long ago occurred internally, one thing is clear: Nana's naturalistic fate is not to live as a subjective human being with a body that belongs to her.
In The House of Mirth, we are privy to a very different economic use of women than the one we see in Nana, though we find the same implications within the novel, insofar as Lily is an object of commerce to be bought and sold. But in Lily's case, she is looking for one ultimate transaction: the selling of her body in marriage to a wealthy husband. Everything in her entire life has trained her for this achievement. Yet Lily's failure is brought about by a strange unwillingness to commit to the marriages that she almost earns, pointing to an unfulfilled desire within her to rebel against this system that entraps her. Caught between a transcendental desire and a desire to live out her lifelong goal, Lily becomes unable to act, either positively or negatively until she is passively tossed around from current to current as an object of the male gaze and a victim, like Nana, of her naturalistic destiny.
The act of looking at Lily Bart is hugely important to the novel, but so is the plight of the single woman at the turn of the twentieth century who must marry or be ruined. In his essay "The Subjection of Women" (1869), John Stuart Mill challenges the unofficial doctrine of the second half of the nineteenth century which he claims implies that "it is necessary to society that women should marry and produce children.7 They will not do so unless they are compelled. Therefore it is necessary to compel them" (1021). The method of compelling is of course steeping the women in an ideology that overpowers individual will. Mill goes on to make the analogy of the slave in the American South who is necessary for the production of cotton and sugar and thus must be compelled by the masters to produce it. And Lily is very much a slave to this ideology, which in her case includes a n
marry a very wealthy man, not for love, but in order to maintain her position in high society. This is despite her secret and tormenting desires to be more than a pretty object sold into marriage. Even Lawrence Seldon, the one man who sometimes seems to understand her wish for escape and who claims to have a disdain for the system that enslaves her, doesn't ever believe that she will or can rebel against it, nor does he ever manage to really "see" beyond the polished surface. In her apartment, as she discusses how lovely it would be to be free to be poor and unmarriageable, Seldon thinks to himself: "she was so evidently the victim of the civilization which had produced her that the links of her bracelet seemed like manacles chaining her to her fate" (9). Indeed, these manacles have a great deal of restraining power over Lily, who despite her inner conflicts encourages the gaze that follows her everywhere.
And Seldon doesn't exactly resist his role as one of these "gazers." Even as all the other characters partake in the appreciation of the spectacle, none gazes as often and as intently as Seldon, and the reader can read what he sees throughout as an outline of the superficial value of Lily's beauty. The novel opens when his eyes are "refreshed by the sight of Miss Lily Bart" (5). Seldon, who "as a spectator [. . .] had always enjoyed Lily Bart" (6), watches her external beauty as if it were an interesting exhibition, and despite his haughty claims that he is above superficiality, he mistakes her external superiority for internal transcendence. Comparing her to "the sallow-faced girls" in the street, he wonders, "was it possible that she belonged to the same race?" (7). The richness of Lily's beauty misleads Seldon into judging the others as dingier and inferior, basing this opinion entirely on physical qualities. Thus, Seldon tragically misreads Lily because Lily's internal qualities are actually poorest when she looks the richest.
Conversely, it is precisely at the point where her internal qualities are richest that she looks the poorest, and, in accordance with Seldon's early visual misperception, his valuation of her depreciates as her beauty gradually deteriorates. He completely neglects the fact that the deterioration of Lily's physical beauty coincides with genuine, albeit painful, inner growth. He is oblivious to the potentially positive changes inside of her when, the last time he sees her alive, he completely fails to look beyond the surface. He only remarks the loss of the rare quality he had earlier admired, seeing only "under the loose lines of her dress, how the curves of her figure had shrunk to angularity; [. . .] how the red play of the
lame sharpened the depression of her nostrils and intensified the blackness of the shadows which struck up from her cheekbones to her eyes" (321). Though it often seems as if Seldon is the one character who can almost "see" beyond the surface valuation of Lily, in the end, like all the others, he only sees her as an aesthetic object, put on display to be painstakingly visually examined before an investment takes place, like a slave on an auction block, or like Nana the horse in the racing scene.
As a potential and very expensive investment, "Lily's status as commodity is made absolutely explicit in The House of Mirth. Lily's body is considered a marketable 'possession' by most of the novel's characters" (Merish 10). Like the acquisition of stocks, which is an important, although subtle, theme in the text, the acquisition of Lily is treated as a potentially profitable financial transaction. When Rosedale proposes to her, he calls it "a plain business statement" (186). He "proposes" to provide the clothes and jewelry and in "exchange" she has to offer to him her beautiful body to be adorned. He plainly states that he wants a wife whose beauty surpasses all other beauties and that "that kind of woman costs more than all the rest of 'em put together" (185). Perhaps Lily's refusal is partly due to the manner of Rosedale's blunt articulation of Lily's role, which vulgarizes her life's
work and reminds her of the inanity of her whole existence.
Inane or not, it is indeed her life's work to create this expensive product. Lily is taught early that her lovely face is capable of fetching the highest possible price: "but Lily understood that beauty is only the raw material of conquest and that to convert it into success, other arts are required" (38). In order to make herself as rare and costly as possible, Lily becomes a meticulous artist, crafting herself into a work of art worthy of the expense. In essence, Lily's art is to transform her natural loveliness into a breathtaking culmination of elegance and beauty. But this is an art that is inherently tied to the economic system in which the creation, Lily's body and beauty, must be marketed as mere object, albeit an expensive and rare one. Even Seldon "had a confused sense that she must have cost a great deal to make, that a great many dull and ugly people must, in some mysterious way, have been sacrificed to produce her" (7). Indeed, it does cost a great deal to create the marketable image of Lily, and the money has to come from somewhere.
Thus the commodification of Lily's body parallels that of a prostitute like Nana, even if the markets are different. Like a prostitute, or a kept woman, Lily becomes entangled in some moral ambiguities as a result of accepting money from Gus Trenor, money that she needs in order to keep up her finely embellished appearance. Allowing herself to be convinced that the money is not a handout but rather a profit made in the stock market from money on her behalf, Lily becomes messily entangled in this deceitful snare. Lily does not see, or does not want to admit, that she is the stock in this social system, and that Trenor hopes to profit from his investment in her. Lily's carelessness nearly leads to rape when Trenor decides to collect on his payment, explaining that according to the regulations of this system of commodification, "the man who pays for dinner is generally allowed to sit at the table"
(153). And when a devastated Lily accepts that she has "taken what they take and not paid as they pay" (175), she begins to face the utter baseness of her position as a commodity, leading to even deeper anguish about her uselessness in the world of subjective humans. In this way she is quite different from Nana. This is essentially a class difference, where Lily, raised be a member of New York aristocracy, cannot bear the thought of being a humbled mistress or prostitute. But what Lily rebels against is the notion that her role in this upper class world is no different than Nana's is in her world.
Unequivocally raised for the purpose of providing others with something lovely to look at in lush environments, Lily "could not figure herself as anywhere but in a drawing room, diffusing elegance as a flower sheds perfume" (Wharton 106). It is imperative that Lily provide a truly lovely spectacle because the beauty of the exhibition decides the perceived value of Lily. The characters of the novel unfailingly engage in "gazing" at Lily in order to determine her worth based on the quality of her self-presentation. Acutely aware of the significance of the exhibition, Lily must discern any flaws in the spectacle she presents and must therefore anticipate the gaze of others. In fact, "Lily utilizes her gaze to create a self; encountering her reflection in mirrors, she monitors the condition of her face" (Totten 72). Because Lily understands this system of valuation perfectly, she must scrupulously maintain them condition of the raw material. In essence, she must always "see" herself in order to ensure that the image she projects is perfect.
Rebellion may surface from time to time, but still Lily never takes the step that would set her free. Trapped in her "great gilt cage" (59), Lily is all the time aware that "the door always stood open" (59). Yet, despite her growing anguish, she does everything in her power to not be thrust outside the bars of this cage; she passively accepts the indoctrinated belief that there is only dingy misery outside its golden confinement. Furthermore, "she had learned by experience that she had neither the aptitude nor the moral constancy to remake life on new lines" (311). When Lily tries to make a career of hat-trimming, she proves to herself that she is incapable of mastering the basic fundamentals of millinery work and is subsequently laid-off. The limitations of Lily's upbringing irreparably diminish her ability to walk another path, to become something other than a mere commodity. The narrator reminds us that "inherited tendencies had combined with early training to make her the highly specialized product she was: an organism as helpless out of its narrow range as the sea-anemone torn from the rock" (311).8 Without a buyer, Lily perceives that she becomes progressively more worthless until finally she is devastated into a sense of utter futility.
Lily's ultimate desire is to be "seen" as more than just a beautiful object, but she mistakenly manifests it as a desire to be seen as the rarest of all beautiful objects, and Seldon is her accomplice in this desire. Lois Tyson relates this desire to a desire for transcendence that affects both of the characters, where "Seldon fetishizes Lily's aestheticized body as a sign of the transcendence [. . .] he seeks. And Lily, in order to achieve the aestheticized body - the self-reification - she desires, fetishizes Seldon's gaze" (6). Tyson sees the commodity fetish as a desire for aesthetic existential transcendence. And though this is perhaps the reason for the mutual fetishization, the result is the objectifying disembodiment of Lily, as the transcendence that takes her out of the body emphasizes the importance of the empty shell, not the soul left behind. The outer beauty is worshipped and put o
n a p
edestal like a statue and thus this disembodiment counteracts any possibility of real transcendence.
And yet Lily wants so desperately for Seldon to see beyond her objectified beauty. Before overdosing on chloral, Lily goes to Seldon's apartment with a very decided purpose: "Whether he wished it or not, he must see her wholly for once before they parted" (319). But Seldon never sees her wholly. It is not until after her death, that visiting her dead body he tragically begins to wonder if he had perhaps missed something important. In this ironic moment, Seldon sees "deep into the hidden things of love," (339). Like Nana, once Lily is dead her value as a fetishized commodity is nullified. And like Rose, seeing for the first time a human value in Nana, here, Seldon sees clearly for the first time, the human value of Lily.
But Lily had already decided the night before to assert this value, even in her death, as the last thing she does before overdosing is pay off her debt to Trenor with her newly arrived inheritance. This payment leaves her absolutely broke and destitute, but it also accomplishes her need to rebel against the commodification of her body. It is her ultimate refusal to be bought by a man and at the moment of her death, just like Nana, no man owns her.
Both texts end with a tragic implication that the woman only becomes whole and un-owned in her death. The deterministic factors that dictate the fates of the women do not end in hereditary value and the environment in which they were raised. There is also the essential fact of their gender, which is the one trait that these very different women share from across the decades, across the Atlantic and across class lines. This trait is enough to lead them to the same end, which if nothing else, at least implies some kind of transcendence. They finally go beyond the limits of the bodies from which they had already been separated by the men who look at, valuate, fetishize, and buy/sell/borrow them. Finally they detach themselves from the social machines that enslaved them, and from a cruel capitalist economy that can no longer use them. Like the worker in Marx who must revolt in order to be free, the
revolution of Nana and Lily leads to their deaths, but nevertheless in the end they are free.
|| Though only and always referred to as Nana in the narrative, this is actually only her nickname. Readers familiar with Zola's Rougon-Macquart novels, all of which are based on a group of inter-connected characters, know Nana's given name to be Anna Coupeau, as she is called in L'Assomoir (1877).
|| Zola, who is considered to be the original naturalist writer, and Wharton both used naturalistic principles in their writing such as determinism, the idea that heredity and environment "determine" the fate of a character who has very little agency in determining her or his own fate.
|| All quotations from Nana are from the 2000 Flammarion edition. All translations from the novel are by Douglas Parée, Oxford University Press, 1992.
|| Nana is of course almost always willing to be gazed at, but there are brief moments of rebellion against her role as the visual invitation for male fantasy that go beyond the scope of this paper. For example, when Nana marries Fontan, she initially tries to thwart the gaze. But ultimately she learns that ignoring her naturalistic destiny would lead her to starvation (Chapter 8).
|| The "male gaze" has particular relevance where Mulvey has applied it to cinema since the audience literally gazes at the women on the screen, while the male characters in the narrative also gaze at the women within the film. Here Zola has achieved the same effect through the graphic visual depiction of Nana on stage: the reader essentially becomes a part of the audience in Bordenave's theater as we all become voyeurs.
|| Indeed this "rot and decay" took place before the novel began. It can be traced to L'Assomoir, where Nana's character is introduced, as a child, in the decaying streets of Paris. In this novel, Zola depicts a world of poverty, degradation, alcoholism and hunger.
|| This "doctrine," though powerfully established in the basic ideology of the era, was of course being challenged by many of Mill's British contemporaries, especially female novelists like Brontë, Gaskell, and Eliot, and a little later in the U.S. by writers like Perkins Gilman, Chopin and of course Wharton, to name a few.
|| In this sentence, Wharton provides a perfect definition of the Zola-esque social determinism that is so visible in both the works.
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---. Nana. Trans. Douglas Parmée. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.
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