Nana. Oh, Nana.
Nana, for all her beauty and all the adoration lavished upon her, never meets anyone willing to teach her what to do with the money she earns, aside from spending it. As large as she lives, she never shakes the belief that money can buy happiness, and that's the real tragedy of the novel. She doesn't achieve true fulfillment of any kind, but she's got the grandest digs in town. Nana's uncertain childhood and unstable family life have taught her an easy-come-easy-go mentality. The trappings of wealth represent a more respectable life, but they cannot actually give her what she lacks.
A modern version of Zola's classic would likely remind us of ill-fated lottery winners, and I imagine they are similarly overwhelmed by their newfound wealth. (I don't have to imagine, actually; I had to learn how to manage my own money once I had enough to blow in stupid ways.) I can't read Nana as merely greedy and callous. She is how she was made to be. Her mothering is that of a girl who never know any of her own. Her concept of money as love stems from a fundamental insecurity about both. Who has ever actually loved her without exploiting her? Who has she ever been able to trust? Nana the beautiful, Nana on a pedestal -- I had this experience, too, except that I never had the brains to charge for my company. I can respect Nana for trying to scratch out a living, and feel deeply for her when she gets in over her head.
I did mourn her when Zola killed her off. I recognise that he and his contemporaries had Views About Heredity, and that Nana was meant to be the scion of a whole line of bad seeds -- and I don't care, because no woman deserves to lose her child and then suffer an agonizing death from smallpox. The fallen woman getting her just desserts was a tired trope even then. Why not redemption? Why not at least a chance for little Louiset? I suppose the question has been examined in greater depth by academics, but I put it to you, my fellow amateurs. Ask yourselves, after you've swallowed this narrative whole --