The Belly of Paris is the story of Florent, a man mistaken for a political dissident and jailed during the French Coup of 1851. Freed, Florent finds work as a quality inspector of fish at Paris's Les Halles market. The bulk of the work is concerned with a lavish verbal rendition of the market, a fixture of modern Paris at the time, and with Florent's extremely refined palette and his experience of the foods on offer at Les Halles.
Nana is the story of the title character, Nana Coupeau, a low-class prostitute living in the last years of the Second French Empire. Nana becomes an influential courtesan and ruins a string of wealthy and powerful men, toying with their affections only to destroy them through financial ruination, humiliation, and psychological abuse. At the novel's conclusion she dies a slow and horrific death of small pox, mirroring the decay of the Second French Empire.