Germinal is Émile Zola’s masterpiece, and I am fairly typical in thinking (and I have only read it in translation) that it contains his most brilliant writing, with exceptionally evocative passages of lyrical strength, and brilliant word pictures. It depicts a miner’s strike – with unsparing realism and remarkable sympathy.
When my daughter asked me to recommend some of the most strongly written books that I had read, this was one.
I wrote in my last post that Zola had a fear of the untrammelled power of the working people. In this novel, however, his sympathies are entirely with them. With unsparing honesty, he depicts the starvation, despair, and resulting violence that follows from the miners’ attempts to gain a living wage.
Zola was always meticulous in carrying out research. For this novel he went to northern France in 1884, where he witnessed a miners’ strike in Anzin, while at Denain he went underground to view working conditions. He always defended his depiction as realistic, aganinst the attacks by indignant critics, who accused him of exaggerating the horrors of the pit workers’ conditions for dramatic effect.
Incredibly, the novel was written in only eight months. The title, incidentally, is taken from the eighth month of the revolutionary calendar, and is meant to evoke an image of germination, of budding new growth, and of hope for the future. This is, in fact, the note on which the book ends. For all the distressing scenes that are depicted, the story ends in the spring, on a note of regeneration.
Over to Wickipedia for an excellent concise summary of the plot: –
The novel’s central character is Étienne Lantier, previously seen in L’Assommoir (1877), and originally to have been the central character in Zola’s “murder on the trains” thriller La Bête humaine (1890) before the overwhelmingly positive reaction to Germinal persuaded him otherwise. The young migrant worker arrives at the forbidding coal mining town of Montsou in the bleak area of the far north of France to earn a living as a miner. Sacked from his previous job on the railways for assaulting a superior, Étienne befriends the veteran miner Maheu, who finds him somewhere to stay and gets him a job pushing the carts down the pit.
Étienne is portrayed as a hard-working idealist but also a naïve youth; Zola’s genetic theories come into play as Étienne is presumed to have inherited his Macquart ancestors’ traits of hotheaded impulsiveness and an addictive personality capable of exploding into rage under the influence of drink or strong passions. Zola keeps his theorizing in the background and Étienne’s motivations are much more natural as a result. He embraces socialist principles, reading large amounts of working class movement literature and fraternizing with Souvarine, a Russian anarchist and political émigré who has also come to Montsou to seek a living in the pits. Étienne’s simplistic understanding of socialist politics and their rousing effect on him are very reminiscent of the rebel Silvère in the first novel in the cycle, La Fortune des Rougon (1871).
While this is going on, Étienne also falls for Maheu’s daughter Catherine, also employed pushing carts in the mines, and he is drawn into the relationship between her and her brutish lover Chaval, a prototype for the character of Buteau in Zola’s later novel La Terre (1887). The complex tangle of the miners’ lives is played out against a backdrop of severe poverty and oppression, as their working and living conditions continue to worsen throughout the novel; eventually, pushed to breaking point, the miners decide to strike and Étienne, now a respected member of the community and recognized as a political idealist, becomes the leader of the movement. While the anarchist Souvarine preaches violent action, the miners and their families hold back, their poverty becoming ever more disastrous, until they are sparked into a ferocious riot, the violence of which is described in explicit terms by Zola, as well as providing some of the novelist’s best and most evocative crowd scenes. The rioters are eventually confronted by police and the army that repress the revolt in a violent and unforgettable episode. Disillusioned, the miners go back to work, blaming Étienne for the failure of the strike; then, Souvarine sabotages the entrance shaft of one of the Montsou pits, trapping Étienne, Catherine and Chaval at the bottom. The ensuing drama and the long wait for rescue are among some of Zola’s best scenes, and the novel draws to a dramatic close. Étienne is eventually rescued and fired but he goes on to live in Paris with Pluchart.
There are many vivid characters in this novel, and perhaps the one who overshadows them all is inanimate: Le Voreux, the dread consumer of huaman flesh, the pit in which the local miners and cart pushers labour for their lives.
Perhaps the most horrific scene – and one of the most grotesque in all of Zola’s novels, which include a great deal in the way of horror and of the grotesque – is depicted in the scene where the rioting and starving locals attack the local grocer’s shop. The grocer falls to his death trying to escape via the roof, and the women, whom he has sexually abused in exchange for credit, enact a terrible revenge on his corpse: –
‘And then, with her old, withered hands, La Brúlé parted his naked thighs and seized hold of his now defunct manhood. She grabbed the whole thing in one hand and pulled, her bony spine tense with the effort, her long arms cracking. When the flabby skin refused to give, she had to pull even harder, but finally it came away, a lump of bleeding, hairy flesh, which she proceeded to brandish in triumph…’
By contrast, one of the most moving – indeed, near transcedent – moments in the novel is when the cynical engineer Paul Négrel, the nephew of the owner of the mine, who is quite happy to deceive his uncle by carrying on an affair with his aunt by marriage, who has been the bitter enemy of the militant Étienne, comes together with him in huamnity. After the collapse of the pit, he labours tirelessly and devotedly, night and day to ensure that Étienne, Chaval and Catherine are rescued from their underground prison.
When at last he is rewarded by finding them: –
‘These two men who despised each other, the rebellious worker and the sceptical boss, threw their arms around each other and sobbed their hearts out, both of them shaken to the very core of their humanity. ..’
As I said in my last post, while readers generally may not be attracted to reading the twenty novels in the series of Les Rougon-Macquart , to neglect reading Germinal is to miss out on a true work of genius.
I have to say that I found Étienne’s love interest Catherine, insipid. While it might be argued that this was after all typical of a Victorian novel, and that her background is such that it is impossible for her to have developed much independence of thought or as an older daughter who had both to work in the pit and to labour in the house, had the leisure even to have much individuality, she still comes across as dull compared to Zola’s other female characters from humble and hard working bacgrounds, ie, the heroine of La Terre.
This does seem to me a weakness in the structure of the novel. I certainly take the point that Cahterine is intended to be a victim, seduced by Chaval before her delayed puberty has come about. But Étienne’s fascination with her is unconvincing, and so the desperate hatred between himself and Chaval is too.
Compared to all the admirable features in this book, though, this, and a certain tendency at times, ever present in Zola, to overdramaticise, are hardly very important. Catherine, with her passive surrender to abuse from a man she does not really love in Chaval, is not a female lead that a modern female reader can find appealling., however truly pathetic she might find her. But in such characters as Catherine’s own mother and the independent minded Mochette, there is a good deal of feminine indpendence depicted throughout the story.
Zola was rightly proud of his achievement. It caused a senasation on its appearance and remains widely read to this day, having inspired several films, and being regarded as one of the most signicicant of all French novels.