When I first began reading Emile Zola’s twenty-volume Rougon-Macquart series, there were some titles I really looked forward to, and Germinal was one of them. Germinal is number 13 in the series and is considered to be Zola’s masterpiece. It took Zola 9 months to write the novel, and I was beginning to think it would take me 9 months to read it.
The novel’s main character is Etienne Lantier. To place him in the Rougon-Macquart family tree, he is the son of Gervaise (L’Assommoir) and the half brother of one of France’s most infamous and naughtiest prostitutes, Nana. Etienne appears as a child and then as an adolescent in L’Assommoir, and when Germinal begins, Etienne is a young unemployed man, on the brink of starvation who is wandering the countryside looking for work. His travels bring him to Montsou, a coal mining town in Northern France, and as luck would have it, he appears at the right moment and is employed pushing the coal carts down inside the mines. Etienne is at first horrified by life in the mines and the conditions suffered by miners. To Etienne, as the men descend in a cage to the deep bowels of the mine to begin their shift, the monstrous mine’s insatiable appetite seems to consume the men:
“in more or less greedy mouthfuls, depending on the depth of the level they were bound for, but without ever stopping, always hungry, its giant bowels capable of digesting a nation. It filled, and filled again, and the dark depths remained silent as the cage rose up from the void, silently opening its gaping jaws.”
Etienne is befriended by the miner, Maheu and his family–including his daughter, Catherine. While Etienne is attracted to Catherine, the miner, Chaval, who’s staked out Catherine as his some time earlier, uses Etienne’s arrival to coerce Catherine into a sexual relationship.
The book spends some considerable time detailing the miserable daily life of the miners, and this makes for some extremely bleak reading. The Maheu family lives a few mouthfuls away from starvation, and the large family is squashed into a hovel provided by the mining company. The miners are paid a pittance every two weeks, and are subject to various fines that chip away at their already-subsistence level wages. Young children of miners are put to work in the pit and they slave their entire lives under horrendous conditions in the hopes of earning a meagre pension at the age of 60. It’s difficult to put any food on the table at times, and some scenes describe how the smaller children squabble over food, or how family members go without so that others can eat a crust of bread. Children are seen as assets since they contribute to the pot, and as assets, marriage and departure to establish a separate home is viciously discouraged, and this leads to a moral breakdown within the mining family community. Some families are even forced to prostitute their daughters and wives in exchange for food from the local shop owner.
By keeping the miners just one step away from starvation, the mine managers and owners largely manage to subdue any rebellion, and the miners are:
“restrained by the force of hierarchical authority, that military command structure which ran from the lads at the incline right up to the overman, keeping everyone subservient to the person above him.”
A crisis comes when the demand for coal slows, and the owners of the mines decide to take it out of the hides of the workers by paying less per cart of coal. This translates to slow starvation for the workers. Pushed to breaking point, the miners decide to strike, and Etienne Lantier, who during his time at the mine has developed political ideals, becomes one of the leaders. As an outsider, as someone who didn’t spend his childhood in the mine, Etienne isn’t so willing to meekly accept the miner’s yoke. Influenced by the “exterminating angel” anarchist Souvarine, and by the former miner & rabblerouser, Rasseneur, Etienne has had the foresight to organise the miners before the latest cuts, and so the miners have managed to scrape together a tiny contingency fund, but it isn’t enough to stave off starvation.
The first part of the novel spends a considerable time describing the conditions for the miners–both down in the pits and up in their threadbare, freezing, squalid homes. These early pages set the scene for the later action, and once the horrific details of the lives of the miners are absorbed, it seems impossible that their lives can get worse. But of course, that’s exactly what happens. The feeling of quiet despair slowly evolves into doom, and of course, the doom arrives in the shape of starvation, violent repression and desperate acts.
One of the book’s most interesting and pivotal characters is anarchist Souvarine, a gentle man who nonetheless believes that peaceful protests are meaningless, that strikes only damage the workers, and that all negotiation is pointless:
“As for raising wages, how can they? It is graven in tablets of bronze that wages should be fixed at the absolute minimum, just the barest necessary for the workers to eat a crust of bread and have children…If wages fall too low, the workers die, and the demand for new workmen makes them rise again. If they rise too high, the surplus offer makes them drop again…It’s the balanced budget of empty bellies, a life sentence condemning the workers to the prison camp of poverty.”
To Souvarine, who never underestimates the power of potential abuse from the bourgeoisie, the system as it exists cannot be modified or reformed and he argues for destruction:
“We must destroy everything, or hunger will spring up again. Yes! Anarchy, and end to everything, the earth bathed in blood and purified by fire … Then we’ll have another think.”
Zola shows compassion for the plight of the miners but some of the most poignant passages in the novel concern the horses who slave in the mines. At one point early in the novel Zola describes Bataille, a white horse that has spent 10 years down in the dark mine and his reaction when a new, terrified horse named Trompette is lowered down the mine shaft to join him:
“Soon Trompette was laid out on the iron slabs, a motionless mass, lost in the nightmare of the dark bottomless pit, and the long deafening hall. They were starting to untie him when Bataille who had been unharnessed a little earlier, came up and stretched out his neck to sniff at the new companion who had fallen from earth to meet him. The workmen formed a wide circle round them and laughed. What was it that smelled so good? But Bataille was deaf to their mockery. He was excited by the smell of fresh air, the forgotten scent of sunshine in the meadows. And he suddenly let out a resounding whinny, whose happy music seemed muted with a sorrowful sigh. It was a welcoming shout, and a cry of pleasure at the arrival of a sudden whiff of the past, but also a sigh of pity for the latest prisoner, who would never be sent back alive.”
While there can be no argument that Germinal is one of Zola’s greatest novels, due to the subject matter it is not particularly pleasant reading and is fairly depressing. Zola painstakingly paints a portrait of class war through the deprivation of the miners’ lives, and then just as you think it couldn’t get any worse…it does. Perhaps the lightest part of the book occurs when the mine owning Gregoire family visit the mine manager, Hennebeau for lunch, and the attitudes of the bourgeoisie fly across the table during the feast prepared for their well-tended stomachs. While they stuff themselves, the talk moves to the miners and how spoiled the workers are, living in “luxury.” This scene is a hideous reflection of the bourgeoisie attitude to the working class, and it runs the gamut from worrying that the miners’ delegation will steal the silver to the ultimately unfortunate Cecile Gregoire playing Lady Bountiful.
Zola researched conditions in the mine at length while writing Germinal. He made trips to mining towns in Northern France, witnessed a strike and even went down into the bowels of a pit. Whereas some of the novels in the Rougon-Macquart series are intense character studies (Nana, His Excellency) Germinal is the portrayal of class war–those who struggle to improve their meagre lot in life and those in power, reinforced by the state, who squash the effort.