Estimated reading time: 8 minutes
Emile Zola is a name most people are familiar with, even those who haven’t read his works. Objectively one of the greatest authors in our short history, his novels always had the ability to move people, and have been consistently doing so for over a hundred and fifty years. In Germinal, one of his more famous works, he tells the story of Etienne Lantier, a clever and unemployed machinist who eventually stirs a mining community to a strike unlike any other, threatening to open the first cracks in a rotten and unjust world order.
Table of contents
Emile Zola Dives into the Labourer’s Misery
For those of us fortunate enough to be living in the sorts of countries which function relatively well, there are plenty of laws protecting our rights as workers, offering us guarantees and looking after our well-being. As you might imagine, things were always far from being this way, and many had to shed their sweat, tears and blood to make it happen, as did the charcoal miners at Le Voreux, in Emile Zola‘s Germinal.
Before getting into the actual book, I myself have the good fortune of being able to read it in French, and if you do as well, I would highly recommend reading it in its original language. Nevertheless, the book was published over a hundred years ago, and many extremely competent translations have no doubt seen the light of day. If you can only enjoy this novel through the English language, then I’m certain your experience won’t be too dissimilar from mine.
In any case, the 1885 classic begins by introducing us to Etienne Lantier, a machinist who recently lost his job upon striking his own employer while under the influence of alcohol. The industrial crisis is hitting France quite hard, with factories and mines closing down left and right, with the few remaining having virtually no room left to take anyone else on-board.
As he wanders and spends his last pennies, a chance encounter pushes him to take on a deadly, back-breaking job as a charcoal miner, earning barely enough not to starve through the day. The Maheu family has welcomed him with open arms, and slowly, as he falls in love with their daughter Catherine and earns the respect of his fellow workers, the profound need to see some kind of change swells within him.
When the company announces new changes which would cut the labourers’ salaries even further, the clever and now slightly-educated Etienne succeeds in bringing the community together to go on an organized strike, the likes of which has never seen before. However, the road before him is unclear, the path to victory uncertain, and the line between starvation and salvation grows ever thinner.
They were brutes, no doubt, but brutes who could not read, and who were dying of hunger.― Émile Zola, Germinal
Life on the Edge of Death in Germinal
Emile Zola has written a large number of novels and plays over the course of his life, and the one uniting factor between them was the author’s penchant for Naturalism. While it certainly existed as a concept before him, he did quite a bit to popularize it, showing the world what sorts of heights it could elevate a story to. In my opinion, Germinal is the perfect example of how it can profoundly enrich a novel.
A fairly large portion of the book, especially the first half, is dedicated to showing us the lives of labourers at the time the book was being written. More specifically, Zola takes us into the world of charcoal miners, and displays it to us through the eyes of Etienne, who just like us, is experiencing most of it for the first time.
The author takes his time in relating to us the details of the daily lives, struggles and routines of those living in the mining community. We get an excellent sense of where they lived, slept and ate, how they spent their time, what their relationships were like within various families, what their expectations were towards each other, and the mine where their hopes and ambitions went to die.
Emile Zola‘s prose (at least, in the original French version) is born of an otherworldly mastery, his ability to vividly depict scenes by stimulating all of the reader’s senses is simply unmatched. Whatever or whoever he was talking about, I could always imagine it with an unprecedented ease, experiencing every scene as fully as one possibly can.
His prose is exceptionally wonderful when he takes us on a tour of the terrifyingly fascinating work of charcoal miners. On numerous occasions we descend with Etienne, and it feels as if we’re plunging further and further into an infernal abyss, one where we, the reader, begin to burn and suffocate along with our protagonist… only to be reminded people worked in those conditions, some for decades on end.
If nothing else, it makes one immensely grateful to be living in the world of today, and personally, quite stupefied at the idea of how much more cruel the world for labourers was only a hundred or so years ago… and that was in one of the world’s most developed countries. The feelings of injustice which push Etienne to organize a strike aren’t simply story devices, but they are also born within us from the things we experience alongside him, the things we know were true and would also drive us to the bottomless chasm of total despair.
Blow the candle out, I don’t need to see what my thoughts look like.― Émile Zola, Germinal
The First Resistance
If you have a passing familiarity with Germinal, as I did when I read it, then you’ll likely be going in with the idea that Emile Zola was almost trying to start a revolution, was all for it, and wanted to use this novel to show an idealized version of what it would be like. Though there were points where I found myself personally disagreeing with the author’s thoughts, I was quite relieved to see his very reasonable and balanced take on the subject.
I think it is obvious that Zola has a frighteningly keen understanding of human psychology, and way in which he traces the development of the strike, from its well-intentioned beginning, to its frightfully bloody climax and disappointing aftermath, is nothing if not realistic. In other words, every single development in regards to the worker strike feels natural, and shows just how easily things can spiral out of control, one step at a time.
The Naturalism which has marked the author’s work also rears its head during numerous scenes in the second half of the book, and there are a few explosions of violence to contend with. Nevertheless, not only are they fairly tame by today’s standards, but they make every bit of sense within the story and add real heft to it.
Although I had erroneously assumed when I started reading Germinal, this isn’t really a feel-good type of book, nor does it aim to end in any fashion but a realistic one. As much as he might be on the workers’ side, as much as disdain as Emile Zola might have for the bourgeoisie and ruling classes, he never lets the dream of a better tomorrow cloud the reality of the present, which shows the balance of power being on the wrong end.
In my opinion, what the author was really trying to do here, was in a sense, what Etienne accomplished in the story: to sow the seeds of revolution for a better tomorrow, and hope they will bear fruit down the line. He does essentially outline what it would take for a successful major strike to improve conditions for all, and considering the world the French (and many other nations) live in today, perhaps he did succeed after all?
The subject tackled by the author might be outdated, and some of the ideas presented no longer functional due to just how much societal structure has changed over the past century. Nevertheless, to me it is a fascinating window into the people of the past, the misery they worked, lived in, an endured for the sake of future generations. Even today, it remains a piercing and revealing portrayal of both the best and the worst the human spirit is capable of, and a poignant depiction of both how great and costly revolutions can be.
|592||Penguin Classics||May 25 2004||978-0140447422|
The Final Verdict
Germinal by Emile Zola may have been written a hundred an forty years ago now, but it remains a timeless classic, transporting us through the world of charcoal miners to its very heart and soul, as a the first seeds of revolution are sown among them.
If you’re looking to get acquainted with classic French literature, or are searching for a moving and meaningful novel dealing with the human condition and social revolution from the perspective of 19th century labourers and charcoal miners, then this would definitely be the perfect book for you to read.
(April 2, 1840 – September 29, 1902)
Emile Zola was a French journalist, novelist and playwright who contributed heavily to the development of theatrical naturalism. A number of his works have earned their place as timeless classics on an international level, novels such as L’Assomoir, Germinal and La Bête humaine, exploring the human condition from angles hitherto unseen, and hardly replicated since.