“Etienne Lantier, an unemployed railway worker, it a clever but uneducated man with a dangerous temper. Compelled to take a back-breaking job at Le Voreux mine when he cannot get other word, he discovers that his fellow-miners are ill, hungry, and in debt, unable to feed and clothe their families. When conditions in the mining community deteriorate even further, Lantier finds himself leading a strike that could mean starvation or salvation for all. The thirteenth novel in Zola’s great Rougon-Macquart sequence, Germinal expresses outrage at the exploitation of the many by the few, but also shows humanity’s capacity for compassion and hope,” (Penguin Classics Ed. 2004).
Germinal is not what I expected. It is far more. When I sat down to start it, I had every intention of stopping after 20 pages. When I finally did put it down, I had read over 70 and wanted to read more. By then, it was 2 in the morning and I needed to sleep, but even after I shut my eyes, I was haunted by what I read:
“And in the heavy silence created by the crushing mass of earth it was possible to put an ear to the rock and hear the teeming activity of human insects on the march, from the whirr of the cables rising and falling as the cages took the coal to the surface to the grinding of tools as they bit into the seam deep within each working,” (39).
I have never read any of Zola’s work. And I had never even heard of Zola before deciding to add this work to my list. It is the only novel by him I will be reading for this challenge, but I have already decided that the rest of his body of work is a must read for myself in the future.
The book is haunting. The degree of poverty is extreme and described in such vivid detail that you truly feel the pain of these characters. They must beg the wealthy for food to get by. They are rejected by shop-owners because they are already in so much debt that they cannot pay. They are dirty and starving and malnourished. The mine workers cough up black phlegm and their skin and hair is discolored. Even with all these things against them, the miners still seem to hold on to hope that one day, things will get better. On the verge of constant starvation, they make do.
They beg from those with more and barter with shop-keepers. To get bread for a week, they send their daughters to pick up their food and to “pay” for their food with sex. They send their children of ten or eleven to the mines to work and stretch a handful of coffee grounds over 3 days to get the most from it.
There is love among the miners and boys and girls go off together and have babies before they are married and while they still live at home.
Throughout this narrative, Zola describes everything in perfect detail—from the living conditions, to the feeling of oppression down in the mines, to the way the youngest children scrounge for food.
In one word, the tale is sad. Or hopeful.
Etienne, who appears in the mining town in the first pages, offers an outside perspective on the situation and encourages the miners to think about fighting back against the wealthy who are keeping them down. And while I have not gotten to the strike, I am anticipating it with every page I flip. Tensions are mounting and I so desperately want these characters to succeed.
It is no wonder that when I went to research this novel I found quite a few comments about how it became a rallying point for French workers. And as it eventually spread, it became a battle-cry for the working class. I even found out that at Zola’s funeral (this happened in 1902 and many believe he was murdered and it wasn’t quite an “accident” as it was made out to be), workers screamed out “Germinal! Germinal!” as his casket passed.
I say all this trying to portray the emotional impact that this novel is already having on me. I didn’t expect it. This is a far more emotional work than almost anything else I have read so far. The people are far more real, the situation more dramatic, and the writing…well, the writing is beautiful.
At the time of this post, I am already over 200 pages into the massive 550 page behemoth. I have no doubt I will finish it as quick as I can. I am only said that it is the only work by Zola on my list and that I must wait to read more of his masterpiece.
“Then, suddenly, Etienne made up his mind. Perhaps he imagined he’d caught another glimpse of Catherine’s bright eyes, up there at the entry to the village. Or perhaps it was the wind of revolt beginning to blow from the direction of Le Voreux. He could not tell. He simply wanted to go down the mine again, to suffer and to struggle; and he though angrily of those “people” Bonnemort had told him about, and of the squat and sated deity to whom ten thousand starving men and women daily offered up their flesh without ever knowing who or what this god might be,” (72).