Violence for the sake of violence is unnecessary. Especially in a book where it is not needed to prove a point. In fact, you could say that about a lot of things. Sometimes, romance isn’t necessary either and it simply detracts from the power of the book. In my opinion, I think authors throw it in (at times) because they think it is necessary to keep readers. And while I do love a good love story, sometimes it only ruins the message of their main plot line.
However, in Germinal, the violence is extremely necessary. Like I said in an earlier post, Germinal is about a mining town where the workers are underpaid, underfed, and starving to death. When they decide to strike, they launch a series of events that spiral them further and further into poverty.
I have come to see that Zola’s realistic portrayal of every aspect of this novel is what makes it so powerful. Not only does he explain the minute details of a mining town and its people (both proletariat and bourgeois), he also explains every other aspect of the characters’ lives. They aren’t just names. You are in their houses. You know who is sleeping with whom and whose husband had no idea. You know who the town “whore” is, as well as where you can go to borrow bread. The minute details are what make this story so realistic.
As well as the violence.
It is not that you don’t see it coming. I mean, you read passages where a certain character is being thrown around by her “man” and beaten. So the reader does see violence early on. But the intensity of the violence keeps going up and up until, at one point, I had to set the book aside.
The scene I am talking about (and it won’t ruin the novel for you if you read about it), is when an angry mob defiles a dead man’s body by cutting off his…well…you know what and parading it around on a stick for all the town to see.
Out of context it is a disturbing scene. Really disturbing, but when you are reading a long, you are on the side of the mob. You can see why they would do such a thing and why they feel the way they do. In this case, the violence is understandable and adds to the book. It is only a further portrayal of the plight of the town.
It is necessary violence.
Later, when a mob is mowed down by soldiers, it is also necessary violence, and violence that Zola orchestrates beautifully. The entire central portion of the novel is the rising of the strike and its progression. For anyone who has studied labor history, strikes usually go until there is a breaking point. Sometimes that breaking point is handled in a way to avoid violence, but there have been many cases where a strike has ended in violence, particularly in the time period this all takes place (around the turn of the 20th century). There were no unions to protect workers back then.
So when the mob is mowed down and people die, it is shocking. It is violent in its description, but it is necessary. How else would Zola have portrayed the extent of anger the strikers were feeling but to have them transform into an angry mob? And how else could he have shown his readers the ultimate end and disheartenment of those strikers?
While out of context these scenes seem like too much, they add so much to the story. So even though I had to set aside the novel after reading both scenes, I have realized that one of the main reasons this is heralded as a classic is because of its realism. Zola didn’t shy away from the violent side of human nature, or mob mentality. Instead, he takes the risk of explaining it fully and painting very vivid pictures for his readers. I get it and I praise him for it. He used violence in a way that added to his novel, and probably pushed it to the place where it is today.
I only wish that more writers would use such discretion in their own writing. Sometimes it is okay to use that kind of detail and mental image for reader, and sometimes, you just don’t need it.