“Germinal” is the 13th novel of the famous cycle Rougon-Macquart and the second novel about working class. The main theme of the novel is the sufferings of miners and their struggle for survival. It is one of the first novels with whom the author tried to show the confrontation between the capitalists and the working class and therefore it is considered one of the best novel about the labor movement.
The events described ate based on a true story that happened in France in 1884. It was the time when many miners went on strike because they wanted a change in their lifestyle.
In 20 novel Zola described the failing of certain members of the family Rougon-Macquart due to a heritable burden. Next to the mentioned family Zola showed all of them social layers during the Second Empire.
In “Germinal” he picked the names of the characters carefully because he was trying to make a point and show his irony through their names. In the names, we can even find some metaphors such as the name of the mine Voreux. Voreux comes from the Latin word vorax and that means “the one that devours”. Even the word germinal has a meaning and it is the month of the republican calendar.
It also symbolizes growth and blooming. This meaning is linked with the last scene in which Etienne goes away from the small village. He leaves the same way he came and that is with many dreams about justice in the society.
The novel is filled with contrast from the beginning till the end. While at the beginning of the novel we have a dark atmosphere at the end the main character goes into beautiful light, carrying the hope for a better tomorrow.
The contrast can also be found in the family lifestyles because on one side we have poor miners and on the other rich owner of the mines.
“Germinal” has many naturalistic characteristics such as biological inheritance that leads to misfortune. Zola tried to describe a realistic atmosphere of those times so he tried to describe an event that actually happened and about which he found some information.
During his research Zola spent a lot of time with some miners so he got to know their lifestyle and got some firsthand information about the strike members. Since he wanted to make his work realistic Zola described the most brutal scenes from the strike.
Time: between the 18th and 19th century
Etienne Lantier came from Paris to a small village named Montsou to find a job. The times were rough so and old man Vincent Maheu, named Bonnemort, who worked the night shift in unloading the wagons, did not give him much help nor hope. Etienne met the old man when he stumbled upon the mine Voreux. Bonnemort was a member of a family that worked in a mine for a very long time now.
It was early and all of the work-capable members of the family Maheu were getting ready for work. Between the members, we have the oldest son Zacharie, daughter Catherine, eleven years old Jeanlin and father Toussaint. When they are working 6 years old Lenora, 4 years old Henri, 9 years old Alzira, newborn Estelle and their mother are at home. The whole family lives in a humble house and their life is filled with misery.
Their house is so small that they are all obliged to sleep, eat and bathe in that small area. The life of the miners was miserable and the people were promiscuous, prone to alcohol and sometimes even violent.
Etienne came to the mine hoping for a job and as he moved towards, he saw many people enter the small gate that reminded him of a mythical animal. The father of the family Maheu was the leader of his group and he had just lost a member so Etienne filled in for him. He was amazed by the Maheus and they by him.
He worked with Catherine that he thought was a boy at first because she was very strong and also with Zacharie and Chaval who was well known for his roughness. From the beginning, Etienne and Chaval hated each other and Etienne didn’t even realize that he interfered with the relationship between Chaval and Catherine who he considered being his wife while he obeyed him with no complaint.
At the beginning, we can see the difference between the workingmen and the rich people that are the owners of the mines. Unlike the family Maheu who lives in poor conditions we meet the Gregorie family, mine owners who lived wealthy and Maheu’s wife came to ask them for money. The rich family that had only one daughter did not have any mercy upon her so they only gave her one bagel. In the meantime miss, Hennebeau comes with some prestige guests from Paris to visit the village and she tells them that everyone will be well settled in and that every now and then these surroundings is good because of the peaceful atmosphere and clean air.
The work in the mine is getting more and more dangerous because of the fear of collapsing. The workmen were paid by the quantity of the material they dig up and to make more money they had to put more time into building a safe construction. They had no time to waste so they weren’t careful enough in their work. Because of their carelessness on the workplace, they would often have to pay which led them into a bigger misery.
Etienne lived in a bar at Rasseneura who worked in the mine until he set up a strike. Etienne met Souverin there, an immigrant from Russia, under whose influence he started to think about rebelling against the capitalists. He got enthusiastic about that idea and even founded a miner’s organization in case they want to go on strike. Unlike him, Souverin thought that they should tear down everything and start from the bottom.
As time passed by the situation in the family, Maheu was getting worse and especially when Zacharie got married and received an empty house in the village from the company. He left his home and one paycheck was gone with him.
Etienne then accepted their offer and moved in their house. He and Catherine slept in the same room and emotions started building between them but despite that she stayed submissive to Chaval who tortured her every day. Soon she had to leave her family for him and move away because of his jealousy.
The first hint of the strike was the news from the company that they are changing their conditions. They will be paying less money for a wagon of coal because they would save more money like that but the workmen’s rage was getting bigger and bigger. The event that triggered the strike was the accident in which Jeanlin Maheu hurt both of his legs.
Etienne was the leader of the strike. The workmen wanted to, in a peaceful way, get their right back but Souverin was more revolutionary and wanted to use violence to make their employers change their minds. Despite the strike, the situation was not getting better. Family Mahau lost another family member and that was their daughter Alzira. The miners couldn’t get along anymore and many of them went and worked in other mines as well as Chaval and Catherine.
The tension was getting bigger and bigger and the miners started destroying machines because of which the owner of the mines called the army. There was a big confrontation and Maheu died in it. After the bloodbath, Chaval turned Etienne in as the leader of the strike and because of that, he ran away.
Etienne confronted Chaval and thanks to Catherine he managed to stay alive. Chaval was angry and banished Catherine out of their house and she couldn’t go back to her parents who rejected her. Also, she did not want to accept the help Etienne offered her because she thought she wasn’t worthy of him.
Several weeks passed by while Etienne was recovering from his injuries. He was disappointed by what happened and decided to leave the mine. Unfortunately, a lot of the miners lost their lives and the ones that survived were working in other mines under the same conditions. Even though we have a dark atmosphere in the novel the end is optimistic and the point is that a man must take the matter into his own hand if he wants a better tomorrow.
Characters: Etienne, Catherine, Chaval
Etienne Lanter is the main character of the novel. He came from Paris looking for a job. Etienne was born outside of a marriage and his mother was named Gervaise and had some problems with drinking.
Unlike the first novel he was mentioned in, and that was L’Assommoir, here he does not try to run away from the surroundings he grew up in. At the beginning of the novel, while he talks to Catherine, we can see that he did not distance himself much from the violence which is shown at the end of the novel when he gets into a confrontation.
Despite the fact that his life was predestined by the place he lived in, he tried to live another life in another way. He tried to show that the people should listen to new ideas. Everything he’s been through, from the strike to losing Catherina, made him a stronger person and strengthened his beliefs in revolutionary ideas.
Catherine was Maheu’s daughter that worked in the mine. She is the complete example of the person that was scared by the tragic life of her family and the surroundings she lived in. She had a kind heart and she showed it when she saved Etienne from dying but she ended up being the victim of the society she lived in.
Born and raised in poverty she thought that she did not deserve anything better than Chaval because she did not know about anything better. Her tragic ending is just another proof that people living in those times could not save themselves from the destiny they had since the day they were born.
Emile Zola Biography
Emile Zola (1840 – 1902) was a famous French novel writer and is believed to be one of the most important representatives of naturalism. His father was Italian and his mother was French.
Unfortunately, he lost his father when he was seven years old and he inherited his temperament which helped him with his writing and defending his views of life. As a young man, he worked in a publishing house where he, later on, became a journalist. After that, he distanced himself from everyone and dedicated his time to writing.
He was famous for causing many discussions about his work because he got accused of being immoral, having a lack of taste and over exaggerating. Also, he was accused because of an inhumane approach in describing his characters.
Emile Zola was famous because of the affection he showed towards the working class. In 1898, he stood out in the Dreyfuss affair with his work J’accuse with which he brought the age of the government upon him. He was sentenced and he ran away to England.
He wrote about the social problems and tried to show his moral through his books. He considered that the society problems should get more attention. From that time, we have his unfinished works like “Les Trois Villes”, “Les Quatre Evangiles”.
Except for “Germinal” he is also well known for his other novels such as “Nana”, “Therese Raquin”, “L’Assommoir”…
He died September 29, 1902 in Paris.