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Germinal (Barnes & Noble Classics Series)
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Germinal (Barnes & Noble Classics Series)

4.6 18
by Emile Zola, Havelock Ellis (Translator), Dominique Jullien (Introduction)

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Émile Zola’s unflinchingly told story of a daring coal miners’ strike in northern France was published in 1885, when the prolific author was at the height of his powers. Today some readers believe this novel will prove to be his most enduring work. Spare yet compassionate, Germinal takes us from the comfortable homes of the


Émile Zola’s unflinchingly told story of a daring coal miners’ strike in northern France was published in 1885, when the prolific author was at the height of his powers. Today some readers believe this novel will prove to be his most enduring work. Spare yet compassionate, Germinal takes us from the comfortable homes of the bourgeoisie to the dark bowels of the earth, describing unbearable human suffering and exploitation in vivid and unsentimental prose.

Étienne Lantier, a poor but spirited young laborer in search of work, shares the wretched lives of the coal miners of Le Voreux, where the brutish and dangerous working conditions consume the health and prospects of young and old, one generation after another. Impoverished, ill, and hungry, the miners inspire Étienne to attempt a revolt against the Company, an overthrow of “the tyranny of capital, which was starving the worker.” They answer his desperate call for a strike that grows increasingly violent and divisive, testing loyalties and endangering Étienne’s life even as it offers the workers their only hope of a decent existence. In a harrowing climax, the unforeseen consequences of the strike threaten to engulf them all in disaster.

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Barnes & Noble
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Barnes & Noble Classics Series
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5.19(w) x 8.00(h) x 1.36(d)

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From Dominique Jullien’s Introduction to Germinal

What makes Germinal so compelling is the combination of symbolic force and factual accuracy. Zola approached each one of his novels with extensive research; he was particularly thorough in this and complemented his factual research with a visit to the real location of his story. He first read extensively—on the mining industry, the mining regions of northern France, the daily lives of miners, technical innovations in the pits, and working-class political movements. Then, at the end of February 1884, for about a week he visited the mining country. He talked to engineers, entered miners’ houses, went deep down into the mining tunnels, and observed the small mining town of Anzin, where a strike had just begun. His voluminous “Notes sur Anzin” (“Notes on Anzin”; see the Gallimard edition of Les Rougon-Macquart, listed in “For Further Reading”) form an extraordinary record of personal impressions and factual information. Zola was very careful to avoid anachronism. Between the late 1860s, when the novel takes place, and 1884, when Zola took notes for his novel, things had been changing in the coal mines, although the technical methods of extraction hadn’t altered dramatically, and the miners’ living conditions remained miserable and were made worse by rising prices and an economic slump. In Germinal we find women, as young as twelve and as old as forty, working in the mines. Women were paid half of a man’s wages. Children of eleven worked fourteen-hour days. Strikes were illegal and often ended in bloody confrontations with the army. But miners were beginning to agitate for better conditions. A series of dramatic strikes in the last years of the Second Empire shocked public opinion and inspired the strike scenes in Germinal. In 1869 the army fired into the crowd of striking miners at La Ricamarie, killing thirteen, including two women. Another fourteen died later in similar circumstances at Aubin. But slowly miners, like workers elsewhere, were organizing to improve their lot. Little by little, the labor laws restricting workers’ rights were relaxed. Workers’ associations gradually became more tolerated. Protective laws were implemented: For example, in 1874 women could no longer be employed underground, and children under twelve were not allowed to work in the mines at all. Solidarity among workers improved, as support for ill, injured, and striking workers was more effectively organized. Karl Marx’s Manifest Der Kommunistischen Partei (Manifesto of the Communist Party) was published in 1848. In 1864 Marx helped found the International Workingmen’s Association in London; this “First International” helped radicalize workers’ movements in France. And the French translation of Das Kapital (1867, first volume) was published beginning in 1875. Hard-line Marxism, with its intransigent theory of class warfare, came to dominate Labor–Capital relations. This is clearly shown in the novel. Germinal weaves the story of the hero’s political education into the background story of the miners’ plight. When Étienne Lantier first comes to Montsou, he is poor and ignorant. His mind is as barren as the dark plain of the mining country. But when he emerges from the flooded mine at the end of the novel, Étienne is poised to become a professional revolutionary, leaving behind both nihilistic terrorism and conciliatory reformism.

Zola’s novel is a fascinating document on the political movements of the time. Rasseneur, who owns the café where miners gather to drink and talk, embodies the moderates, the supporters of cooperation between Labor and Capital. The moderates are pitted against socialist politicians like Pluchart, the hero’s role model, who is sent by the International to organize and indoctrinate miners of the northern region of France. At the heart of the novel lies the ideological rivalry between Rasseneur and Étienne and their battle for the miners’ hearts and minds. Étienne’s superior education and rousing rhetorical skills soon give him precedence over Rasseneur, who is booed by the miners when he tries to speak against the strike (part four, chapter VII). But after the catastrophic failure of the strike, it is Étienne’s turn to experience loss of popularity. When the enraged miners throw bricks at him, he is rescued by Rasseneur, who calms the mob with his soothing eloquence, and who is once again cheered as its leader. Later, the two men have a drink together and bond over their shared disillusionment with the savagery of the crowd (part seven, chapter I). Yet in the last chapter, Étienne, called to Paris by Pluchart to join the Paris section of the International, is once again reconciled with the miners. The silent handshakes he exchanges with them on the morning of his departure acknowledge that they once again accept him as their leader and count on him, rather than Rasseneur, to lead them to victory (part seven, chapter VI). Zola’s portrayal of his hero as a Marxist revolutionary in the making is masterful. He shows Étienne’s transformation from a young and rather incompetent worker to a self-taught zealot and an ambitious déclassé, who fights for the working classes but feels superior to them. (Étienne’s culture is a medley of popularized Darwinism, undigested Marxism, and elements of anarchism lifted from social theorist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin.) Zola’s ambivalence toward professional revolutionaries is obvious—Pluchart, the elusive and ambitious apparatchik, who uses the miners’ discontent for his own political promotion and spends barely enough time in Montsou to collect party memberships (part four, chapter IV), is hardly idealized. But, curiously, Étienne is not idealized either. He is “intoxicated with this first enjoyment of popularity”, and later he hardens into a sectarian collectivist when he convinces the miners at a secret meeting in the woods that the new communist society is around the corner (part four, chapter VII). He is too pleased with his own pedantry. He is an irresponsible revolutionary whose fiery speeches about a better future bring tragedy to his comrades.

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Germinal 4.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 18 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
As an aspiring author of regional fiction ('Suomalaiset: People of the Marsh' ISBN 0972005064)who was raised on liberal politics amidst the boom and bust of Minnesota's iron mines and timber industry, 'Germinal's' featured protagonist, Etienne Lantier, strikes a chord with me. There is much about the American labor movement and the plight of American workers to be found in Etienne's story. Though conditions in our factories, mines, and in our forests have markedly improved since the days of children working the coal fields of West Virginia and the iron mines of the Mesabi Iron Range, Zola's prose and his social observations about wealth, capital, and the exploitation of the common man by those in power rings true in 21st century America. A beautifully translated work, succinctly direct, wonderfully cast, with prose that makes you sigh. One of my ten all time favorite novels.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Zola's description of the coal mine as seen from the distance will haunt you, as will those describing life underground. There are moments of humor and touching scenes of first love contrasted with brutal scenes of hunger and revenge. When Emile Zola died, those lining the streets where his coffin passed chanted, 'Germinal, Germinal.' Everyone should read this book.
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Mariamosis More than 1 year ago
This book is incredibly engrossing, and I have never been filled with so much suspense. Emile Zola was able to produce a phenomenal storyline which provides the reader with an excellent perception of what life would have been like for a coal-miner in the 19th century. Although the story focuses in particular on one struggling family, you are also given a broad scope of the small mining village in which they live. When reading this book be prepared to become completely enmeshed!
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is a brilliant story of life through the eyes of an 19th century French coal miner. This book gives insight into the lives of people who came before us, it also plays on the subtleties of human nature and character. This is a profound take on love life and power. It plays on what we are and the society that we live in. This work transends time and even gives insight into the times we live in.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
averg More than 1 year ago
Very easily the best book I've ever read. That said, it's not a particularly easy and light read. There are some very heavy, hard hitting themes that I had to keep putting the book down-- it was too much. The book can get a bit melodramatic, but at the core it never loses any of its grittiness. The Leonard Tancock translation is also probably the best of any; though it does have its slight problems, I think Tancock has very subtle nuances that really add to the story.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
Sitting in the 21st century one cannot give a comprehensive view of every aspect of the novel. Let us take the very detailed explaination of the mining machinary of the 19th Century;surely one is bored with the same, and at the same time but admire the tenacity of the writer in obtaining the relevant information in such precise detail. But surely mining conditions and the exploitation of workers(children) in the 3rd world continous in the same way (or worse), as amply described in the book. Indeed, the book makes a fascinating reading, very much applicable in 3rd world countries like India , China etc.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Here we are in the midst of a minning community
in 19th century France. Zola has the reader
engulfed in a rather difficult way of life.
Considering an upsetting intruder into beguiling
the inhabitants into a devasting wirlwind.
It was a pleasure to be treated to this