Read an Excerpt
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.