Émile Zola’s Germinal

Within France, Émile Zola is something of a national hero, though his present popularity obscures the acrimony with which many of his compatriots viewed him. It was Zola, after all, who published the famous “J’Accuse…!” column condemning the government’s rush to indict Captain Alfred Dreyfus for espionage on the basis of anti-Semitism rather than evidence, and though history has rewarded him for his outspoken bravery, he nonetheless had to flee the country, seeking shelter – like so many before and after him – in England to avoid a jail sentence for libel. Ever happy to forget their mistakes, the French made up for this indignity after Zola’s death, by disinterring his body from the humble Cimetière de Montmartre and reburying him under the vaulted arches of the Panthéon, next to the only two French novelists who eclipse him in national renown: Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas. What did he do to merit such an honour? Across a wide range of novels and journalism, Zola told the truth about France and the unseen suffering of the French people, and he did so with the unflinching accuracy and power of expression that alone can make a writer undeniable. Germinal, the thirteenth book in a series of 20 novels tracing the lives of two French families down the ages, remains one of his most popular works; it tells the story of a miner’s revolt at a coal mine in northern France, with panoptic perspective: we learn intimate details about the lives of the miners and their families, as well as the lives of the mine’s wealthy stakeholders.

Our principal protagonist is Étienne Lantier, a mechanic recently fired from his job on the railway for assaulting his boss. When we first meet him, he is wandering the French countryside, destitute and aimless, when he happens upon a mining pit. “Hunkered in a hollow in the ground, with its squat brick buildings and a chimney that poked up like a menacing horn, the pit looked to him like some monstrous and voracious beast crouching there ready to gobble everyone up.” His initial impression is prophetic, for the mine has a reputation for swallowing human lives – so much so that its workforce have nicknamed it “Le Voreux,” the voracious. The metaphor of the mine as beast is one Zola returns to again and again, often inspiring his most lyrical flourishes:

No dawn paled the dead sky; there was only the blaze of the tall blast-furnaces and the coke-ovens, turning the darkness blood red but shining no light into the unknown. And Le Voreux, crouching like some evil beast at the bottom of its lair, seemed to hunker down even further, puffing and panting in increasingly slow, deep bursts, as if it were struggling to digest its meal of human flesh.

And lest you think this metaphor exaggerated, consider the fate of so many of the miners: there are, of course, the usual cave-ins and rock-falls, as deadly as they are unpredictable, but the pit has other lethal methods at its disposal, from underground floods to the release of noxious gasses, which kill either by slow suffocation or sudden explosion, when the slightest spark – from the strike of a pickaxe or the lighting of a match – ignites the very air, creating a fiery inferno. Generations of miners – thousands of men, women and children – have descended into the mine’s depths to eke out a living, so much so that the nearby village consists entirely of miners and other employees of the mine. The mining company itself subsidizes the lives of the miners, supplying them with coal and renting out their housing to them at a reduced cost, but this, too, represents an exploitation, for it enables them to gradually lower their wages, shifting the rising costs of maintaining the mine onto the workforce. The owners of the mine, who profit from its output without paying their due in sweat or blood, employ a different, far more benign metaphor:

[…] the Grégoires now believed steadfastly in their mine. The value would rise again; why, God Himself was not more reliable! At the same time, mixed with this religious faith in the mine, they felt a profound sense of gratitude towards a stock which had now fed and supported an entire family for over a century. It was like a private god whom they worshipped in their egotism, a fairy godmother who rocked them to sleep in their large bed of idleness and fattened them at their groaning table.

Like the miners, the mine’s shareholders rely on it for food, but the contrast between their lives – which Zola is at pains to develop – could not be greater.

Étienne’s arrival, together with further wage decreases imposed on the miners, precipitates an all-out confrontation between the workers and their masters, resulting in a prolonged strike. If living conditions were intolerable before the strike – when even a loaf of bread might be a luxury – they become even more so with each passing day. Zola has numerous means at his disposal to illustrate their suffering. We get grocery lists, for example, that would leave a modern adult hungry and unsatisfied, but that are meant to feed an entire family. The youngest of the children – those five or six years old, too young by a few years for work in the mines – are sent off to forage for dandelions, to make “salads.” In one memorable scene, prior to the strike, Étienne must undress the body of Chicot, a young boy – barely out of puberty – whose spine has been crushed by a falling rock. The description of that undressing is heart-wrenching:

As deftly as a nurse he undressed the child himself, loosening his cap, removing his jacket and pulling his trousers and shirt off. And his poor little body emerged, as thin as an insect’s, filthy with black dust and yellowish earth and mottled with patches of blood. He couldn’t be examined properly in this state, and so they had to wash him too. The sponging then seemed to make him even thinner, and his flesh was so pallid and transparent that one could see his bones. He was a pitiable sight, the last, degenerate offspring of a destitute breed, a suffering scrap of a thing half crushed to death by rock. Once he was clean, they could see the bruises on his thighs, two red blotches against the whiteness of his skin.

It is not for nothing that, when we try to conjure up the difficulties of pre-industrial civilization, coal mining is so often invoked. Tens of thousands of people, in any given year, in any given country, made their meagre livings toiling in the depths of mines, far from the surface of the earth and the comfort of the sun. And Zola knew of what he wrote: he visited a mine in northern France, disguising himself as a secretary to gain greater access to the inner workings of the mining village, and consumed book after book on not only mining but socialism, revolution and class struggle – all ideas very much percolating in 19th century Europe.

In the hands of a lesser novelist, or a more polemical novelist (but I repeat myself), Germinal might have devolved into a social protest novel. It is that, of course, but it is not merely that. The miners and their families are not interchangeable stand-ins for Marx’s oppressed masses, and Étienne, the leader of the revolt, is no socialist hero, pure of heart and spirit. On the contrary, Zola plumbs his psyche with real acuity, and we find there not only righteous indignation but self-interest and bitterness. And if the general atmosphere of the book is oppressive and foreboding, it is rendered to us in prose so refined that every descriptive passage, every angry flight of Zola’s imaginative fancy lingers in our imagination. We can no more detach ourselves from the conditions of the mine than his characters can.