Etienne Lantier is unemployed and desperate. Economic conditions are bad and no one wants to take on new workers. As he wanders, he finally comes across a coal mine where he is hired on. If possible, though, working down the mine is even more difficult than starving to death and Etienne has a hard time adjusting. Whole families work in the mine – elderly people who can still manage it, mothers, fathers, small children – and people are injured and sicken under Etienne’s very eyes. When the managers attempt to lower wages, Etienne’s vast amount of reading kicks in and he riles the rest of the workers to protest their poor conditions and lack of adequate pay.
Germinal is very much a political book and that’s not really what I’d expected of it – probably because I’d only read The Ladies’ Paradise and I wasn’t quite prepared for a book so unrelentingly dreary. I know some books like that can be great but this one dragged on for five hundred and thirty-two long pages.
I found the writing to be strikingly evocative of the mine and I’m sure the fact that I felt so very sorry for these people made the book that much harder to read for me. The darkness was pervasive and it just got worse. Even when the people began to strike, they also began to starve and made almost no progress in their strike. It was hard to bear, especially when they were contrasted with the wealthier mine owners. One of the managers even envies the poor people their freedom as compared to his restricted aristocratic lifestyle – I don’t think he quite understood the situation.
I was amazed throughout at the violence of all the characters, which I think prevented me from getting attached to any of them. All the men beat their wives and sometimes their children as well. Everyone is valued only for the wages they can bring in; small children who are not yet old enough to work are almost nothing but a burden. There are some glimpses of maternal love through La Maheude, the main motherly character in the book, but she still often feels anger towards her children for eating and not earning.
The book is very political and much of the workers’ revolution felt like a cry out for socialism. Etienne has read all the big names and attempts to get all the workers to join an organization. I thought in this respect it was an interesting picture of its time; I have a hard time imagining any workers to ask for socialism these days even though the wage gap is still very much in evidence. But somehow Zola creates a bit of sympathy for the managers as well, so the true solution is unclear (as history proved anyway).
In the end, my feelings toward Germinal are mixed. There’s no way to deny that it took me a week to read and at times I avoided it because I didn’t want to deal with the miners’ lives any longer. But as a political novel, as a picture of its time, it’s invaluable and it left me with a lot to think about. It’s not cheerful in any sense but it’s surprisingly easy to read with lovely prose that’s truly evocative of the imagery within – whether underground or above. It’s a piece of literature that I think has held quite a bit of value, and for those reasons it’s worth reading even if it does go slowly.
I am an Amazon Associate. I borrowed this book from my local library.