Germinal by Emile Zola (first published in French, 1885) is so much more than I can capture in a summary or in an opinion post or review or whatever it is I write. Germinal is 500 pages that immersed me in a world of starving and ill people in an obscure mining town living a life of dire poverty and violence, and it certainly must have happened, given the ways I was drawn in to the story of these people.
Although Germinal is packed full of sexuality and violence, tragedy and despair, Zola somehow caught me in his trap and I couldn’t put the book down. Once I was deeply engaged in the story of the desperate strikers trying to grasp on to some life purpose, it seemed I felt their pain and mourned with them as their never-ending tragedies took away all semblance of hope.
The masterful way in which Zola captured the miners’ story almost immediately brought me into the novel. Etienne Lantier, an outsider, enters the town, hungry and looking for work, and he is introduced to the subterranean world of the mine Le Voreux, “the voracious one.” Similarly, I am taken with him on a tour of the hell that is the daily life for the thousands of miners.1 Just as I, the reader, am disgusted by the monotonous way of life for the miners, Etienne, also an outsider, likewise is not comfortable. He finds he has a voice as a leader among the other miners, telling them that such a life should not be okay when the mine owners are feasting on vol-au-vent. When the Company lowers pay for the miners, the other miners are not content either. Thus begins a painful strike, violent and horrific in its consequences.
When I began reading Germinal, I was also reading Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose (thoughts here), and I was struck by the beautiful turns of phrase that Emile Zola2 used to capture the setting, the people, the sufferings, and the facts. It is simply stunning.
Etienne now commanded a view of the whole district. It was still very dark, but the old man had peopled the darkness with untold sufferings, which the young one could sense all round him in the limitless space. Could he not hear a cry of famine borne over this bleak country by the March wind? (page 23, emphasis added)
This quote is one I took note of early in the novel, and as I read, I felt that, like John Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath3, Zola was capturing the poor, the lowest of low, the people who aren’t reading novels in their free time. It was so impressive how he did this so poignantly. As I read the remainder of the novel, that phrase, “peopled the darkness with untold suffering,” echoed through my mind. I still think of what stories there are to be told today of untold suffering. While Germinal is rather painful to read, I can only imagine the impact Zola had on his middle class contemporary readers. They probably did not know of these sufferings of the poor.
One of the last questions I created for my book club discussion tonight is this:
What do you think Zola tried to accomplish in this novel? What is your reaction to events in the novel?
And this is the most difficult and yet most important question I can ask myself about this novel. Although I haven’t discussed most of the plot or most of the issues4 or characters5, the novel moved me. I don’t think Zola was either warning against revolution or encouraging revolution. Rather, I think he simply wanted to show his middle class readers that there are people suffering.
Just as the old miner explained the situation to Etienne, Zola’s novel “peoples the darkness” for the reader, who reads from a place of comfort and possibly ignorance of the poor. I believe Zola wanted to write about the people that work their entire lives with absolutely nothing to show, people that are starving while the rich enjoy feasts. Zola wanted to show the ways in which the status quo was not okay. Although he doesn’t end the book with an answer, he shows a number of different political opinions through the various characters. And through Etienne Lantier, he provides a possible means for change to come about in the end. This book is the beginning of change, or I believe Zola wrote it in hopes that it may be.
Germinal is packed full of sexuality, violence, horrific situations, and suffering people. It is not an easy book to read, and I still don’t consider Zola a favorite writer whose backlist I’m going to read. But Germinal is impressive. I can’t put in to words the ways in which this horrific novel drew me in, but I do hope these thoughts might encourage someone else to give it a try. Don’t expect happy; be prepared to feel the sufferings of the nineteenth century mining life.
- I say “is” because, although the book was written more than 100 years ago and took place in 1866, I struggle to separate it from today simply because it seemed that real as I read. ↩
- as translated from French by translator Leonard Tancock ↩
- I should note that Amanda compared this to The Grapes of Wrath before I read it, so I did have that in mind as I was reading ↩
- such as the symbolism of “germination” in terms of budding revolution as well as sexuality ↩
- there are so many that I cried for throughout the novel! ↩