Germinal by Emile Zola

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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.

  1. 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.
  2. as translated from French by translator Leonard Tancock
  3. 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
  4. such as the symbolism of “germination” in terms of budding revolution as well as sexuality
  5. there are so many that I cried for throughout the novel!
Reviewed on September 21, 2011

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • Even if Zola isn’t one of your favorite writers, I’m glad Germinal left such an impression on you. It affected me so much that when my book club discussed it earlier this year, I couldn’t even bring myself to reread it. I will reread it one day, but not for a very long time I don’t think.

    One of the points I really liked was that Zola doesn’t make it completely one-sided. He shows that the middle class suffer as well, that they have problems outside a starving belly. He makes them real, and I think in making them real, he brought more readers to this book. No one wants to see themselves as the monsters forcing the poor to starve and die, but in showing that one can be human even while this sort of thing is happening around them, he brought more awareness to the issue, while not alienating anyone. It was a masterstroke.

    There is so much more I could say here, but I’ll just leave it at that.

    • Amanda » I’m not sure I could reread it anytime soon either! So intense. I think you’re right about the middle class. And yet, I could not bring myself to feel sorry for them. I loved how he created the entire setting and characters, though, I agree. A Masterstroke for sure.

  • I was really impressed by Germinal too, so much that I decided to read more Zola — I’ve also joined a French Literature group online, and we’re reading La Bete Humaine in October. Germinal is a pretty intense read, but I think it’s worth it.

    I agree with you and Amanda that it’s sort of like Grapes of Wrath — in fact, when our group discussed it this summer, we were trying to decide whether Steinbeck had been influenced by Zola when he wrote Grapes of Wrath. Either way, both books are tough subjects, but great.

    • Karen K. » Definitely a tough subject. Although I don’t see myself reading tons more Zola, I do anticipate I’ll give his other biggie(s) a try. Impressive how he made such an intense and violent book work!

  • Not long ago I read Zola’s Nana followed by his The Belly of Paris. Nana focuses largely on prostitutes and their clients, The Belly of Paris on the great Paris food market. Both, just like in Germinal, have a strong focus on the suffering and absurd cruelties of society. I would if at a different point in my life may a commitment to read the full cycle of his novels-though a back to back reading of 20 or so Zola works might be to depressing!-I really enjoyed your post.

    • Mel u » It definitely would be depressing! I haven’t read the two you mention but this one was simply marvelous. And I’m with you on the reading the whole cycle. Sometimes I want to do that, but then I remember I still have Dickens and George Eliot and the Brontes to read so I’ll probably stick with them…

  • I remember your first experience with Zola was less than favorable, so I’m glad Germinal was a hit. I’ve enjoyed Zola’s stories, as welll as Therese Raquin and The Ladie’s Paradise. My bookmark in The Belly of Paris hasn’t moved for several months – need to get back to it soon. I will read Germinal eventually…

  • Oh, wow, that sounds like an excellent book. I haven’t read any Zola, but your comparison of this with Grapes of Wrath as far as illustrating the lives of the poor, draws me to this. I sometimes feel like we are too separated from both those who came before us and the difficulties they endured to merely survive and from those who live in difficult situations today. Now that I know more about Germinal, I am very interested in reading this.

  • Oh, must read this again at some point. One of the disadvantages of my glut of German-language reading this year is that the French stuff has gone out of the window somewhat 🙁

  • I read Germinal for the Classics Circuit last year and it’s one of those books which comes into my mind every now and again. I thought it was a great read although uncomfortable at times. Although there are only a few mines left in the UK now there have been 5 fatalities in the last 2 weeks, for some people life and death isn’t too different from how it was in Lantier’s time.

    • Katrina » I think the inequalities in the world in general might be a bit better. Just since in Germinal so many thousands were “THE POOR” and such a few number where the “RICH.” But yes, in some ways life hasn’t changed all that much for the under appreciated workers in dangerous places. Heart-wrenching account in this novel!

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