Germinal, by Émile Zola

germinal cvr

When it was published in 1885, Émile Zola’s Germinal created a sensation, and it is not difficult to see why André Gide rated it one of the ten best French-language novels.  Even those not steeped in the tradition of French radicalism, for whom the term ‘Germinal’ does not evoke memories of the 1789 Revolution, will find this a gripping read as it recounts the hardships of a northern French mining community and the desperate strike that threatens to bring down ruin on everybody’s head, literally and metaphorically.  The novel is part of Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series, but is self-contained.  It is set in the 1860s, during the Second Empire, though Zola introduces anachronistic elements from the 1880s, for example in the discussions of political theory.

The background to the novel is a period of industrial slump, with employers’ attempts to drive down wages met by resistance. Despite Zola’s dismissal of the over-ambitious aims of the First International, which disappeared in a morass of recriminations and disagreement on the way forward for working class organisation, he indicates, through the drama, the contradictions between the conditions necessary for Capitalism to thrive and those necessary for working people to survive.  Zola did an enormous amount of research in order to depict the arduous working conditions underground in detail, which he does vividly: men, women and children are forced to go down the mines and survive on subsistence wages.  Yet if life underground is hard, above ground things are little better.  The grinding poverty is laid on so thickly that one wonders how, when the strike finally erupts, the strikers manage to hold on for so long, given the state they were in before the industrial action.  Living conditions for the workers are shown to be degrading to both body and spirit, families squeezed together in slums with barely enough to eat, the effects of malnutrition and poor housing exacerbating the general hazards of mining life, and with sex as a major recreation for the town’s young.  Zola does not spare the reader descriptions of a way of living that he likens to an animal existence, and for its time the novel is surprisingly explicit about the physical aspects of life in a community which has no hope for a better future.

Relative to the mining families the local bourgeoisie live comfortably, though luxury and idleness are occasionally exaggerated by Zola to reinforce the distance between classes.  Even so the bourgeois families are distinct when it would have been easy to supply crude stereotypes, and Zola emphasises that their interests are not always identical.  Some are complacent, happy to live off their dividends, with no thought for the conditions the poverty-stricken workers have to endure.  The middle-class women have no understanding of what life is like outside their hermetic bubble, uninterested in how the money they take for granted is generated.  The men with a direct interest in the mines are paternalistic, but generally more concerned with maintaining profit margins than the wellbeing of their employees, interested in the latter insofar as it affects productivity.  Zola shows the impersonal forces of monopoly capitalism at work: a local independent mine owner is unable to survive with limited capital as the strike continues until he is forced to sell to the Company, a conglomerate with a number of mines that is more able to wait the strike out.  The seller has accrued so many debts that he is reduced to working for the Company as an engineer.

Zola certainly did his research, and the miserablism is incessant, rarely alleviated by genuine fun.  Descriptions of the squalor and deprivation ring true, the poor diet causing stunted physical development, the lack of education, the desperation of their lives.  There is no form of safety net and appeals for charity to the bourgeois families tend to be fruitless.  That leaves the way open for the ruthless shopkeeper who barters food and loans for sexual favours.  The priests are ineffectual, either wanting a quiet life, offending nobody, or, in contrast egging the strikers on, telling them what they want to hear to increase loyalty to the Church.  Against the background of economic exploitation and hopelessness Zola traces the growth (or rather re-awakening) of the spirit of desperate resistance, and the spectrum of forms this takes, from trades unions at one end to nihilist action at the other, as the state fights back against the strikers with armed force.  This gives him the opportunity to build firm foundations describing the conditions the workers endure in great detail, and then accelerate the action as the strike takes hold, with its tragic consequences.

Into his account of the dreadful conditions endured by the miners and their families, Zola places his main character, Étienne Lantier, a young working man who has already had run-ins with authority and who seeks to improve conditions as a firebrand orator and leader.  Freshly arrived, Étienne brings an outsider’s view as we see the situation through his eyes.  Arriving with no knowledge of mining, he quickly learns the trade and, when times get tough, finds a role voicing and channelling the complaints of the people.  His half-baked ideas formed by sketchy reading, he is able to give them hope, though more experienced heads realise that his ideas are impracticable and ill-thought out.  Unfortunately his theory is no match for events, which quickly spiral out of his control, and he discovers that the lot of the political leader is not an easy one.  Popularity can wane as fast as it waxes, today’s hero becoming tomorrow’s scapegoat.

Worse, the distance he perceives between himself and the rest, because of his sense of the wider political situation, gives him a feeling of superiority and he develops a distaste for those he would fain lead.  All our leaders, Zola seems to be saying, have feet of clay, yet the proletariat do not have the intellectual resources to challenge the status quo by themselves.  Underestimating the dynamics at work, Étienne cannot control the monster he has unleashed, and the mob riots that climax the strike show the workers’ short-sightedness as they seek to destroy the means of their livelihoods with no thought for how they will survive with the pits damaged.  The orgy of self-defeating violence surely influenced Thea von Harbou and Fritz Lang when working on Metropolis, and the pathetic fallcy of Germinal’s mine depicted as monster – ‘Le Voreux’, the ‘voracious’ – is not far from Metropolis’s Moloch; but whereas in the film workers and Capital are reconciled, in Germinal the strikers’ impulsive anger brings only defeat, a return to work with no concessions obtained, and for a small group, including Étienne, worse horrors in the famous climactic pit disaster resulting from sabotage by the nihilist Souvarine.

Is this then nothing but propaganda dressed as a novel?  What lifts it above the explication of an abstract theory of political action and social development is the characterisation of the large cast, drawn as recognisable human beings.  Zola does not use two-dimensional puppets to demonstrate the harshness of mining life and the callousness and indifference of the bourgeoisie, rather he puts his characters into a hard situation and sees how they react.  There is a feeling in the reader of sadness and sympathy at their plight but he does not always take the workers’ side: the dispute that triggers the strike is ironically about changing a system that encourages the miners to neglect timbering to one that would make them ensure that timbering was adequate.  The miners put short-term financial advantage – the change represents an effective wage cut – over long-term safety; but then, when on subsistence level wages, short-term interests can trump longer term, and therefore more abstract, considerations.  Relationships are plausible and never feel schematic, even while subordinated to the sweep of the narrative.  The personal is political, even when the two become confused.  Class issues for Zola spring from human impulses not, as Marx would have had it, the other way round.  It is what makes Zola a novelist rather than a writer of political tracts, though that is not to say that he did not have propagandistic aims and a lack of detachment in his depiction of working-class deprivation.  His concern with heredity as the motor of behaviour, though, suggests that change in individuals, and the wider society, will be slow in coming.

It seems a pessimistic message, that there is no way out of the impasse between employers and workers, both sides locked into a system that they cannot improve (concessions by the mine owners would simply lead to a lack of competitiveness as their costs made the coal more expensive), yet there is the suggestion of hope for the workers to achieve a better life.  Germinal was the new name for April in the revolutionary calendar, and the novel ends with the image of Étienne walking away from the coalfields on a warm April morning to begin a new life in Paris.  As he walks he seems to hear his comrades under his feet still hewing coal, and Zola links them to the growing plants, as if they too were germinating, the earth pregnant with them; one day they will burst from the ground, and the darkness, seeking the sunlight and a new world.  It is a natural progression, Zola is saying, but he does not indicate how this might happen, considering the willingness of the bourgeoisie to allow deprivation to continue, and the difficulties in engendering class consciousness: is it the inevitable result of capitalistic development, or will working-class organisation become more effective?   Nor does Zola add that crops, when ripe, tend to be cut down and consumed, to be replaced by more of the same in an endless cycle.


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