There have been some shocking accidents in coal mines in my life time, including the 2010 Pike River disaster in New Zealand which killed 29 men. More scandalously, multiple fatalities occur regularly in China, where there are numerous illegal mines and regulations to protect the workers in legal ones are obviously lax. (There were 2433 mine deaths in 2010 in China, and as I write this there is another mine disaster there this week). So even though Germinal is set in the 19th century and (according to the Introduction by L.W. Tancock) Émile Zola was writing of an earlier period when conditions were worse than they were at the time he was writing, reading some of the sequences were enough to make me wonder why in the 21st century the lives of men are still risked in this way. Germinal is very evocative writing.
The story traces events in the life of Etienne Lantier, an intelligent but uneducated man, who arrives penniless and starving in the mining town of Montsou after a punch-up with his former employer. Through a stroke of luck he gets work in the mine, and becomes fond of Catherine, one of numerous children in the poverty-stricken Maheus family, all of them destined to work in the mine from childhood onwards, except for Alzire, who is crippled. Conditions in their home are appalling. Hunger is constant, and since they cannot possibly manage on what they earn, the mother must go begging from the indifferent wealthy in order to appease her creditors.
But if conditions above ground are bad, below ground they are atrocious. There are some very distressing scenes involving terrified pit ponies destined never to see the sun again, but the miners likewise have no choice but to endure the confined spaces, foul air, long hours and extremely dangerous conditions. Because of the way they are paid for what is brought to the surface, they cut corners when it comes to putting in timber props to stabilise the rock walls above them, putting their own lives at risk. Their wages are kept low through the owners’ tactics of auctioning off plots for the miners to work, so to get work, the workers’ teams must continually undercut each other. This doesn’t just keep them poor, it keeps them divided as well. There are constant savage arguments and abuse of each other, especially amongst the women.
It seems an intolerable life, and so it’s understandable that there is heavy drinking, and the young people take their pleasures where they may: in grotty shacks in winter, and in the cornfields in summer. There is no middle-class morality to disapprove; what makes the parents cross is when an extra mouth arrives to be fed, or even worse if the couple marry and the income the errant son or daughter had been bringing in goes elsewhere. Etienne is not among those who frolic in this way: he had his eye on Catherine but she is too young and not emotionally ready. the villainous Chavel, however, has no such scruples and has his way with her before long. With the resignation that characterises all of them to their fate, Catherine submits to his affections and they become a couple.
In respect of this relationship, it’s a bit like Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbevilles: the actual event is ambiguous. Does Catherine say yes, or not? It’s hard to tell whether it’s a case of the author being coy in a typically 19th century way about rape, used here to symbolise the way the system overpowered individuals, or whether Zola himself thought some women – or these women – liked a bit of persuasion through rough-love. After her initial reluctance in the cornfield, Catherine and Chavel are reasonably fond at first but soon the relationship is marked by constant kicks and beatings. To a 21st century eye Catherine’s submission to Chavel’s sustained violence looks like the defeated actions of a battered wife.
Anyway, for Etienne, it’s company down at the bar when he’s not working, and there, influenced by the amoral Souvarine, a Russian anarchist and political émigré, he begins to educate himself in political and economic philosophy, reading everything he can get his hands on. Soon he becomes part of discussions about that fellow Karl Marx and his ideas about improving the lot of working people, arguing about whether there should be gradual change or full-scale revolution to overthrow capitalism altogether.
Etienne’s powers of persuasion enable him to set up a Provident Fund but when a change in pay scales finally forces the miners out of their passivity and triggers a strike, the fund is barely enough to support the miners for a week, never mind a sustained stoppage. The timing of their visit to the manager to plead their cause coincides with a splendid luncheon complete with truffles and partridge – and the diners make sport about it, sealing themselves inside a darkened room and pretending to each other to be so scared of the strikers that they must conceal their presence at the luncheon. The hungry men, by contrast, are so humble that they are too afraid of damaging the antiques to sit down outside in the reception room, and Maheu as spokesman is so deferential that he has no impact at all.
None of the bourgeois really has any idea about the misery their workers endure both above and below ground, M. Grégoire is a placid, lazy and sentimental man who simply wants to enjoy the fruits of his inherited wealth and lavish it on his spoilt daughter Cecile. The women view the entire enterprise as an opportunity for pseudo-works of charity (which don’t include giving what’s really needed – money and food). When there’s an accident, these women take advantage of it as a grotesque form of sight-seeing, and the daughters get out their paints to make a picture of the scene.
Zola, however, balances this picture of complacent bourgeois living off the labour of others with a more complex view of things from their point of view. These mine owners are under pressure themselves because of a downturn in orders from America, and one of them, Deneulin, has perilous debts due to the cost of modernising his plant and equipment and a small rise in labour costs two years before. For him to pay higher wages now would bring ruin and he tries to explain that the closure of his mine would leave them even worse off, but understandably the strikers are unconvinced. M. Hennebeau the manager is under pressure to return profits to the company he works for. Not only that, but manufacturing all around them is dependant on cheap coal, and a protracted strike is a disaster for the local economy. For all their faults, the bourgeois are not depicted as evil, but rather as characters caught in a complex web of economic realities which seem to preclude any just solution to the miners’ grievances.
So the violence when it comes, is a shock. It is mob violence, but personalised, and characters we have come to know do and suffer unspeakable things. There is an horrific scene when Catherine and Chavel, slaving underground in a torrid heat are trapped there by violence above, and the death of the shopkeeper who refused credit is revolting. Zola’s women are real furies indeed, but there is also the sickening example of a miner’s child wholly corrupted by violence. But in each case we see humanity caught in the web – see my Sensational Snippet for an example where the soldiers confronted by the savagery of the miners are compromised by their inability to withstand it.
The real villain of the story is the earth itself, and the final scenes below ground after the defeat of the strike are the stuff of nightmares. Although I’ve ordered the DVD, I’m not sure that I’m going to be able to watch it.
Although the introduction makes it clear that there are historical inaccuracies in the plot, Zola’s unrelenting realism succeeds in confronting the tragedy of the struggle between capital and labour. In this novel no one is to blame, and there are no ready solutions. It’s very powerful writing.
Commentary by Lisa Hill, 11/11/13 and cross-posted at ANZ LitLovers
Author: Emile Zola
Translator: L.W. Tancock
Publisher: Penguin Classics 1969, first published 1885.
Source: an OpShop somewhere, purchased long ago.
Fishpond: Germinal (Wordsworth Classics of World Literature).
Book Depository: Germinal (Wordsworth Classics of World Literature) They have the DVD of Germinal too, starring Gerard Depardieu.