Germinal

germinal12

Who said this and when?

I was expecting that–the accusation of starving the people and living by their sweat. How can you talk such folly, you who ought to know the enormous risks which capital runs in industry–in the mines, for example? A well-equipped pit today costs from fifteen hundred thousand francs to two millions; and it is difficult enough to get a moderate interest on the vast sum that is thus swallowed. Nearly half the mining companies in France are bankrupt. Besides, it is stupid to accuse those who succeed of cruelty. When their workers suffer, they suffer themselves. Can you believe that the Company has not as much to lose as you have in the present crisis? It does not govern wages; it obeys competition under pain of ruin. Blame the facts, not the Company.

The speaker is a the owner of a small coal mine in northern France in the 1860’s, a character in Zola’s novel Germinal. He lives comfortably enough, but he is a captive of the system, as are the miners. They are ground down by their lives in a world devoted only to coal. The old minor spits black phlegm:

“It’s coal. I’ve got enough in my carcass to warm me till I die. And it’s five years since I put a foot down below. I stored it up, it seems, without knowing it; it keeps you alive!”

This book is painful to read. Zola’s thorough research provides us with detailed descriptions of mining and the conditions in which the men must work. Each day is a struggle to earn enough to keep bread on the table. During the strike there is no bread and no table either, since everything is sold in the effort to survive.

Tears fell over each object of the poor household which had to go, and the mother was still lamenting that one day she had carried away in her skirt the pink cardboard box, her man’s old present, as one would carry away a child to get rid of it on some doorstep. They were bare; they had only their skins left to sell, so worn-out and injured that no one would have given a farthing for them. They no longer even took the trouble to search, they knew that there was nothing left, that they had come to the end of everything, that they must not hope even for a candle, or a fragment of coal, or a potato, and they were waiting to die, only grieved about the children, and revolted by the useless cruelty that gave the little one a disease before starving it.

Zola shows us a world in which all are trapped. The miners have only a dim understanding of the big picture, but they know it is not right.

The workers could not hold out; the Revolution had only aggravated their wretchedness; only the bourgeois had grown fat since ’89, so greedily that they had not even left the bottom of the plates to lick. Who could say that the workers had had their reasonable share in the extraordinary increase of wealth and comfort during the last hundred years? They had made fun of them by declaring them free. Yes, free to starve, a freedom of which they fully availed themselves.

One of the results, besides the strike, is senseless violence which often destroys what little the workers have or can depend on. The miners’ riot recalls some of the urban riots we have had in this country. At such times, people ask why do they destroy? It only hurts them in the long run. They destroy because they are angry and there is no long run.

Germinal is a powerful book. Zola takes the reader into the lives of the miners and makes you experience their anger and their grief.

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