Étienne Lantier sets out to walk from Marchiennes to Montsou looking for work. On the way, he meets Vincent Maheu, another workman, called Bonnemort because of successive escapes from death in the mines. Nearing sixty years old, Bonnemort suffers a bad cough because of particles of dust from the mine pits. Bonnemort has a son whose family consists of seven children. Zacharie, the eldest son, twenty-one years old, Catherine, sixteen years old, and Jeanlin, eleven years old, work in the mines. In the morning, as they are dressing, they listened to the sounds of Levaque leaving the next-door apartment. Soon afterward, Bouteloup joins the Levaque woman. Philomène Levaque, the eldest daughter and Zacharie’s mistress, coughs from her lung ailment. Such is the life of those who work in the mine pits.
Étienne is given a job in the mine. He descends the mine shaft along with Maheu, Zacharie, Chaval, Levaque, and Catherine. At first Étienne mistakes the last for a boy. During lunchtime, Chaval roughly forces the girl to kiss him. This act angers Étienne; the girl insists that the brute is not her lover. The head captain, Dansaert, comes with Monsieur Négrel, Monsieur Hennebeau’s nephew, to inspect Étienne, the new worker. There is bitterness among the workers, danger lurking in the shafts, and so little pay that it is hardly worth working. Étienne, however, decides to stay in the mine.
M. Grégoire inherited from his grandfather a share in the Montsou mines. He lives in peace and luxury with his wife and only daughter, Cecile. A marriage has been arranged between Cecile and Négrel. One morning Maheude, Maheu’s wife, and two of her small children go to the Grégoires to seek help. They are given warm clothing but no money, since the Grégoires believe working people will only spend money in drinking and nonsense. Maheude has to beg for some groceries and money from Maigrat, who keeps a shop and who will lend money if he receives a woman’s caresses in return. He has Catherine in mind. Catherine, however, escapes him, meets Chaval that night, and allows him to seduce her. Étienne witnesses the seduction and is disillusioned by the young girl.
Étienne so quickly and expertly adapts himself to the mine that he earns the respect of Maheu. He makes friends with the other workers. Only toward Chaval is he clandestinely hostile, for Catherine now openly shows herself as the man’s mistress. At the place where Étienne lives, he chats with Souvarine, a friendly man who thinks that true social change can only be achieved through violent social revolution. Étienne discusses a new movement he has heard about from his friend Pluchart, a Lille mechanic. It is a Marxist movement to free the workers. Étienne comes to loathe the working conditions and the lives of the miners and their families, and he hopes to collect a fund to sustain the forthcoming strike. He discusses his plan with Rasseneur, with whom he boards.
After Zacharie marries his mistress Philomène, the mother of two of his children, Étienne comes to the Maheu household as a boarder. Night after night he urges them to accept his socialistic point of view. As the summer wears on, he gains prestige among the neighbors, and his fund grows. As the secretary, he draws a small fee and is able...