Emile Zola began his novel Germinal with the intention of showing how Étienne had inherited his parents' alcoholism. Try to decide as you follow his story whether he is genuinely an alcoholic.  

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The modern textbook definition of alcoholism centers on the frequent craving to imbibe. In many ways, this definition has likely held firm for centuries and across many cultures. Take a look at the definition of alcohol abuse disorder here.

In Germinal, our protagonist , Etienne, is the son of...

Unlock
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Start your 48-Hour Free Trial

The modern textbook definition of alcoholism centers on the frequent craving to imbibe. In many ways, this definition has likely held firm for centuries and across many cultures. Take a look at the definition of alcohol abuse disorder here.

In Germinal, our protagonist, Etienne, is the son of alcoholics. Through him, Emile Zola presents a realistic portrayal of the struggles of the working class in 19th century France. For many miners, alcohol is both a proletariat panacea as well as the vehicle for further degradation and ruin. In Part One, Etienne admits to Catherine that he was fired from his mechanic's job at the railroad for striking his boss. However, he confesses that alcohol had a part to play in his loss of control.

"I ought to say that I had been drinking," he went on, "and when I drink, I get mad; I could devour myself, and I could devour other people. Yes, I can't swallow two small glasses without wanting to kill someone. Then I am ill for two days...He hated brandy with the hatred of the last child of a race of drunkards, who suffered in his flesh from all those ancestors, soaked and driven mad by alcohol to such a point that the least drop had become poison to him.

To Etienne's credit, he fights his susceptibility to alcohol consumption ferociously throughout the novel. We don't read of Etienne drinking again until Part 5; this is where the climax of the novel happens, when the miners strike. Etienne, although supportive of the anarchist Souvarine's convictions about proletariat justice, shrinks from the spectacle of violent revolution. Perhaps, because of his own tendency towards brutality, he is ambivalent about the idea of continuous, violent anarchy.

Either way, Etienne finds himself downing three glasses of gin before he begs Deneulin to call up his men from the mines in order to prevent a 'disaster.' While the miners wreck havoc and destruction on Deneulin's mine, Etienne tries to stem the horrifying violence. However, he also finds himself strangely intoxicated by the aggression around him.

Men went down with hammers, even the women armed themselves with iron bars, and they talked of smashing boilers, of breaking engines, and of demolishing the mine. Etienne...himself was becoming intoxicated and carried away by this hot fever of revenge. He struggled, however, and entreated them to be calm...

Later, in Part Seven, we read of the same 'intoxication' Etienne experiences when he kills Chaval in order to save Catherine from her lover's sexual abuse. Trapped together at the bottom of the mine after Souvarine sabotages the mine shaft, the trio grapple with conflict amid the looming specter of death by starvation.

The die was cast then; he had killed. All his struggles confusedly came back to him, all his useless resistance against the poison dormant in his veins, the alcohol slowly accumulated in the blood of his race. He himself had only been intoxicated with hunger; the past drunkenness of his parents had sufficed to cause everything.

From the passage above, we get the idea that no matter how hard Etienne tries to rid himself of his alcohol-infused generational curse, his efforts will always prove futile. As long as Etienne continues to agitate for justice, the propensity for violence will always be within his reach; it is his heritage. Today, we would say that Etienne suffers from a form of alcohol abuse disorder; at the very least he is often dependent on alcohol during moments of stress. Etienne doesn't have to drink all the time, but when he does, very little is needed to spur him on to violence.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team