Compare the lives of Catherine and Cécile in Germinal by Émile Zola.

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Lori Steinbach eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In part two, chapter one of Germinal by Émile Zola we meet the Grégoires, a mine-owning family, and they are perhaps the most disconnected from the realities of mining of anyone in this novel. Their lives and livelihood depend on what is happening in the mines, but they are virtually clueless about miners or about the hardships they endure in order to make a profit for people like the Grégoires.

The estate is situated on thirty hectares of land. 

The orchard and kitchen garden especially were everywhere spoken of, being famous for the finest fruit and vegetables in the country. For the rest, there was no park, only a small wood. The avenue of old limes, a vault of foliage three hundred metres long, reaching from the gate to the porch, was one of the curiosities of this bare plain....

Everything about the house is luxurious, designed for the family's comfort, and in this household there is plenty of everything. "Provisions abounded, hanging from hooks or in cupboards." It is a warm, comfortable place, both physically and emotionally; this is a close-knit and loving family because they can afford to be that.

The Grégoires have a servant and a cook, and everyone in the family does whatever they can to spoil the only child in the family, a daughter named Cécile. Both of her parents are older, and they adore their daughter. On this morning, the cook bakes a special treat to be served with hot chocolate for the girl's breakfast in bed. She sleeps in a sumptuous room on a comfortable bed.

She was not pretty, too healthy, in too vigorous condition, fully developed at eighteen; but she had superb flesh, the freshness of milk, with her chestnut hair, her round face, and little wilful nose lost between her cheeks.... They found her perfect, not at all too fat, and could never feed her sufficiently.

Cécile slept for twelve hours last night and wakes up refreshed, of course. She is still young but does not attend school; instead she has music and literature tutors who come to her house. She studies what she wants and, as soon as she tires of anything, she dismisses it. Cécile is engaged to another mine-owner's nephew.

Catherine Maheu is about the same age as Cécile, but her life is nothing like the pampered rich girl's. She lives in a house consisting of two rooms with six other people who all share three beds. They take turns bathing in a tub in the living room once a week and have just enough food to live, at least in the beginning. 

She has been working in the mines for years; as a result of her living conditions, her growth has been stunted. Catherine looks quite tomboyish and is late to menstruate; her complexion is, of course, extremely pale from working below ground most of the day. Lantier assumes she is a young boy, perhaps twelve years old, when he first meets her; and it is quite some time before he realizes otherwise.

She works hard in the mines, and Lantier is shocked at her strength; in fact, she outworks him at first. 

[W]hat astonished him was the strength of this child, a nervous strength which was blended with a good deal of skill. She filled her train faster than he could, with quick small regular strokes of the shovel; she afterwards pushed it to the inclined way with a single slow push, without a hitch, easily passing under the low rocks.

Catherine has no education and virtually no choices in life. She eventually lives with an abusive man because it is better than having no one.