Emile Zola is renowned as one of the original authors in the style of Naturalism. His novel, Germinal, is a preeminent example of Naturalism. Within the Naturalistic text, nature (often personified) proves far more powerful than mankind. "Answering" to no one, nature deems when life begins and ends. Under these circumstances, mankind tries to fight the inevitable (the power of nature), yet normally finds that he or she is no match (cannot fight) for it.
Germinal opens with Etienne Lantier (an "unemployed railway worker" with a "dangerous temper"). Taking a job at Le Voreux (a mine), Etienne finds himself unsatisfied with the working conditions and challenges the mine owners and the customs of the mine workers (in order to better the lives of the miners). True to the typical Naturalistic text, Etienne's attempts to overthrow the "natural order of things" results in the ruin of many of the miners and Etienne himself. In the end, Etienne is no match for the nature of things and the beast (the mine).
Outside of the power of nature, the novel depicts the typical social order found in the world. Within society, people are grouped into two groups: "the haves" (able to afford the finer things in life and support themselves without worry) and "the have nots" (those who must scrimp and do without under most circumstances). The "haves," in Germinal, are the owners of the mines. They have the means to live in beautiful and well maintained homes. They do not worry about where their next meal will come from. They even have the luxury to sleep in, not arising before nine. A description of the lives of the mine owners is found in chapter one of "Part II." The "property" of the Gregoires consisted of thirty hectares. They owned a orchard and gardens which produced "fruits and vegetables [which] were celebrated as the finest in the region." The walk to their home, from the gates to the front steps, were a "vault of foliage running three hundred feet." In this section, the Gregoires are described as having "risen at eight o'clock," one hour earlier than their normal time of rising. It is apparent that the owners of the mines lived a very comfortable life. (75)
The miners, or the "have nots," lived a very different life. The village of Two Hundred and Forty (the name of the village) is composed of "four huge blocks of little back to back houses" (no acres and acres of sprawling land). The wind can be heard as it "blew through the broken lattice fences" (showing the initial poverty of the village). The Maheus' home is composed of a "one and only first-floor room." The occupants, miners, "lay crowded together, their mouths open, stunned by exhaustion," the room reeking "of the human herd." At four o'clock in the morning, Caroline arises. She is getting ready to go to work in the mines (her life a far cry from the lives of the Gregoires who will sleep, typically, for five more hours). Caroline shares a bed with her hunchbacked sister, Alzire. This being typical since everyone in the family a bed (all eight of them). The family eats little, due to poverty. (17)