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Monsieur Hennebeau is an owner and director of the mine, and of course he and his wife live in a much different way than the miners who work for him. It is this disparity which is at the core of Émile Zola's novel Germinal.
The Maheus are a typical mining family, seven people spanning three generations living in a cramped, bare place. In this house (these rooms, really) there are no luxuries. The furnishings consist of
a cupboard, a table, and two old walnut chairs, whose smoky tone made hard, dark patches against the walls, which were painted a light yellow. And nothing else, only clothes hung to nails, a jug placed on the floor, and a red pan which served as a basin.
There are three beds for all seven of them, so of course they share. Though the place is as clean as La Maheude can keep it, it is not a place most of us would want to live.
In spite of the keen cold outside, there was a living heat in the heavy air, that hot stuffiness of even the best kept bedrooms, the smell of human cattle.
Food is scarce and and fun is in short supply. The lives of the miners and their families are physically demanding, and the physical ailments and diseases caused by the mine are prevalent even in the youngest members of this and every other mining family. There is little relief for the monotony of work and deprivation they all suffer. The young people amuse themselves with promiscuity, and many of the adults are engaged in extramarital affairs, often because they are bored or in exchange for something. Theirs is a tedious, monotonous, and deprived life.
Ironically, when Madame Hennebeau brings visitors to the Maheus' and brags to them that it is spacious and charming a home, a home in which she could live, her guests are appalled at what they see. She adds that the mine pays for all the miners' coal, provides a doctor for the miners twice a week, and pays each miner a pension upon their retirement. While this may be the policy, none of it is true in practice.
In contrast, the Hennebeaus lead a luxurious and privileged life. Though Monsieur Hennebeau was born into poverty, he married a woman with high expectations both financially and socially. He does achieve the success she wants, though his wife is never content. They only socialize with people in their own social position (which means Paul Négrel and the Grégoires). Unlike the sparse furnishings in the miners' homes, Madame Hennebeau has filled what she considers her "little villa" with
upholstery, bric-a-brac, and all sorts of artistic luxuries which were talked of as far as Lille.
Even when the miners are about to strike, the Hennebeaus do not change their plans for a meal with the Gregoires; in fact, Madame Hennebeau's primary concern is that the dessert she has ordered will not be able to be delivered. To her, the miners are a mere inconvenience.
Ironically, despite the dramatic differences in their contrasting lifestyles, the Hennebeaus do not seem much different than the miners. Madame Hennebeau has had a series of extramarital affairs, including one with her husband's nephew who lives with them. Hennebeau has obviously achieved success, but he is not happy. In fact, there is a dramatic scene when he wishes he could trade lives with the miners; he wants the freedom to satisfy his own physical desires, something they have which he does not.
While it is true that the Hennebeaus live a life of relative luxury, they are not significantly happier than the miners. More comfortable, but not happier.
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