How does Emile Zola portray Marxism in his novel Germinal?

Expert Answers
davmor1973 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Like many intellectuals, Zola sees Marxism as a useful tool for analyzing capitalist society and its defects but less useful as a means of realizing concrete social change. In Germinal, Zola sees Marxism primarily as a crucial galvanic myth, one that inspires revolutionary fervor, motivating the workers to stand together in solidarity to take on their capitalist oppressors.

The use of Marxism as myth by Zola is related to his wider treatment of mythology in the story. An example of mythological symbolism in Germinal is provided by Zola in a particularly striking passage as he describes the coal mine in which the strikers toil:

[The mine] seemed to take on the sinister air of a voracious beast, crouching, ready to pounce and gobble you up.

Zola is consciously constructing a national French epic. However, he knows that the old myths of antiquity are no longer equal to the task; he must create new myths, or, at the very least, incorporate contemporary ones into the fabric of his tale. This is where Marxism comes in. It provides a mythological underpinning not just for the telling of the story, but also for the characters and their respective roles. In the midst of great suffering and exploitation, the workers and their families are forced to absorb and internalize the myth of Marxism, with its promise of eventual proletarian victory, in order to maintain hope in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.

In the process of doing so, however, it is important for Zola that the subjugated proletarians do not become like the mythical monsters of capitalism. They must retain their status as heroes of this latter-day Greek epic. The multifaceted nature of Marxism, with its myriad complexities, ensures that it is never certain which way the workers will go. They could follow the example of Souvarine and commit acts of revolutionary violence. Alternatively, they could come to appreciate their role in the Marxist mythos and rediscover a sense of their own humanity, grotesquely distorted as it has been by the inhuman forces of capitalism.

It is a testament not just to the ambiguity of Marxism, but also to Zola's mythopoeic vision that this question is never fully resolved.

Tamara K. H. eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Marxism is a worldview based on the theories of Karl Marx that sees capitalism as destructive because it creates an inevitable class struggle. More specifically, capitalism creates a war between the proletariat, or the working class, and the bourgeoisie, meaning the business-owning class or even upper middle class. Marxists see the proletariat as being oppressed by the bourgeoisie, which inevitably leads to war.

Emile Zola certainly portrays the Marxist worldview throughout his novel Germinal and, for the most part, presents the Marxist view favorably, showing it is a worldview worth agreeing with. Zola clearly portrays the bourgeoisie through the mining company, which is oppressing the proletariat, represented by the coal miners. More specifically, the mining company is oppressing its workers by lowering amounts paid to the workers due to the fact that coal prices have dropped as a result of overproduction. However, decreasing the amount paid to the workers puts them in even more desperate straights, leading to, just as Marx predicted, a strike. While Zola portrays the ensuing strike and the violence that accompanies it as inevitable, he also portrays Marxist extremism as dangerous. Souvarine is portrayed as a character who takes Marxist idealism to an extreme when he intentionally damages the mine as a means of damaging the mining company but also as a means of leaving his own mark on the world. Since Souvarine takes many lives through his actions, we can definitely see that Zola disagrees with his actions and the idea of allowing Marxist idealism to lead to such devastating violence.