What are the conditions for women in Germinal?

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The novel Germinal by Emile Zola chronicles the lives of coal miners working in the impoverished mining town of Montsou, in the north of France. Living in poverty, the conditions for everyone in the novel are rather bleak, however, they are not entirely disparate as they are in quite a few other texts.

In Zola's work, the women have a level of control and freedom not often exercised in the time, as they engage very freely in sexual relations and in some cases the women even work. Zola's intent was to paint a very realistic picture of men and women of the time, not to idealize any individual or to disparage anyone. Interestingly, women in poverty in historical times were often more equal to men than their wealthy counterparts, because the men were as equally restricted because of the limited finances. Because of this, the women in the novel enjoy some power and strength in this mining world.

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Zola shows sympathy toward working-class women in this novel, without idealizing them in the way of other romantic writers of his period. In other words, he doesn't turn them into saints or gentle, redemptive angels. As a naturalist, he tries to show the women as they are in their environment. In fact, because conditions in the coal mines are so rough and the coal miners so impoverished, the working-class women spend most of their free time having sex because that is all they can afford to do. Catherine, for example, has more than one lover. The working-class women, like the men, don't get enough to eat, and they have only the bare minimum of consumer goods. When they attack the troops, they are more violent and uncontrolled then the men, again overturning romantic stereotypes about the feminine nature.

Wives of the mine owners, such as Madame Hennebeau, exploit the workers while withholding sex from their husbands. These women are portrayed as negative characters and they act harsher then the men toward the lower-classes. This is in contrast to Victorian visions of middle-class women as angels of the home. Ironically, for all their good food and fine clothes, the middle-class women are withholding the one thing the poor have in abundance: sex.

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