What mine does Monsieur Hennebeau own in Germinal by Émile Zola?

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Lori Steinbach | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Monsieur Hennebeau is manager and part owner of Le Voreux in Germinal by Émile Zola. It is the central mining operation of the novel, the place we learn so well because the primary characters of the story work there and it is the mine from which the strike emanates.

When Étienne Lantier is walking away from his old life, he walks until he arrives at something new, and the mine is it. He is walking in the early morning hours, cold and jobless, and he sees the smoke from the mining operation at Le Voreux. 

The Voreux was now emerging from the gloom. Étienne, who forgot himself before the stove, warming his poor bleeding hands, looked round and could see each part of the pit: the shed tarred with siftings, the pit-frame, the vast chamber of the winding machine, the square turret of the exhaustion pump. This pit, piled up in the bottom of a hollow, with its squat brick buildings, raising its chimney like a threatening horn, seemed to him to have the evil air of a gluttonous beast crouching there to devour the earth.

This is the first description we have of the mine, and it is no accident that Zola depicts it as a voracious, insatiable monster. He says it is ready to "devour the earth," but the reality, we soon learn, is that this mine (representative of all coal mines at this time) devours the souls and bodies of all who work there, as well. 

The blast furnaces alone flamed, and the coke ovens, making the darkness redder without illuminating the unknown. And the Voreux, at the bottom of its hole, with its posture as of an evil beast, continued to crunch, breathing with a heavier and slower respiration, troubled by its painful digestion of human flesh.

Though it is a place which does provide Lantier some much-needed physical warmth, it is not a place which provides warmth in any other way.

One of the characteristics of this novel is that Zola describes Le Voreux precisely and completely, explaining in great detail the inner workings of a producing mine. The story is told through Lantier's eyes, and we are able to see and experience everything about the mine as if it were new because it is new to him. (The same is true of the miners--we see them not as they see themselves but through the eyes of a stranger who simply tells us what he sees.) We are "deafened and blinded" just as he is when the machinery is moving, and we feel the changes in temperature and dampness just as he does once he begins working in the mine. 

Zola's presentation of these details, along with the picture of life for those who work the mines, serves to create a sympathetic depiction of the conditions which will eventually justify a strike. 

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