Germinal takes its title, first, from the Revolutionary calendar’s spring event of 12 Germinal 1795, when the starving populace invaded the National Assembly and demanded bread. Similarly, the miners and their womenfolk act accordingly in one of the novel’s most famous and most stirring passages (part 5, chapter 5). Second, by continuing nature’s cycle, spring is also symbolic of rebirth and fecundity after months of sterility and death.
Dismissed from his position as a mechanic because of his socialistic ideas, Étienne Lantier (of the Macquart line) arrives in the bleak March landscape of the coal-mining district to start work in the pits, despite his lack of underground experience. Zola masterfully uses Étienne’s naïveté regarding his new milieu to educate him and the reader about this forsaken world and people. Since their wages are so low, the miners, regardless of age or gender, have traditionally eked out a miserable existence. Now, however, because of overproduction and the subsequent drop in coal prices, the company wants to impose an even lower tonnage fee. Lantier convinces his coworkers to strike rather than capitulate as they have often done in the past. For its part, the company expects to crush the strike through hunger.
When violence and sabotage occur, the army arrives to restore order, resulting in numerous deaths and acts of revenge. The food provider Maigrat is savagely mutilated, a soldier is murdered...
(The entire section is 480 words.)