Étienne Lantier sets out to walk from Marchiennes to Montsou looking for work. On the way, he meets Vincent Maheu, another workman, called Bonnemort because of successive escapes from death in the mines. Nearing sixty years old, Bonnemort suffers a bad cough because of particles of dust from the mine pits. Bonnemort has a son whose family consists of seven children. Zacharie, the eldest son, twenty-one years old, Catherine, sixteen years old, and Jeanlin, eleven years old, work in the mines. In the morning, as they are dressing, they listened to the sounds of Levaque leaving the next-door apartment. Soon afterward, Bouteloup joins the Levaque woman. Philomène Levaque, the eldest daughter and Zacharie’s mistress, coughs from her lung ailment. Such is the life of those who work in the mine pits.
Étienne is given a job in the mine. He descends the mine shaft along with Maheu, Zacharie, Chaval, Levaque, and Catherine. At first Étienne mistakes the last for a boy. During lunchtime, Chaval roughly forces the girl to kiss him. This act angers Étienne; the girl insists that the brute is not her lover. The head captain, Dansaert, comes with Monsieur Négrel, Monsieur Hennebeau’s nephew, to inspect Étienne, the new worker. There is bitterness among the workers, danger lurking in the shafts, and so little pay that it is hardly worth working. Étienne, however, decides to stay in the mine.
M. Grégoire inherited from his grandfather a share in the Montsou mines. He lives in peace and luxury with his wife and only daughter, Cecile. A marriage has been arranged between Cecile and Négrel. One morning Maheude, Maheu’s wife, and two of her small children go to the Grégoires to seek help. They are given warm clothing but no money, since the Grégoires believe working people will only spend money in drinking and nonsense. Maheude has to beg for some groceries and money from Maigrat, who keeps a shop and who will lend money if he receives a woman’s caresses in return. He has Catherine in mind. Catherine, however, escapes him, meets Chaval that night, and allows him to seduce her. Étienne witnesses the seduction and is disillusioned by the young girl.
Étienne so quickly and expertly adapts himself to the mine that he earns the respect of Maheu. He makes friends with the other workers. Only toward Chaval is he clandestinely hostile, for Catherine now openly shows herself as the man’s mistress. At the place where Étienne lives, he chats with Souvarine, a friendly man who thinks that true social change can only be achieved through violent social revolution. Étienne discusses a new movement he has heard about from his friend Pluchart, a Lille mechanic. It is a Marxist movement to free the workers. Étienne comes to loathe the working conditions and the lives of the miners and their families, and he hopes to collect a fund to sustain the forthcoming strike. He discusses his plan with Rasseneur, with whom he boards.
After Zacharie marries his mistress Philomène, the mother of two of his children, Étienne comes to the Maheu household as a boarder. Night after night he urges them to accept his socialistic point of view. As the summer wears on, he gains prestige among the neighbors, and his fund grows. As the secretary, he draws a small fee and is able to put aside money for himself. He begins to take on airs.
The threat of a strike is provoked when the company changes the structure of the wages of the workers, essentially lowering wages. As a final blow to the Maheus, a cave-in strikes Jeanlin,...
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leaving him a cripple. Catherine goes to live with Chaval, who has been accusing her of sleeping with Étienne. In December, the miners strike. While the Grégoires and the Hennebeaus are at lunch, arranging the plans for the marriage between Cecile and Négrel, the miners’ delegation comes to see M. Hennebeau, but he refuses to give any concessions. The strike wears on through the weeks, while the workers slowly starve. Étienne preaches socialism, and the strikers listen; as their misery increases, they became more adamant in their resistance to M. Hennebeau. The endless weeks of strike at the Montsou mines end in a riot when the people advance to other pits to force the workers to quit their labors and join the strike. The mob destroys property throughout the day and rages against their starvation. Catherine remains faithful to Chaval, but when, during the riot, he turns renegade and runs to get the gendarmes, she deserts him to warn her comrades, especially Étienne.
Étienne goes into hiding, assisted by Jeanlin, who has become a street urchin and a thief. The Maheu family fares poorly. Crippled Alzire, one of the younger children, is dying of starvation. Everywhere neighbors quarrel fretfully over trifles. Étienne frequently slips into Maheu’s house for a visit. For the most part, he wanders alone at night. After the strike has been in force for two months, there is a rumor that the company is bringing strikebreakers to the pits. Étienne begins to despair. He suggests to the Maheus that the strikers bargain with M. Hennebeau, but Maheude, who once had been so sensible and had resisted violence, shouts that they should not give in to the pressure of their demands.
One night at Rasseneur’s, while Étienne is discussing matters with Souvarine, Chaval and Catherine enter. The animosity between Étienne and Chaval flares up, and they fight. Chaval is overpowered and orders Catherine not to follow him but to stay with Étienne. Left alone, Catherine and Étienne are embarrassed and confused. Étienne has no place to take the girl. It is not possible for her to go home, since Maheude could not forgive her for having deserted the family and for working during the strike. Resignedly, Catherine goes back to her lover.
After Catherine leaves, Étienne walks by the pits, where he is a witness to the murder of a guard by little Jeanlin. Étienne drags the body away and hides it. When the strikebreakers begin to work, the strikers storm the entrance to the pit and threaten the soldiers on guard. After a while, the soldiers fire into the mob. Maheu is among those killed. Twenty-five workers are wounded, and fourteen are dead. Company officials come to Montsou to settle the strike. The strikebreakers are sent away. Étienne’s popularity ends. He brings Catherine home and begins to stay at Maheu’s house again. The bleak house of mourning fills Étienne with remorse.
Souvarine resolves to leave Montsou. Before he goes, he sneaks into the pit and creates enough damage to cause a breakdown in the shafts. That same morning, Étienne and Catherine decide that they must go back to work. Chaval manages to be placed on the same work crew with Étienne and Catherine. Repeatedly the two men clash; Chaval still wants Catherine. Water begins rushing into the shaft. Chaval, Étienne, and the rest are trapped below when the cage makes its last trip up and does not come down again. The people above wait and watch the mine slowly become flooded. Négrel sets about to rescue the entombed workers; as long as they are below, they must be assumed to be still alive. At last, he and a rescue party hear faint thumpings from the trapped workers. The men begin to dig. An explosion injures several of them and kills Zacharie.
Meanwhile, the trapped workers scatter, trying to find a place of safety. Étienne and Catherine come upon Chaval in the gallery to which he has climbed. There the animosity between the two men leads to a fight that ends when Étienne kills Chaval. Alone, the two lovers hear the rescuers’ tapping. For days they continue to answer the tapping. Catherine dies before the men outside reach them. Étienne is still alive when help comes. After six weeks in a hospital, Étienne prepares to go to Paris, where more revolutionary work awaits him.