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 by a young boy, and the mine installation is flooded by a Russian anarchist, thus causing additional fatalities. In the end, vanquished by the repressive government forces and by starvation, the miners return to work, while Lantier leaves to militate on behalf of social justice.
Though obviously on the miners’ side, Zola does not portray either the miners or their bosses in black-and-white terms. The workers, limited by their environment and devoid of free will, are reduced to the level of animals in their constant search for food. The Grégoires are a local stockholding family who show charitable impulses toward the miners but are ultimately too insensitive to wish to improve their plight; their young daughter, who becomes a symbol of capitalism, will later be cruelly stripped and strangled. Hennebeau, the resident manager, is as much a tool and prisoner ofthe company as the workers. Zola mythicizes the mine pit into a voracious monster, aptly named “le Voreux,” feeding on human flesh; even when flooded, the mine soon returns to its normal state in expectant ambush for the next cargo of miners.
Failure and death aside, the novel closes optimistically, under the glorious April sun. Étienne now hears the hammering sounds of his comrades underground and imagines, in a suffusing prophecy of resurrection, that an “avenging army was slowly germinating in the furrows, sprouting for the harvests of the coming century. And soon this germination would sunder the earth.” The promise of the title has been fully realized.
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,...
(The entire section is 1,825 words.)