Part 1, Chapter 1 Summary

Étienne Lantier walks along the highway which cuts through a field of beets. It is a vast horizon, and the March winds sweep through him in bitterly cold gusts. He has been walking for an hour, since two o’clock this morning, and his threadbare clothes are not keeping him warm. He holds a small bundle under his arm so he can put his numb, chapped hands deep in his pockets. Homeless and out of work, Lantier’s only thought is that it might be warmer when the sun rises.

He has been walking for an hour, from Marchiennes to Montsou, when the glow of three fires off to his left attracts him; they seem to be hovering in mid-air. He is apprehensive but cannot resist the need to warm his hands. He follows a sunken path next to a rustic fence for about two hundred paces until the path turns abruptly and he faces the suspended flames; however, his attention is drawn to the ground below. Lantier sees the outline of a factory whose windows are covered with grime, allowing only a few gleams of light to shine through. Several tall trestles rise to the sky, wreathed in smoke and darkness; the “deep gasps of puffing steam” are the only sounds he hears.

It is a coal mine, and now he can see the movement of men as they transport and empty their trains full of coal. He knows it will be futile to ask for work, so he climbs to the top of the spoil-heap where three braziers are burning. He introduces himself to the driver, who is keeping warm while he waits for his load to be emptied, and asks if there is work for a mechanic. There is not. When Lantier asks about the mine, the old, rheumatic driver has a violent fit of coughing and spits a black blob onto the ground. When he can answer, the driver says this is a coal mine, Le Voreux, and shows Lantier the nearby miners’ village before plodding away with his horse and empty cart.

Lantier had seen the tops of these buildings as he was walking; now, as he warms his hands, he can see the outlines...

(The entire section is 803 words.)