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 of the pit below him, looking like a gigantic, voracious beast. He thinks about his vagrant life over the past week, ever since he lost his job (because he hit his boss) in the railway workshop in Lille. Everywhere he asked for work, he was turned away; Lantier has nothing and does not know what to do or where to go next.
The old driver returns, coughing and spitting, and Lantier asks if there are any factories in Montsou, There were three or four once, and the town was doing well; now there is no work and things are closing down everywhere and the animals and people are dying of cholera. The two men share their woes above the noises of the mine; both men would be happy just to be able to earn their bread. They agree that it is not right for so many people to be “turned out into the streets” because the Emperor needs money to fight in America.
The driver gestures...
(The entire section is 803 words.)