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Part 1, Chapter 2 Summary

The mining village, called Two Hundred and Forty, is row upon row of barrack-looking buildings, sleeping under the still-black sky. The Maheus’ house is Number Sixteen and inside, the darkness crushes all who sleep. It reeks of the heavy smell of the “human herd.” When the cuckoo clock strikes four, there is no movement; then Catherine arises, lights a match, and falls back onto the bed in her weariness.

The candlelight shows the stark room filled only with necessaries: three beds, a wardrobe, a table and chairs, clothing on hooks on the wall, and a washbasin and jug. Zacharie, the oldest at twenty-one, sleeps next to Jeanlin, who is almost eleven. In another bed are Lénore and Henrie (six and four), and Catherine shares the third bed with her nine-year-old sister Alzire, a girl so small that Catherine only knows she is in bed because of the sickly girl’s hunchback digging into her. Their parents sleep in a fourth bed in the alcove, next to which is a cradle where three-month-old Estelle sleeps.

Catherine is thin with long, red hair and looks anemic; her gray eyes water as her exhausted and fatigued body strives to stay awake. From his bed, her father scolds her for dancing all day yesterday and rumbles at her to hurry before he falls back to sleep. She wakes up the two oldest boys, who also do not want to get up, by stripping the sheet off their bed. Zacharie is a gangly boy with the same sallow skin as the rest of his family; Jeanlin will not get out of bed, so Catherine scoops him up. His joints are swollen with scrofula, but he tries to wriggle himself free. 

Catherine is the first one dressed and ready. She wears the clothing of a miner, her female form hidden under her pants and jacket. Their grandfather works nights, and when he comes home he will sleep in the bed the boys just vacated. Neighbors are now waking up, as well; the walls are so thin and they all live so close that nothing is private. The Levaques live next door, and Philomène is coughing. She is their oldest daughter and Zacharie’s girlfriend who has already borne him two children. Zacharie is disgusted that Philomène gets to sleep until six o’clock. People in the rooms all around them routinely spend their nights—and days—with people other than their own husbands and wives.

Baby Estelle begins to scream and finally Maheu is forced to get up. He and his wife (La Maheude) worry about money, something they never have enough of; for even though there are five workers in the family, there are ten people living in the house. They owe the shopkeeper sixty francs and they only earn nine francs a day; she will ask for credit, but she may not get it as she was recently thrown out of his...

(The entire section is 745 words.)