Part 1, Chapter 4 Summary

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The hewers are in place, one above the other: Zacharie on the bottom, then Levaque, then Chaval, and finally Maheu, who has it the worst. The men are standing on wooden planks which are there to stop the coal from falling after they cut it. As they dig, the coal drops to the boards and the men eventually disappear into the clefts they have created.

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Maheu digs in thirty-five degrees with no air circulation. In order to see, he must place his lantern right next to his head, which causes his temperature to rise to fever levels. Between the water trickling down from underground springs and his sweat, he is quickly steaming like a washtub. The water drips consistently in one place; today it is his eye, but there is no avoiding it.

No one speaks; all Lantier hears are the tappings of miners. There are no echoes in the airless space and it is insufferably dark. Zacharie is tired and claims some timbering must be done, giving him time to rest. Despite their digging thirty meters into the seam, the men have not taken any precautions and shore up the rock. They are both careless of the danger and jealous of their time.

Lantier is a “putter”; he cuts notches in the roof and wall and wedges large pieces of wood into the ledge to brace the ceiling for the hewers. Each night, shifters come to collect the rubble left by the hewers at the end of each tunnel.

Maheu has finally mined his block of coal and now sees that Zacharie has climbed in behind him to prop the roof. His father tells him to stop that and keep cutting or they will not make their quota, heedless of his son’s warning that the roof is sagging. Maheu is unconcerned; it has happened before and they have survived. Catherine keeps instructing Lantier how to use his shovel most effectively.

A full coal car is hauled to the surface, evaluated, and weighed so the appropriate credit can be given to each mining team. If the cars are full or the coal is not clean, the checkweighman will not record it. Lantier’s eyes are adjusting to the dark and he is able to see Catherine as she works efficiently and with amazing strength. He is bruised and cut and often needs assistance as he struggles to keep the car he is loading on the rails. Catherine shows him how to bend over in order to use the full leverage of hips, arms, and shoulders. It is a staggering weight for such a diminutive girl to move, but she does it without complaint. He is unable to imitate her without excruciating pain. Workers speak and act crudely in the darkness, and the male miners lust when they see the young women with their rears in the air.

Maheu is having trouble breathing and the others have to dump some coal from the boards to extricate him. This is not an easy seam to work, which means it will not be particularly profitable. Chaval taunts Lantier mercilessly; he does not respond because he is thankful to be working...

(The entire section contains 800 words.)

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