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Part 1, Chapter 5 Summary

Maheu asks Zacharie if he has finished. While the boy had timbered for a time, he has been daydreaming and now has to come back to the present; he says it will hold for now and they can check again tomorrow.

They take a break, and Chaval complains that the Company never takes into account coal found in the hard-to-work-with loose earth when they establish the pay rates. Maheu is more reasonable and points out that the terrain changes every twenty meters and it would be impossible to know in advance what the hewers might find. They are careful not to complain too loudly, for even this far under the earth they are afraid they might be overheard and reported by informers.

Chaval shouts that he will throw a brick at the overman if he speaks to him rudely again, and they all joke about the overman’s open affair with Pierron’s wife. Maheu warns Chaval to save that kind of talk for when he is not with him and his family; he is still talking when young Negrel, the engineer, and the overman appear in front of them.

Amiable and intellectual, Paul Négrel is a ferret-faced twenty-six-year-old who dresses like the workers and often performs foolhardy acts trying to command their respect. They are here to see Lantier; after examining Lantier in silence, Négrel says okay this time, but they are not to make a habit of hiring men off the streets. Négrel is appalled at how poorly the timbering has been done in this seam. The roof is already buckling and an accident seems imminent; he berates them for not being willing to leave the seam long enough to take the proper precautions, demanding that they timber the roof properly.

When it is obvious the workers are not going to obey his command, he reminds them that they are not the ones who will have to answer to their families and the Company if something goes wrong. Their greed is going to get them killed. Maheu calmly says that if they were properly paid they would do better timbering. Négrel says they have one hour left to do as he asked and he is fining them three francs.

The men are all upset but do not speak; most outraged of all is Lantier. Being down in this “hell-hole” has caused a great resistance to grow in him. He realizes it is possible that people can work themselves to death doing this terrible work and still not make enough money for bread.

Négrel points out that they have placed the timbers to hold only long enough for the coal to be extracted; when it all collapses, the Company will have to bring in scores of men to repair the damage. If the Company pays more for the timbering, it will pay less for the coal, so the workers will be no better off. Négrel will be back to check their work tomorrow. The angry workers slam some timbers in place and then leave half an hour early. The six workers leave together, but Catherine and Lantier fall behind.

Catherine leads him through the labyrinth, and Lantier begins to dwell on the kiss Chaval...

(The entire section is 809 words.)