Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1059
From the opening sentence through the final words of Germinal, Émile Zola sets a tone that is as relentless as it is bleak. His naturalism is clearly signaled by his opening paragraph, which depicts a solitary man trudging across a lifeless plain, buffeted by March winds that cut like ice and, subsequently, seem to echo with cries of famine and suffering. From this beginning, Zola propels the reader into a metaphorical abyss and devotes the first two (of seven) parts of the novel to a single day, during which the reader is given a panoramic view of the living and working conditions of Montsou.
The Voreux (voracious) mine is introduced. It is a ghoulish monster capable of devouring all who come in contact with it. Its awesomeness, first suggested by Bonnemort, who speaks of the mine as if it were a higher power to which all have surrendered, is reinforced by Étienne’s observation that it appears to swallow men in large mouthfuls without taking the slightest notice. Then, once Étienne descends into its bowels, details accumulate and the mine emerges as an elaborate maze that deprives man and beast alike of air, light, and meaningful communication. Its ravenous appetite, no less than its inhospitable nature, makes it a force to be reckoned with even during its destruction following Souvarine’s sabotage.
It quickly becomes clear, however, that the mine is not the enemy. The enemies are the board of directors (safely ensconced in Paris, who siphon off the mine’s profits with little or no regard for the workers who have generated them) and the lack of class consciousness among the workers. The directors are worse than indifferent. They are calculating in their every move, restructuring wages just after learning that a strikers’ contingency fund has been started and bringing in soldiers and Belgian workers with the clear intent of escalating the crisis brought about by the strike. Their heartlessness is not, however, aimed solely at the workers. They also take aim at M. Deneulin, the owner of the Jean-Bart mine, which they hope to add to their acquisitions. When, toward the end of the novel, Deneulin is forced to capitulate, Zola treats it as a death knell for independent entrepreneurs, destined to be picked off one by one by the “maw of capital.”
Despite his obvious indignation regarding the aggregation of wealth, Zola tempers his view of the bourgeoisie when depicting its local representatives, which include the Grégoires, Deneulins, Hennebeaus, and Paul Négrel. They are not perpetrators of evil so much as they are flawed humans who also must answer to the soulless board of directors. They, like Étienne and his coworkers, are shown to be victims of social, psychological, historical, and economic forces which they have a “tormenting desire to see and yet a fear of seeing.” In part, their reluctance to see is an unwillingness to confront their own powerlessness. On another level their reluctance is a function of their own complicity in the maintenance of the status quo. This complicity, however, is not limited to the upper class. The workers, too, have resigned themselves to their situation and actively compete against one another rather than working together to challenge those in authority.
To emphasize this point, Zola gives Étienne center stage for much of the novel. Being an outsider, he is not accustomed to things that the other miners take for granted. As a result, he not only has the capacity to feel outrage and horror but also the capacity to begin asking questions and seeking answers. His is not, as Zola repeatedly reminds the reader, an ideological campaign so much as it is a quest for understanding and justice. He reads constantly and seems, on occasion, to be testing out ideas. When he galvanizes the workers during the forest meeting, for example, he has no idea that he is essentially giving them license to embark on a rampage of wanton and purposeless destruction. Accordingly, he tries vainly to regain control or, at the very least, to redirect the miners’ energies. This failing, he begins to doubt his own words and wonders whether the untutored masses can contribute to meaningful social change.
He cannot embrace Souvarine’s advocacy of violent destruction of the existing system. He clearly believes that education and experience will lead individuals to truth. He detests violence, be it Souvarine’s calculated sabotage or Jeanlin’s capricious killing of the young soldier. It is for this reason that he maintains his resolve to promote socialism through trade unions and legislative initiatives.
His departure from Montsou marks the end of one part of his education. He has learned and taught as much as he can and must seek a new channel. The miners, too, have learned a great deal and are better prepared to work for social justice. The objective circumstances of their lives do not appear to have changed, and in many instances have clearly worsened, but one comes away with the feeling that the excesses and violence were necessary parts of their collective education. Significantly, the image of the miners germinating like good seeds with which Zola concludes the novel has already been introduced at two other critical junctures in the book. Its first occurrence comes in the third chapter of part 3, soon after Étienne moves in with the Maheus and begins trying to convert them. The second occurrence comes at the end of part 4, just prior to their storming of the neighboring mines. Each of these episodes teaches important lessons, as Maheude’s prophecy of future vindication, just prior to the end of the novel, indicates. Maheude, who has suffered the most, also grows. She emerges at the end of the novel as clear-headed and pragmatic. Catherine and Lydie, by contrast, symbolize the compliant, abused female; they can be liberated only through death. Maheude survives and, even though she is forced to return to the mines, has a much better understanding of her responsibilities.
The book is not, therefore, simply a protest against the subjugation of the working class. It is also a direct appeal to the workers to band together, to stop killing one another on behalf of the rich, and to take responsible action in order to improve their lives. The conclusion is intentionally left ambiguous; a ray of hope emerges as Étienne leaves Montsou.