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...
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