(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Germinal is one of the twenty novels that make up the Rougon-Macquart cycle, an attempt by Emile Zola to put into practice the tenets he discussed in The Experimental Novel (1880). In that manifesto, Zola argued that the scientific method could be applied to the naturalistic novel. The novelist, then, could become a scientist, observing the human condition, forming a hypothesis, and exhibiting that hypothesis in the content of the novel. Believing that the course of an individual human life is wholly determined by heredity and environment, Zola thought that, with his writings, he could effect environmental change, resulting in significant changes in human behavior. Thus, novelist could become physician in both diagnostic and healer roles.

Germinal tells the story of Etienne Lantier, who takes a job in a mine in Northern France. An outsider to the community, Etienne has both the strength and intelligence to become a catalyst for the miners who are chronically starved and overworked. Etienne does rally them to strike, but he loses control of the workers when mob action triumphs over reason and terrible atrocities occur. At the end of the novel, the strike has been put down, the cowed workers are back in the mines, and Etienne leaves the village to take a post in the newly formed union.

Though a naturalistic novel, Germinal is constructed by Zola with careful attention to patterns of imagery that give the novel an aesthetically satisfying form...

(The entire section is 618 words.)