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 and account for its tremendous effect and continuing popularity. The miners’ cry for “bread” forms the base for one line of images that establishes the mine as a beast devouring the miners by shaft-loads, with its giant intestines capable of digesting an entire nation. Another dominant line of images is based on sexual activities, often bestial in their urgency. These two image-patterns coalesce in the castration of the grocer, Maigrat, an action that comes during the mob scene at the climax of the novel.
After the atrocities committed by the mob, management in distant Paris resorts to armed force to put down the rebellion, and the workers are forced to return to conditions that are worse than ever. Middle-level managers as well as stockholders also lose life and property in the monumental struggle. But, at the end of the novel, it is springtime again, and seeds are once again germinating. Thus, Zola leaves a final impression that seeds for a new strike and changing conditions have been sown and are growing, too, and will someday erupt...
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