Places Discussed

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Montsou (mon-sew). Company-owned coal mining town in northeastern France, Montsou is the center of all the novel’s actions. The town is actually a congested ghetto of buildings into which the miners and their families are crowded. Montsou becomes a microcosmic symbol for a world into which all workers have been forced. This setting permits Zola to confine his realistic portrayal of workers’ lives to a recognizable location instead of being obliged to depend upon mere rhetoric. Zola’s dividing the world of Montsou into its various components—especially the homes, the company store, and the mine pit itself—shows the complex society in which the miners and their families must live.

Maheu home

Maheu home (mah-HEW). Instead of the loving, domestic picture often presented in literature, the homes in Germinal, most clearly represented by that of the Maheu family, show how the most positive of symbols can be altered. The life presented depicts the economic deprivation and moral depravity created by the totalitarian world in which the miners live. In contrast, the Grégoire home shows the luxury in which the mine owners live, marking the sharp contrast between the owners and the workers, a situation which eventually results in the climactic labor strike to which all earlier actions lead. The reader sees this contrast most clearly when Maheude Maheu takes her small children to beg sustenance from a rich family, a clear indication of the economic determinism controlling the workers’ lives.

Company stores

Company stores. Similar to the homes, the company stores are also physical manifestations of the economic sway the companies have over their workers. The scenes occurring in the store allow the reader to witness the control the store owner holds over the workers, from drawing the customers into further debt to demanding sexual favors from the female customers in exchange for food. Here Zola has found another symbolic means of condemning the treatment of the workers.


Mines. The mines themselves prove to be the central metaphor for the lifestyle which Zola intends to address. Because of the economic ramifications of mining coal as cheaply as possible, this setting more than adequately depicts the wider scope of workers’ lives. From the moment miners enter the “cage” to be lowered into the earth’s interior, their lives, whether they be young or old, male or female, are revealed as hellish. At every turn, the workers are tested. By visualizing this situation, the reader gains more perspective on these workers’ lives than mere verbal arguments could provide.

Through his choice of settings, Zola permits his readers to witness the types of lives the workers of this period lived. This witnessing creates reader empathy, resulting in acceptance of the workers’ eventual violent strike.


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Berg, William J., and Laurey K. Martin. Émile Zola Revisited. Boston: Twayne, 1992. Textual analysis of Zola’s twenty-volume series Les Rougon-Macquart and discusses naturalism’s debt to positivism. Devotes a major part of chapter 3 to a study of the ideological ambiguity of Germinal and explores Zola’s functional use of imagery.

Grant, Elliot M. Émile Zola. Boston: Twayne, 1966. Examines the historical context as well as the literary devices (color, symbolism, and anthropomorphism) used in Germinal. Detailed critique of the major characters.

King, Graham. Garden of Zola: Émile Zola and His Novels for English Readers. London: Barrie & Jenkins, 1978. Explains some of the choices Zola made while writing Germinal. Concludes that there are no villains, only victims, and that the main character of Germinal is the community.

Nichols, Brian. Zola and the Bourgeoisie. London: Macmillan, 1983. Offers a structural anal-ysis of Zola’s treatment of the values of the capitalist class. Germinal figures prominently in the first part of the book’s analysis.

Walker, Philip. Zola. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1985. Compares Germinal to an intricately crafted fresco teeming with mythic imagery. Argues that Zola’s blend of archetypal and historic forms is responsible for the book’s epic grandeur and universality.

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Critical Essays