April 13, 2013

Germinal by Emile Zola

Title: Germinal
Author: Zola, Emile
First published: 1885
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This was my first Zola ever and I picked it up for the Zoladdiction reading event this month. I must thank the girls for hosting it, as it was a nice start and I'll definitely be reading more Zola eventually!

Speaking of nice, this is not the word to describe the book itself. Dealing with the strike at the coal mines, it is very dark, depressing and over-realistic. But it is at the same time very moving and beautifully written. Etienne Lantier's search for a job during an economical crisis brings him to a coal mining town Montsou, where he is finally given a job. He observes the harsh conditions that the workers have to suffer, and he is determined to fight for them and with them according to his inchoate revolutionary beliefs. And eventually, following the change in the salary tariffs, a strike happens.

One of the main points of the book it that you can't control the mob. When you set it to action, be prepared that this action can and will become destructive and violent. Etienne likes the feeling of being a leader, and his proclamations and suggestions are usually quite reasonable, but he soon becomes aware that the hungry people want only revenge and violence. So after several months of protesting and a lot of unnecessary deaths it all ends quite badly and avails to nothing.

Why does it end so? Well, I think that the reason is lack of preparation and education. Even Etienne doesn't have a solid plan of how to make the governing board listen to their demands. There is one person who knows quite a lot about revolutionary movement and could have helped, and that is Souvarine, a Russian political emigrant. But he sees no hope in any actions except terroristic, and it is shown very clearly in the novel that this is not an option.

In the end of the book, when everybody goes back to work and to the new unfair tariffs imposed by the governing board, Zola tries to draw some hopeful conclusion. It is said that this strike would not be forgotten and would lead to more revolutionary actions in the future, that though unsuccessful, their actions stirred something which would grow and take a form of the complete change of the society. But somehow this doesn't sound so reassuringly to me when I think about all the horrible deaths that ensued from the strike.

As you have probably noticed, the book was quite moving for me, and this is entirely because of Zola's writing, which is very precise, realistic and visual. However, I feel that he overdid the description of the miserable life of miners just a little bit. I find it hard to believe in all the sex habits these people had. At least I haven't seen it in any other books on the same topic. There is really too much sex in the book, to my liking. And dear Zola, people don't do it after being blocked underground without food for 2 weeks!!

Anyway, I have really enjoyed the book, and I'm glad I've read it. Now I want to try reading from the beginning of Rougon-Macquart series to see some more of the time with Zola's eyes!


  1. Haha...it's rather difficult for me too to imagine the sex scene in the middle of starving condition. But apart from that, I love Zola's vivid descriptions. How could he wrote the mining and the machines so beautifully? And I love the ending, at least it's not as dark as the others I have read so far.

    1. Are the others darker? Oh my... But still, his writing is so good that it will not stop me from reading more of his books :)

  2. Your comment about the sex scenes really made me laugh! Yes, I can't imagine anyone thinking about sex when stuck underground in a life threatening mine disaster.

    Did you notice that Zola kept going on about La Maheude's breasts aswell? I think he referred to her "udders" about three times. I can see that one mention of the fact that she is breastfeeding in front of everyone and that her breast is quite pendulous helps to illustrate how their is no privacy for the miners in their accommodation and that La Maheude's body has been worn out with constant child bearing and raising, but to keep mentioning it in such unflattering terms began to grate with me a bit.

    Despite these couple of niggles, I loved this novel and I liked the realism as it showed that whatever their human and social failings, the miners, like all men, deserve justice in their working life.

    1. I agree that those small unpleasant issues don't spoil the idea and the scope of the book, although they leave some nasty aftertaste. But realism is realism, I understand that I can't expect ideal scenery, beautiful sunsets and idyllic love in a mining town of the 19th century :)

  3. I can't help but think that the sex scenes were based on the reality of the times...otherwise how did they all end with such large families??

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