Helynne's Reviews > Germinal

Germinal by Émile Zola
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's review
Jan 14, 16

it was amazing
Read in February, 1992

Emile Zola, is THE naturalist novelist of France. Naturalism means that he probes the most unpleasant, dificult and sometimes disgusting aspects of French society in the mid- to late 19th century. In his long, intertwined series of novels on various members of the Rougon-Macquart families, Zola analyzes the long-term effects of mental disturbances on one family and alcoholism on the other. As an aside, Zola was a courageous humanitarian as seen in his stand against anti-semitism and his defense of unjustly accused and imprisoned French Army colonel Alfred Dreyfuss, c. 1895-1906. In the vein of Stendhal and Flaubert, Zola is not the easiest writer to read in the original French. I have to admit to cheating a little and reading both Germinal and Nana in English translation. However, thanks to a skilled translator, Zola's crisp, smooth style, rich in detail and humanitarian emotions, comes through beautifully. The title of this novel--Germinal--comes from the short-lived (about 1793-99) French Revolutionary calendar, and refers to a few weeks in spring--i.e., the month of germination. The germination in this novel is a metaphor for the new, yet untested, concept of the labor union as a way for workers to lobby for better wages and working conditions. Wages and conditions are dreadful for the coal miners of northern central France in the 1860s. During a period of unprecedented propsperity under Napoleon III's Second Empire, the miners and their families are barely thriving on bits of food and substandard lodging. The powers-that-be ignore their demands for increased wages because, after all, the company provides them with free (dilapidated) lodgings. Furthermore, the miners, who work long hours underground, in dirty, dangerous conditions, are paid by the amount of coal they hew out of the mines each day. They also must do their own timbering, that is, shore up the mine caverns with lumber to make them safer. But good timbering takes time and that means less time to hew, less coal, and less money, so the miners tend to do a hurried job of timbering so they can get to the coal, and hurried timbering means a potentially dangerous mine . . . and you can see where this is going in terms of cave-ins, injuries, and deaths. Into this milieu comes an optimistic young newcomer, Etienne (this novel's representatvie of Zola's Rougon-Macquart family) who proposes an organization of solidarity to help the miners improve their conditions. But such unions take preparation--months or years of saving up funds to tide workers over during long strikes and other contingencies. These miners have no such preparetion and when the strike begins, they literally begin to starve. The other usual consequences--scabs, crime, violence, illiness,--all add up to tragedy and a high body count that is relentless. Zola, nonetheless, manages to suffuse such inhuman conditions with a beautiful sense of humanity as seen through the members of the Maheu family, who are victims in so many tragic ways, and yet remain loving and surprisingly normal. The novel is in no way upbeat, but it certainly makes its point about povery, injustice, and out-of-control capitalism as well as the glaring gap between the haves and the have-nots. The film version, starring Gerard Depardieu and Miou-Miou as Maheu his wife is amazing, and although somewhat truncated from the original novel, does beautiful cinemagraphic justice to a literary masterpiece.

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