Part of Émile Zola’s Rougon-Marquart series, Germinal is set in a mining town in 19th century France. The title comes from the new Republic’s calendar, it’s the name of month in spring when things start sprouting. Whatever you might imagine the life of a miner to be like, it was far worse in France. At times I had to put the book down, because it was just too heart-breaking to read about the suffering people endured.
The hero is Étienne Lantier who arrives in town seeking work. Trained as a mechanic, Étienne accepts the only work available, working in the mines. Pay’s low so he moves in with a mining family and shares a room with Catherine, their teenage daughter to whom he’s attracted. But love is not in the offing. Catherine’s jus 14 and her poor diet has stunted her maturation, but she’s involved with Chaval, a boy, who also works in the mine. Brutish and abusive, Chaval is a product of the mines, not the sort of boyfriend who can respect a girl. Respect though is a luxury item, just like a good meal. Like all their peers, Chaval and Catherine work all day in a back-breaking environment and spend their nights having sex in a kind of quarry. The young and old’s spirits have been crushed and there’s no hope, romance or joy. Life offers few choices so if you’re pregnant and your boyfriend beats you, you put up with it. Life’s about survival.
The work and environment is described in acute detail. Work was arduous in the sweltering mines. Pay was so low that children had to work. Encouraged by Étienne and a couple others who’ve read up on socialism and labor rights, the miners go on strike. Then the oppression reaches new lows. They’re tough and dedicated, but are soon starving as their pooled savings run out. As you’d expect the workers’ pay gets reduced and their expected output increased. The owners are far off in Paris. The mine’s run by managers who’re well paid, but have no power. Miners and their families start to die. Some return to work and violence ensues. Just as things appear to improve more disaster, disaster based on a true event, strikes.
Each day I looked forward to reading more of this gripping story, but then would have to put it down as the hardship was unbearable, worse than other stories of coal mingling like King Coal by Upton Sinclair. I appreciated Zola’s descriptions and how he portrayed his era with such clarity. (Though when people were moving through the mines it was hard to grasp how extensive they were.)
To his credit, Zola doesn’t glorify the miner’s and vilify the managers and elite. There’s plenty of realism and fairness to go round. I appreciated Zola’s prose and his complex characters. I read that Zola researched Germinal painstakingly and even went into the mines to see the conditions.