Germinal Summary

Émile Zola, Raymond N. MacKenzie


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Germinal Summary

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Germinal, a novel by French author and activist Emile Zola, first appeared as a serial in the periodical Gil Blas between 1884 and 1885, and was published as a novel in 1885. Raymond N. MacKenzielater translated into the famous English version. It is the thirteenth novel in Zola’s twenty-volume series, Les Rougon-Macquart, which follows the lives of the members of the two families of the title between 1852 and 1870, the Second French Empire. Germinal focuses on a brutal coal miners’ strike in northern France during the 1860s, exploring themes of class struggle, courage, and whether one ordinary person can change an established system. The title comes both from the name of a month in the French calendar, and the Latin word for “seed,” which ties in with the novel’s theme of a hope for a better future that grows among the striking miners. It is considered Zola’s masterpiece and one of the most significant novels in French literature. Having been published and translated in more than one hundred countries, it is still widely read today and has been adapted into five films and two television productions.

As Germinal begins,a young man Etienne Lantier arrives by foot at the Voreux mine, owned by the Montsou Company. He is twenty-one years old, and skinny but strong. He is greeted by Bonnemort, an older man who tells him there is no work for him in the mine. Etienne, a mechanic by trade, finds work as a hewer in the mine and follows Bonnemort to the village Two Hundred and Forty, where Bonnemort lives with his son,Maheu, his daughter-in-law, and their seven children. He joins the mining team, where he works with Maheu, Maheu’s tough daughter, Catherine, and her lover, the brutish Chaval. Etienne and Catherine immediately become close.Chavalis suspicious of him, seeing him as a competitor looking to steal the miners’salary. When supervisors show up to inspect the mine, they fine the team for faulty use of timber. As Maheu decides to call it a day, Etienne decides to follow the advice of his coworkers and rent a room at The Advantage, a local inn managed by the innkeeper Rasseneur. He goes for a walk and sees Catherine being sexually assaulted by Chaval, but is too scared to interfere.

Etienne becomes a skilled hewer and a trusted member of the company. He later meets Souvarine, a Russian anarchist, and along with Rasseneur, the three men become close allies. They hold long conversations about labor and the future of the mine workers. After talking with his radical friend Pluchart, Etienne founds a local division of the “International”and moves in with Maheu’s family. Soon, a crisis emerges at the mine when the mining company lowers the workers’salaries and claims it is a new form of payment plan. The miners view this as adding insult to injury, and after deliberating, decide the time is right for a strike, especially as working conditions continue to deteriorate. However, Chaval’s jealousy over the relationship between Etienne and Catherine grows, and he forces her to leave the mine to work at Jean-Bart, a privately owned mine. On December 15th, the miners begin their strike. Maheu’s delegation of workers meets with the mine director and issues demands, including a fair method of payment and bread for the workers, but the mine director refuses to budge. The strike spreads to the company’s other mines, which all shut down, and the workers join the International. Only Jean-Bart’s miners continue to work. The company digs in its heels, but the workers are prepared for a long fight.

Things escalate when the striking miners become aware of Jean-Bart’s attempt to subvert the strike. They march towards the Jean-Bart mine and demolish its bases. They then march towards the Montsou Company. They assault the mine director’s house, and nearly kill Cecile, the daughter of an investor. The violence growing, they assault the local grocer’s house and kill the grocer. By February, the violence has escalated to a point that the army is called in. Violence between the strikers and the army begins; one of Maheu’s sons kills a young soldier and hides his body. A violent showdown between the soldiers and strikers ends with fourteen strikers dead. Eventually, not able to take the violence anymore, the miners vote to stop the strike. However, the ruthless Souvarine is unwilling to abide this, deciding to sabotage the mining pit. This causes a massive flood that leads to Etienne, Catherine, and Chaval being trapped in the mine. As Chaval loses his mind, Etienne kills him in the ensuing fight. After nine days, convinced they are going to die, Etienne and Catherine make love shortly before she dies from dehydration and exhaustion. Etienne is rescued days later, on the brink of death. After recovering in the hospital, he leaves the tragic mine behind him forever and heads to Paris.

Emile Zola, a French novelist, playwright, and journalist, is considered the most iconic and successful practitioner of naturalism. In addition to the twenty-novel Les Rougon-Macquart cycle, he wrote seventeen additional novels, including the successful and enduring Therese Raquin. Politically active in France, he is perhaps best known today for his newspaper article Jaccuse, in which he exposed the anti-Semitic conviction of French army officer Alfred Dreyfus. He was nominated for the first and second Nobel Prize in Literature in 1901 and 1902, and his work is still widely read and studied today. A biopic about his life, The Life of Emile Zola was released in 1937, starring Paul Muni, and won the Academy Award for Best Picture that year.