Émile Zola, Raymond N. MacKenzie

Germinal

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  • Features 40 chapter summaries and 5 sections of expert analysis
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Germinal Summary & Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 117-page guide for “Germinal” by Émile Zola, Raymond N. MacKenzie includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 40 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like The Class System and The Dehumanization of the Working Class.

Plot Summary

Germinal, written by French author Émile Zola, was originally published as a serial novel from November 1884 until February 1885. It was published fully in March 1885. The novel is the 13th of 20 in Zola’s Les Rougon-Macquart series, which focuses on the influence of heredity in two branches of a family during the Second French Empire. Considered one of Zola’s best novels, Germinal takes its name from a spring month in the French Republican Calendar. Written in the naturalist tradition, the book studies how people are the product of both inner forces and their environments. The novel takes place in a fictional town in northern France—Montsou, meaning “many sous,” a form of French currency—and follows the journey of Étienne Lantier. Étienne is a young coal miner leading his “comrades” in a strike against the oppressive “Company,” whose shareholders’ luxurious lifestyle is made possible by the backbreaking work of the poor. Although some contemporary critics criticized the novel for what they saw as an unflattering depiction of the poor, Zola argued that he sought to demonstrate how generations of subordination dehumanizes workers. Throughout Germinal, Zola uses the metaphor of spring and growth to represent the increasing awareness of the people. By offering examples of greed and selflessness, bravery and ambition, the cost of love and of justice, and the tragedy of human suffering, the novel creates a picture of the indomitable human spirit.

Étienne Lantier, a young mechanic recently fired from his railway job after hitting his boss, walks along the highway one night in his quest for work. The region is amid an industrial crisis that has closed factories and slowed production, leading to the loss of jobs and prevalent hunger. He comes across the coal pit Le Voreux and meets Bonnemort, a driver who has worked there for 50 years, following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather. Étienne receives a job on a team led by Bonnemort’s son Maheu and is appalled by the working conditions in the mine. Maheu’s teenaged daughter Catherine helps him navigate the roadways and shares her meager lunch with him. Étienne and Chaval, another young man on Maheu’s team, form an instant dislike for each other.

Négrel, the engineer, scolds Maheu for being too lax with the timbering. Maheu explains that they would have time to take care of the timbering if they received a higher payment for their tubs of coal. When Négrel fines his team, they are infuriated, but say nothing. Étienne is angry that people are working in these conditions without making enough money to live on.

After work, Étienne, convinced he will not return to the mine, goes with Maheu to the Advantage, a pub owned by Rasseneur, who was fired by the Company for leading a strike. There, he learns that Rasseneur is in touch with Pluchart, a socialist revolutionary. Étienne enjoys the quiet talk of revolt. He rents a room at Rasseneur’s and decides to continue working at the mine.

Over time, Étienne grows comfortable in the mine and earns respect for his hard work. He still does not get along with Chaval, who has been in a relationship with Catherine ever since he raped her by the abandoned pit Réquillart. Étienne talks with Rasseneur and Souvarine, Rasseneur’s other lodger, about how something must be done about the miners’ poor pay. Souvarine, a Russian anarchist and fugitive, believes violence and destruction are the only solution.

The Company frequently finds ways of cutting the miners’ pay, and Étienne begins speaking with the miners about contributing to a provident fund. After Étienne moves in with the Maheus, he and Catherine sleep in the same room. As they grow comfortable with each other, they desire each other more. Étienne educates himself and becomes dissatisfied with the squalid living conditions of the miners. He inspires the Maheus and others with talk of revolution that will bring them comfort and happiness.

One day a rock-fall in Le Voreux kills one worker and permanently disables Jeanlin, the Maheus’ mischievous young son. Négrel scolds the miners for not shoring up the timbering. La Maheude, Maheu’s wife, is furious when Catherine moves in with Chaval, who beats and abuses her. Étienne believes the time is right to strike.

A deputation of strikers arrives at the manager M. Hennebeau’s house to try to plead the workers’ case; however, M. Hennebeau is unmoved. As the strike continues, the people’s situation becomes dire. Étienne feels the weight of responsibility. He organizes a meeting with Pluchart, who speaks with dozens of men from neighboring mines, inspiring them to persist.

When the people’s desperation reaches a breaking point, Étienne organizes a meeting in the forest, where he speaks to 3,000 miners about how they must eradicate the system that exploits them, and works the people into a frenzy. The next day, they go from mine to mine destroying property and attacking those still working. Étienne is horrified by the people’s violence and brutality and tries to distract and calm them.

In the aftermath of the attacks, the Company faces massive losses due to lack of maintenance in the mines. Étienne, grappling with the enormity of his task, hides in the pit at Réquillart. When a fight between Étienne and Chaval leads Chaval to kick her out of his home, Catherine and Étienne discuss beginning a relationship, but Catherine believes it impossible.

The next day, strikers go to Le Voreux to protest the hiring of Belgian workers. When they begin throwing bricks at the gendarmes who are guarding the pit, the gendarmes open fire, killing many strikers, including Maheu. La Maheude accuses Étienne of being the cause of their misery, a sentiment shared by many of the strikers.

The Company posts signs offering work and promising concessions, but many miners are skeptical. Étienne takes a walk one evening and encounters Souvarine, who tells him he is leaving. However, when the two part, Souvarine goes to Le Voreux, where he tampers with an already compromised section of the pit shaft and then hides outside to watch.

The next morning, Catherine and Étienne go to work at Le Voreux. As they work in a remote section of the mine, the compromised shaft begins flooding and blocks their team from escaping. Catherine and Étienne separate from the others as they run through the rapidly flooding roadways and become trapped with Chaval. Chaval and Étienne come to blows, and Étienne kills him. Days pass. On the brink of death, Catherine and Étienne finally have their wedding night. Catherine soon dies in Étienne’s arms.

Outside the mine, Négrel risks his life to descend into the shaft to try to save those trapped. Finding it blocked, he and a team of men begin digging in Réquillart. After almost two weeks, they pull an emaciated Étienne from the mine. After six weeks of recovery, Étienne goes to Jean-Bart, where his friends are now working. He visits La Maheude before taking a position with Pluchart in Paris. La Maheude no longer blames him and suggests she will support him the next time they revolt. Étienne is thoughtful as he walks to the train, believing that one day, the people will be successful.

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