Étienne Lantier, an unemployed railway worker, is a clever but uneducated young man with a dangerous temper. Forced to take a back-breaking job at Le Voreux mine when he cannot get other work, he discovers that his fellow miners are ill, hungry, and in debt, unable to feed and clothe their families. When conditions in the mining community deteriorate even further, Lantier finds himself leading a strike that could mean starvation or salvation for all.
I can safely say that this book fits into the great tradition of journalistic classics. It complements Dickens’ portrayal of the poverty and struggles of the working class and also reminded me of the depiction of English mines in Orwell’s harrowing but ultimately rewarding The Road to Wigan Pier. The mention of the Davy lamp in the text also brought to mind Sir Humphrey Davy’s selfless experiences during research for his life saving Davy lamp.
Although Germinal is book 13 in the 20 volume Les Rougon-Macquart series, the earlier books aren’t required reading as this one stands alone perfectly well, this was my introduction to Zola and from the outset it pulled me straight in.
From the beginning we are introduced to a brutal work life of the pit workers, the place where they reside is a blight on a denuded landscape and the mine is depicted variously as gorging on human flesh and is also likened to the Greek underworld of Tartarus showing the nature of our relationship with the earth or at least our imagination’s interpretation. Zola’s almost hellish imagery doesn’t shy away from the struggles and the horrors that people struggled through and sets the scene for a book story in which life is changed for all in harrowing and profound ways.
Buried like moles beneath the crushing weight of the earth, and without a breath of fresh air in their burning lungs, they simply went on tapping.
The vivid depictions of mining encourages that feeling of pity for the workers in their terrible conditions which aren’t overstated in their treacherous nature, in fact Zola’s depictions of all classes are accurate and even-handed, his considerable cast show many facets of bravery, love and hate across the board, yet strangely some of the minor characters get storylines that are more interesting than the main plot. The continued changing of my feelings for the characters as they grew or revealed their true colours, throughout the book kept me just off-balance enough to not fully like any of them but appreciate their motivations all the same.
The disgraceful opulence of the rich, who are shown as odious but hopelessly naÏve and ignorant of what exactly it is people actually do so they can enjoy their profits is strange for the modern reader who has information on tap, it seems for all their education that they have little in the way of understanding to what the mining actually entails.. It’s truly shocking to think of the workers as happy but this is perfectly balanced by the changes in the miners attitudes as the plot unfolds and the rumblings of discontent become something more. The way they use violence against each other and only value each other on the amount of money they make or lend gives them their own hierarchy, it is an interesting metamorphosis which makes the reader consider the ultimate aims of the workers and how changes can affect even the purest of motives..
There are plenty of memorable scenes in the book from the first sight of the mine in the windy night to the barren landscape used indiscriminately by young couples to procreate and bring new life to suffer as they do, which is terribly sad as are the many set pieces that show a life with little hope, an ability to adapt to ever worsening circumstances of poverty, the claustrophobic drudgery and the imminent dangers of the mine. It does allows all the above ground scenes to become, in contrast doubly poignant and almost give a sense of freedom to these poor people, prisoners to their work for life.
The gulf between rich and poor is obscene and as we are all painfully aware, the social inequalities continue today all over the world albeit in less torrid circumstances for most. Zola in one instance creates a supermarket that is already destroying small businesses in the 1860’s, this foresight makes this work a socially relevant commentary still. It’s a timeless book that gives a warning across the ages of what could happen when the savagery of the long-suffering is unleashed as they stand up for what is fair and right.
As far as Classics go, this is one that will stay with the reader, the plot does have a few lulls and some over the top melodrama but when it gets going that can be excused as it’s a great book about life. Characters are complex having their faults and after an initial adjustment period the books soon gets going and ramps up to unputdownable levels as the story ramps up to its climax. This book is a rewarding, even-handed tale that is as epic as it is human.