The Novel 100 author Daniel Burt described Emile Zola’s Germinal as “perhaps the angriest book ever written,” and it’s hard to deny that anger – or perhaps rage – is the fuel on which the book’s engine runs. It’s also a riveting novel, a highly readable novel, and a complex novel that is expertly plotted and contains within it stories of unrequited love and deep suspense.
Germinal, which is present on the Novel 100 (#66) and the Bloomsbury 100, is the story of a conflict between the poor laborers of a coal-mining town in 1860s France and the bourgeois management and owners. The workers live in grinding poverty, barely earning subsistence wages, dying in the mine or because of it, and ultimately living lives devoid of meaning. Ownership pits worker against worker to drive labor costs down, yet points to the subsidized housing it provides as evidence of its beneficence. Zola doesn’t exonerate his laborers, showing how their infighting and ignorance hold them back.
The plot centers around Etienne, an unemployed mechanic who finds work in the mine but, discovering the appalling conditions and dead-end wages, decides to put his knowledge of Marxism to use and organizes a general strike. The strike has severe consequences for everyone in the town, and to some degree for ownership, and precipitates a spree of violence punctuated by one of the most vicious scenes I can recall in a Western novel.
Buried within the greater story is a for the time progressive view of women’s rights and role, by way of a savage depiction of the women in the mine, including Catherine, who captures Etienne’s heart but instead chooses to be with the violent man who first “takes” her virginity by force. Zola attacks nearly everyone and everything by distilling them into sharp and unappealing characters, from abbes more interested in peace than helping the poor to shopkeepers who prey on customers near starvation to the idle rich who own the means of production.
The primary literary criticism of Germinal seems to be its inaccuracy. Zola introduces early-1800s working conditions into the latter half of the century, but adds Marxist ideas and organizations before they could have reached France. I have less of a problem with this, since the novel is functioning on some level as satire, and satire works via exaggeration.
Next up: Italo Calvino’s short work Marcovaldo, or seasons in the city.