Date of Publication: 1885 (my edition, 1998 Oxford World’s Classics)
Number of Pages: 524
Synopsis (from back cover): Zola’s masterpiece of working life, Germinal (1885), exposes the inhuman conditions of French miners in the 1860s. The central figure, Étienne Lantier, is an outsider who enters the community and eventually leads his fellow-miners in a strike against pay-cuts which becomes a losing battle against starvation, repression, and sabotage. Yet despite the violence and disillusion which rock the mining community to its foundations, Lantier retains his belief in the ultimate germination of a new society, leading to a better world.
Germinal is a dramatic novel of working life, sexual desire, and everyday relationships, but it is also a complex novel of ideas, given fresh vigour and power in this new translation.
Review: For those who don’t know, Germinal is the month of April on the Revolutionary calendar, instituted in France in the late eighteenth century. The idea of germination, the springing forth of new life, pervades the entire story, and it is rich with symbolism throughout. Étienne, a newcomer who quickly becomes the leader of the workers’ rebellion, literally plants the seeds of socialism and the promise of a new world order in the minds of these otherwise simple miners. But throughout the book, the lives of the miners remain bleak, going from simply struggling to make each day’s soup and constantly running out of coffee, to simply dying from starvation during the strike, which lasts for more than two months.
But in spite of their poverty and general misery, the miners still enjoy a level of freedom that the bourgeoisie, whole live a life of idleness and ignorance among their workers, do not. They are free to openly engage in sexual activities, which is something that is absolutely forbidden to the upper classes. Even the manager of the mine, M. Hennebeau, as he looks out his window at the swarm of strikers, envies them for their emotional freedom, his own marriage being nothing more than a loveless sham.
There are events in the book that will shock the uninformed reader. The miners regularly beat their wives and children, and the mothers look on their children as little more than wage-earners in some respects. A reader must place himself in the period and environment in which this story takes place. These mining families are holding on with both hands, and struggle everyday just to simply survive. So it’s no wonder that when a child’s legs are crushed in a tragic mining accident, his mother laments the loss of his income more than his injuries and pain. In the end, this book simply shows that the will to survive, and to achieve a just world, can conquer anything.