Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Germinal by Émile Zola (novel #168)

(translation by Havelock Ellis)


Was Darwin right, then, and the world only a battlefield, where the strong ate the weak for the sake of the beauty and continuance of the race? ~ Étienne


Germinal is widely regarded as Zola’s masterpiece. It is set in France during the coal miner’s strike of the 1860s. The principle character, Étienne, is a recurring character introduced in an earlier novel. Étienne is out of work, for striking his supervisor and although he is qualified for more skillful labor, he takes a job as a coal miner. He nearly quits after one day of the back-breaking work, but…


He did not know, but he wished to go down again to the mine, to suffer and to fight.


Étienne is an idealist, and Germinal is the tale of The Bourgeois and Proletariat. I am tempted to say it is the French version of The Grapes of Wrath, but that would be unfair to Zola whose masterpiece was published a half-century before Steinbeck’s. 


Early in the book, I thought I was not going to like it. I thought it was going to be a thesis for communism, portraying the heartless greed of capitalism. But no. Zola humanized both miners and capitalist, showing the very different suffering of each in the elongated strike.


He portrays the long slow suffering of the miners…


Things dragged on; a deep discontent was fomenting in the pit…


against the comfort and sudden plunge to ruin of the capitalist.


These revolutionary dreamers might demolish society and rebuild another society; they would not add one joy to humanity, they would not take away one pain, by cutting bread-and-butter for everybody. ~ M. Hennebeau


Tragedy and ruin:


On both sides obstinacy was piling up ruin: while labour was dying of hunger, capital was being destroyed.


Zola depicts the passion of the Étienne, who was a persuasive speaker, but naive and unprepared for the full toll of suffering a strike would cause.


The mine belongs to you, to all of you who, for a century, have paid for it with so much blood and misery.


And even the stoic anarchist, Souvarine, is given fair voice.


Raise wages – how can you? They’re fixed by an iron law to the smallest possible sum, just the sum necessary to allow the workers to eat dry bread and get children. If they fall too low, the workers die, and the demand for new men makes them rise. If they rise too high, more men come, and they fall. It is the balance of empty bellies, a sentence to a perpetual prison of hunger.


All a compelling struggle, but I didn't love this story, until the end, when lives are imperiled, miners are buried; the bitterness and conflict is forgotten as all sides are united in their desperation to save a few human souls.


…and these two men, with their contempt for each other – the rebellious workman and the skeptical master – threw themselves on each other’s necks, sobbing loudly in the deep upheaval of all the humanity within them.


This was tragically beautiful, and made the whole story worthwhile.


Perhaps Steinbeck learned from Zola – the imperfect ending. There is no happily ever after. Yet, there is hope born of adversity, and bathed in blood, but still…hope.


My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the first time I’ve read Germinal or Zola. Have you read this novel? This author? What did you think? I’ll definitely read more by Émile Zola

Oh and...the author has the coolest name, ermmm, second coolest name in literature (apologies to Italo Calivno for nearly forgetting him).


Other excerpts:


But now the miner was waking up down there, germinating in the earth just as a grain germinates; and some fine day he would spring up in the midst of the fields: yes, men would spring up, and army of men who would re-establish justice. ~ narrative


You will never be worthy of happiness as long as you own anything, and your hatred of the bourgeois proceeds solely from an angry desire to be bourgeois yourselves in their place. ~ Sourvarine


Men were springing forth, a black avenging army, germinating slowly in the furrows, growing towards the harvests of the next century, and their germination would soon overturn the earth. ~ narrative



  1. I have to reread this. It was my first Zola, and it made me what to read more from him; but unfortunately, after maybe four other titles, none of them live up to Germinal. So well written and I think I felt the same about it being tragically beautiful or beautifully tragic??? It was the imperfect ending.

    Also, I think I can see the connections to Grapes of Wrath. The tragic human story, no matter what language or country.

    P.S. Have you read Orwell's Wigan Pier? That's what reminded me of Germinal, too.

  2. I read it for the first time in college, watched the French film, and re-read it recently as a group read. Having been immersed in Victorian literature for a year or so, Zola's writing style was a bit of a shock, but a good one, I'd forgotten what naturalism was all about. It was a great book, but depressing...

    1. Yes, a fascinating read. Thanks for the feedback.

  3. I'm glad you liked this, despite your feelings about it at the beginning. It's on my Classics Club list so I will be reading it eventually. I've only read two of Zola's other books - The Ladies' Paradise, which I didn't like much, and Therese Raquin, which I enjoyed, although it's a very dark book too.

    1. I like it when I start out not loving a book, and then either suddenly, or gradually it turns. I hope you enjoy it.


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