Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Classics Club 6: Germinal

Emile Zola's Germinal tells the story of a coal mining community in Northern France in the 1860s, in particular the lead-up to and effects of a strike. The main character is Etienne Lantier, a stranger who arrives desperate for a job. Spurred on by conditions both in and out of the mine he is drawn to socialist principles and becomes the miner's leader when a change to their pay rates pushes them to strike.

The novel is harsh and uncompromising, bleak and depressing. Based on his own observations Zola provides lengthy detailed descriptions of the mines, their working practices, the village, as well as the violent riot. These descriptions really helped me as a reader feel part of the unfolding action and connected me to the characters.

The lives of the miners seem desolate and hopeless, a situation that is compounded by some of the decisions they make in both their personal and working lives. The managers  and their families seem utterly oblivious to the true circumstances their workers face, choosing to believe that the workforce is privileged with the mine providing everything needed.  It is not surprising when the strike finally turns violent but the barbarity is shocking nonetheless. Nor is it surprising that the strike is ultimately unsuccessful. The suffering and loss of life seems all the more pointless.

One more shocking act is still to come when Souvarine, an anarchist, deliberately sabotages one of the mines, leading to many deaths and a long desperate rescue mission.

Zola does end the novel on a hopeful note, alluding to successful revolutions still to come. However, I found the extended metaphor that he used to make this point somewhat overdrawn. It felt like Zola was hitting me, the reader, heavily over the head to make his point - this strike failed but the workers will ultimately succeed.  In light of the rest of the novel the light imagery he used to make this point felt somewhat jarring as well.

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