Germinal by Emile Zola
Final Verdict: 3.75 out of 4.0
4 – Plot/Story is interesting/believable and impactful (socially, academically, etc.)
If you ever want to read a book about miners, or a book about family, or a book about unions, or a book about poverty, or a book about the whole wide-world and how awful and wonderful, hopeful and disappointing, romantic and coldly real it is – if you ever want to read a book about humanity and everything that it means, Germinal is that book. The book is one in Zola’s famous twenty-book series, Les Rougan-Macquart. It is considered to be the best of the series and also Zola’s crowning achievement – a masterpiece. Its purpose is to expose and lament the horrendous and inhumane working and living conditions of miners in rural France during the 1860s. Germinal vilifies the excesses and indulgencies of the bourgeoisie, while lauding Socialism and Darwinism. Etienne Lantier, the main character (who first appears in Zola’s L’Assommoir), is an outsider – a wandering mechanic who is searching for employment. His rise to leadership in the mining community is almost accidental and highly unlikely, in that he never intended to become a worker, nor did he plan to stay in the community. Yet, as he spends time with these poor creatures, he realizes that someone must force a change – soon, after hours of study and correspondence with strike leaders in Paris- he unites the miners and leads a revolt, with heartbreaking consequences.
3 – Characters well-developed.
Germinal has a host of characters, primarily Etienne and the Maheude family, with whom he lives after his decision to stay at the mining colony. There are mining women and mining men, managers and invalids, wealthy owners, Parisian visitors, and revolutionaries of all types (including simple strikers and also full anarchists). There are bar owners, retirees, abusive husbands, whorish daughters, and every imaginable person in-between. While Zola certainly creates a great and diverse community, with nearly every conceivable character, few of them truly stand out on their own. Chaval, in his animalistic brutality is one, as is Etienne as the primary focus. La Maheude, the sensible mother and ultimately one of the most tragedy-stricken of the cast, is interesting particularly in contrast to the other female-mother figures of the village (in that she, for the most part, seems more responsible, less prone to impulse, and, on the whole, a genuine person). Still, the downfall to such a large cast of characters is that not much time is spent developing many of them, even the major ones. Etienne certainly has a journey and he changes somewhat over time – but, in the end, it is the community itself, as a whole, which is being characterized. The community is what is alive – what is awakened. The miners, as a group, are the story – it is their journey, their oppression, their battle, their failure, which constitutes the growth and development, here. Their larger story is more interesting to witness than any single story within it.
4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.
For the longest time, I was nervous about reading Zola. I find French literature to be either extraordinarily appealing (Victor Hugo) or almost impossible to bear (Marcel Proust). Fortunately, Zola reads to me similarly to the greatest Russian writers – like Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. It is simultaneously beautiful, self-reflective, and transporting. The language of Germinal is warm and real, it allows you to feel enveloped, but never loses sight of the fact that it is the means to an end – its purpose is to guide the reader through an instructive, meaningful story. There are moments, such as in the description of the miners’ final revolt, where all sense of restraint has been cast off, when the story seems to press onward with a fierce intensity, like a tidal wave rolling mightily onward, unstoppable – dangerous. And there are moments of pure tenderness, as when Etienne and Catherine come together after being held apart for so long. The dialogue is well-crafted and the voices of the bourgeoisie and the managers are distinctly different from that of the miners. The story itself is powerful, but the prose takes it to a transcendent level.
Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.
When Emile Zola passed away, his funeral was attended by masses of people. At the ceremony, they began to chant: “Germinal! Germinal!” It is telling that the crowd would call out the name of this one book, even though the author had been such a prolific writer – it is telling and it is understandable. Germinal, similar to its peers (such as Les Miserables, War and Peace, and The Grapes of Wrath) is an epic tale about “the people.” It’s a story of desire and passion, working life, family, friendships, and community. The nature of humanity, from its most noble capacities to its darkest, most dangerous possibilities, is explored in microscopic detail, painful and wondrous to witness. It is, quite literally, a tale about germination – the planting of a seed, an idea, and the birth and growth of a movement.
Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: High School/Adult
Interest: France, Labor, Working Class, Mining Life, Revolution, Sexual Desire, Politics, Philosophy, Class Studies.
“Coal transmits sound over great distances with the clarity of crystal.”
“He went away calmly like an exterminating angel, headed for anywhere that he could find dynamite to blow up cities and the men who live in them.”
“There’s no pleasure in life when you’ve lost your hope.”
“You’re better off on your own, there’s nobody to disagree with.”
“When the men and the girl came back from the pit, they’d have to eat again; for nobody had yet discovered how to live without eating, unfortunately.”
“If people can just love each other a little bit, they can be so happy.”
“Blow the candle out, I don’t need to see what my thoughts look like.”
–Germinal is book #121 completed for the “1,001 Books to Read Before You Die” Challenge.
–Germinal is Book #4 completed for the Victorian Celebration.
–Germinal is Book #4 completed for The Classics Club.
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