Germinal Essay Questions

  1. 1

    Despite the many chances and reasons that Catherine has for leaving Chaval, why does she choose to remain with him?

    The reasoning for Catherine’s behavior can be drawn out from an individualistic, psychological perspective and commitment and also a broader, sociological norm of passivity and accepting the conditions of one’s existence, horrible though they may be. Catherine’s commitment is more representative of the social conditioning of women to be obedient, loyal, and subordinate to men. However, considering the number of occasions during which Catherine had the opportunity to leave Chaval, she nonetheless has substantial agency. In keeping with this line of reasoning, it could be concluded that she takes an active role in her decision-making. This is contrary to the idea that Catherine’s misery is entirely a result of the conditions of her existence and also nudges at the debate between free will and determinism, particularly when it comes to gender.

  2. 2

    How does Etienne struggle with the ideals of socialism and the obstacles to their implementation in the strike?

    Etienne, like the Marxists of his day, believes that the oppression of the proletariat is so great that the historical forces of materialism and economics will bring about a worldwide revolution against the property-owning bourgeoise. However, he quickly begins to see the undesirable consequences of the strike, in all their deadliness: the lack of food, coal to burn for warmth, a declining and fragile morale, and the indifference of the mine management to budge on their stance concerning wages.

  3. 3

    Why does Maheude become a more fervent and persistent supporter of the strike than Etienne does?

    Maheude is arguably the strongest and most resolute female character in the story, and can be considered the female counterpart to Etienne. She refuses to beg, but would attempt to stimulate a sense of sympathy in others that would move them to provide resources or money for her and her family. In fact, it was Maheude who held the entire family together, before and during the strike. She understands the importance of remaining committed and strong in the face of adversity, and despite not having many material items or money, she possessed boundless amounts of strength. Her commitment to the strike was a function of her desire to protect and provide for family - in a way that Maheu’s commitment was not. If anything was holding her back, it was the fact that she was a woman, as she was far more capable of leadership than Maheu (and to some degree Etienne) was.

  4. 4

    What is the significance of the way the rioting women killed Maigrat?

    There is a degree of irony and symbolism in how Maigrat’s life ended. The women tore apart his body, and cut off his penis and then put it on display. The women humiliated him, and his murder was one of the most powerful moments in the entire book. It was a moment of revenge and of redemption. The extralegal, vigilante justice and rabidity that the women exhibit shock all onlookers, even the most fervent male workers. There is an unleashing of anger targeted at not simply Maigrat the abuser but at Maigrat the man, who represents the highly misogynistic elements of French society. In this way, Maigrat’s gruesome death represents not only a strike and revolt against storied, elite interests, but also storied, patriarchal ones as well.

  5. 5

    Does there remain any hope of change for the miners after the failed strike?

    If it is anything the miners have come to learn after their months-long struggle, it is that change is very difficult to effect. The main thing carrying the miners into the future is hope that their conditions of existence - given how morbid and difficult they are - will improve, but only do so gradually. Etienne in particular sees that his time at the settlement has elapsed, and he chooses to move on to Paris to help Pluchart with a much larger movement to liberate the working class and bring equality and justice to the masses. Despite all the death and destruction that he helped to cause and that he saw firsthand, he is not entirely discouraged. He hits the road once again, but this time with a sense of purpose. As for the miners, they continue to do what they have always done and work in the mine, but with a vastly heightened sense of the political realities that surround them.