And on each journey Etienne found again at the bottom the stuffiness of the cutting, the hollow and broken cadence of the axes, the deep painful sighs of the pikemen persisting in their work. All four were naked, mixed up wit the coal, soaked with black mud up to the cap.
Zola’s naturalism provides a riveting and vivid picture of miner working conditions throughout the novel. The raw nakedness of his descriptions proves to be quite uncomfortable for the reader at times, but it would not be preposterous to assume that the naturalist currents running through the book were repulsive and even ungodly to the British or French elites that owned and benefited from coal mining. The realities portrayed in the book, while fictional, are at once both richly illustrative and provocative. The “deep painful sighs” of the pikemen conveys a sense of not only the hard labor they partake in but, in some sense, a feeling of damnation and passive, accepted discontent. These initial exposures to the niceties of the mine provide Etienne with the preliminary exposure to eventually organize resistance.
The mine never rested; day and night human insects were digging out the rock six hundred meters below the beetroot fields.
By anthropomorphizing the mine and analogizing it to a monster that never rests nor is satiated by the loss of human life sacrificed in the name of profiteering, Zola conveys a heightened sense of fear and urgency. The mine is metonymic of human greed as much as it is a product of it. The workers are likened to insects, a comparison that implies the disposability and inconsequential status of each worker (as opposed to the far more fearsome status of the workers as a collective). These insects, deep beneath the earth, work tirelessly for a nebulous, cruel god that lives above ground, a god that they do not understand. Their only task is to attend to the “what” and the “how” of the mine – not the “why.” For if they did attend to the “why” (which Etienne does at one point), they would longer be insects. They would become sentient, intelligent beings.
Perhaps, rather, it was the wind of revolt which came from the Voreux. He did not know, but he wished to go down again to the mine, to suffer and to fight. And he thought fiercely of those people Bonnemort had talked of, the crouching and sated god, to whom ten thousand starving men gave their flesh without knowing it.
This moment of realization, of wanting to go back into the pit, comes at the cusp of Etienne’s arrival at Rasseneur’s tavern. All that needed to be said was, ironically, not expressed by a worker, but by the winder of the Voreux itself. Zola connects the various elements of the pit to the resistance. In this way, while the pit can be seen as unforgiving, because “ten thousand starving men” give their flesh to it, it also has traces of resistance. There are parts of the pit’s complex nature that are not altogether aligned with the merciless project of engulfing workers. It is precisely those elements – Zola mentions the wind in particular – that give Etienne an impetus. Nature and man work together to resist nature and man. Both have within themselves undesirable, cruel components that have gained too much power.
You may cry out as much as you like against the rich, you haven’t got courage enough to give back to the poor the money that luck brings you. You will never be worthy of happiness as long as you have anything of your own, and your hatred of the bourgeois only comes of your mad desire to be bourgeois in their place.
Souvarine touches on the hypocrisy of the poor workers that harbor a deep hatred of the elite who run the pits. It is not as much a sense of inequality or injustice that these miserable workers feel as much as it is an intense feeling of jealousy. In one way, Souvarine’s words can be taken to say that he actually does hate the bourgeois. These miners are simply angry that they aren’t one of the rich. They only want revolution insofar as it allows them an opportunity to become the oppressors. Many of these workers would not spend a minute thinking about who was left behind, but would mobilize to acquire power and money. This change would usher in a new sense of insecurity, one marked by a desire for money, a paranoia that others would be out to get them, and a condescension towards all those left behind.
Etienne, who had remained in front of the soldiers, nearly had his skull broken. His ear was grazed, and turning around he started when he realized that the brick had come from Catherine’s feverish hands; but at the risk of being killed he remained where he was, gazing at her. Many others also forgot themselves there, absorbed in the battle, with empty hands.
This moment draws out qualities of Etienne’s dreamlike perception of the fight between the soldiers and the strikers. There is a very likely chance that he will die if he is not careful about the flying bricks and rocks around him. But he, like some of the other protestors, forgets himself there. He gets lost in the crowd, and technologies of violence (rocks and bricks) enable miners to animate and carry out their ideological claims to violence. They get lost in a flurry of passion that devolves into a mad rioting crowd looking to kill and hurt for the sake of pain. The madness is complemented by a lack of sense perception and a loss of purpose. Etienne’s love comes into play as well. He monetarily loses sight of his original purpose and gazes at Catherine, despite the fact that she is trying to kill him. The lack of organization at this moment parades a special reality of protest, that unchecked and unorganized violence can completely undermine the goals of the resistance. In Etienne’s case, it was the death of Maheu.
There’s no pleasure in life when hope goes. Yes, that might have gone on longer; we might have breathed a bit. If we had only known! Is it possible to make oneself so wretched through wanting justice!
Maheude is one of the most dynamic characters in the entire plot. She initially appears as uninterested in the protest but eventually becomes (even more so than Etienne) its most fervent and ardent supporter. After the strike, she attempts to rouse Etienne and convince him to fight. She no doubt complains, but the irony in saying that hope has fled is that Maheude herself is the source of hope at that very moment. Etienne feels down and debilitated and leaves the house, sheepishly walking around the mine and drawing the ire of the other miners.
Fists were stretched towards him, mothers spitefully pointed him out to their boys, old men spat as they looked at him. It was the change which follows on the morrow of defeat, the fatal reverse of popularity, an execration exasperated by all the suffering endured without result. He had to pay for famine and death.
Remorse and hopelessness consume Etienne after the failure of the strike. The entire complex of highly justified ideological and operational niceties of the strike are left to collect dust, never truly having left Etienne’s mind. The success of gathering support for the strike reflects Etienne’s gifted ability to inspire hope and action, but its failure reflects Etienne’s inability to execute. More importantly, the failure also reflects Etienne’s gross miscalculation of reality: Rassneur’s more moderate, diplomatic approach turned out to be correct. For Etienne, the world was not enough: he wanted everything – equality at all costs. But the strike’s failure represents a difficult truth about capitalism and justice: it cannot be had overnight. There may be something that overhauls much of everything, but to completely change the infrastructure that the rich and powerful work so hard to preserve was idealistic – and in the eyes of those like Rasseneur, foolish even.
He would see her [Mouquette]; he would explain to her that she ought no longer to pursue him, on account of the mates. It was not a time for pleasure; it was dishonest to thus amuse oneself when people were dying of hunger.
Etienne feels guilty indulging in carnal pleasures whilst strikers – at his request and because of his leadership – are starving themselves in the name of justice. Whether to stay with Mouquette or not symbolizes arguably the most powerful test of leadership and character that he faces in the entire novel. Should he spend his time indulging in pleasure? Or should he spend it organizing the strike? His charisma also attracts attention that may compromise his integrity, and all it takes is one moment of weakness to shatter his reputation. That leaders must hold themselves to higher standards for the sake of a greater cause creates conflict in Etienne. He desires Mouquette and even Catherine so much, but conflicted feelings about love and commitment exacerbate misunderstandings he has with Catherine and with some of the miners.
This earth heaped in his mouth was the bread which he had refused to give. And hence he would eat of no other bread. It had not brought him luck to starve poor people. But the women had another revenge to wreak on him. They moved round, smelling him like she-wolves. They were all seeking for some outrage, some savagery that would relieve them.
Maigrat’s death is the most horrifying, violent moment in the story. The boundaries of communal solidarity and identification among the women who were repeatedly harassed and denied food items and credit in the context of larger gender and economic relations underlie the eruption of rage and savagery in the murder of Maigrat. These women actually, in their daily lives, are spiteful and suspicious of each other. They lie, cheat, steal, and bicker amongst one another all the time. But the boundaries and conditions of their relationship with one another radically change when presented with a common enemy. They are far more deadly, efficient, and effective in their actions and goals – vicious that they may be. There was a dammed tension that was communal and gendered in nature, and because of that the reader sees a violence unleashed by the women that shocks even the most fervent male strikers. In fact, it is also ironic because it is the men who should be more outraged. They are the ones who go down into the pits everyday. But Zola craftily shows how despite dominating the domestic space, women too have a large stake in the strike – and use it to visit violence and justice upon those they perceive to be perpetrators as well.
Nowhere had work been resumed. On the contrary, the strike had spread; Crevecœur, Mirou, Madeleine, like the Voreux, were producing nothing; at Feutry-Cantel and the Victoire there were fewer men every morning.
Riots and strikes are episodic and can occur after long periods of coexistence. In the novel, they happen between people who feed off of and benefit from one another – despite the acute asymmetric nature of that symbiotic relationship. The spread of the rights show that people have demanded their rights in the form of collective entitlements, not individual ones. More broadly, this hints at the socialist nature of late-nineteenth century/early-twentieth century French political and social theory. Moreover the collective goals of the strike happen in public spaces: roads, mines, and the like. They do not happen behind closed doors (though there was an early attempt at negotiations in this way).
Germinal Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Germinal is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.