As translator Dominique Jullien notes, Germinal attempts to rise above the miserable, immediate conditions of the workers’ lives, and offer them an opportunity to take on social and political roles – to offer a better vision of the future. Although the mine fails, and the workers are worse off after it than before, the increased sense of awareness they acquire about their work inculcates an ethos of politics and politicization. Zola’s naturalism follows Etienne, a young migrant worker who arrives at Montsou and the Voreux Pit to eventually lead the miners to strike against the pit owners and management. His genetic tendency to engage in drunken rage and heightened egoism as he becomes the head of the resistance leads to his eventual downfall.
He becomes close to and eventually stays with the Maheus, a family consisting of Maheu (the father), Maheude (the mother), Bonnemort (the grandfather), and seven children living in the pit settlement. He develops a passionate but awkward attraction to the Maheus’ eldest daughter Catherine. The failure of the cold, prolonged, and bloody strike leaves the settlement in a state of despair.
Maheu and two of their children die along the way. The settlement once again go down and an enraged Russian engineman and anarchist, Souvarine (who Etienne befriends), sabotages the entrance of the pit and leaves Etienne and company underground. While Etienne escapes, Catherine dies. Etienne ends up leaving the settlement and going to Paris to be with Pluchart, a high-ranking member of an international workers union fighting for socialist causes.