The story opens to a starless dark sky, as the protagonist Étienne Lantier is walking from the town of Marchiennes to the town of Montsou (lit. “mountain of pennies”), the fictional town where the main events of the story take place. He walks all night in the blistering cold, and finally comes upon three stoves burning in the open air. He hesitates at first, but then he cannot resist the painful need to warm his hands for a moment. As he gets closer to the light, he realizes that it lies within a mining pit. He sees workers throwing out useless rubbish in preparation for the next day. He can distinguish shadows tipping over the trams near each fire. He comes across an old man and asks him if there is any work for an engine man like himself. The man replies there isn’t any, and notes that there is a settlement near the pit, which is called Voreux.
The old man complains about the woes of the pit and other ones nearby, which a few years earlier were booming. Étienne tells the man he comes from the south of France, and the man formally introduces himself as Bonnemort (lit. “good death”), which is his nickname.
He has been working at the mine since he was eight years old (and is now fifty-eight), as a trammer, then putter, and then a pikeman. Because of his old age and declining health, he was placed into earth cutting, to bank up and patch. At the moment he is a carman. He suddenly coughs violently and then spits out bits of coal residue that have been accumulating in his lung for years. Bonnemart leaves for home.
Etienne is unsure about his future, willing to take any work given to him. The reader enters a different scene at this moment, in which Zola describes the Maheus (who have seven children): Zacharie, the eldest, his eleven-year-old brother Jeanlin, six-year-olds Lenore and Henri, and their sisters Catherine, who is fifteen years old, Alzire, who is nine years old, and Estelle, an infant. They lived with their grandfather, Bonnemort, and their parents Maheu and Maheude.
Etienne descends from the platform and enters the Voreux to ask around for work. That morning Monsieur Dansaert, the head captain of the pit, assigns Etienne to Maheu’s team, which consists of Maheu himself and his pikemen: Zacharie, Levaque, and Chaval. Catherine wheels the coal and is on the team as well. Etienne finds the work difficult, the mines dark and damp, and the long descent down terrifying.
After a long day of work, Etienne, Maheu, and company ascend to the surface. Some of the members go off to the Volcan, a café-concert at Montsou. Catherine suggests to her father that he take Etienne to the A l’Avantage inn and tavern. At first Rassaneur, the owner of the inn, refuses to lend Etienne a room and two weeks’ credit. But after a conversation about Pluchart – an organizer of the Communist International Workingmen’s Association who Etienne claims to have worked with at another mine – Rassaneur offers him a room and credit.
As for Rassaneur, he is a former miner and was fired three years prior because of his attempt to strike. He eventually had enough money to open the inn. The Company had done everything to buy up the property placed within its vast territory, but was in despair over Rasseneur’s inn/tavern in the open fields, right at the entrance of the Voreux. Etienne begins to engender feelings of revolt and wants to go back down again to the mine, to suffer and to fight.
The dark undertones of the novel are obvious from the onset. The cold, blistering winds and the difficult and dangerous conditions under which the miners work all indicate an oppressive air, well suited for a revolt. All it in needs is a spark, and Etienne is resolute at the end of the first part of the novel that the mine is in need of reform.
Etienne is introduced as a wanderer, lacking a strong, solid foundation or any connections and uncertain of his future. His desperation for any kind of work stands in stark contrast to the resolute nature of his politics later on in the novel, as he becomes the de facto head of the strike.
The uncertainty of sustenance and the apathy of the earth become immediately apparent as Etienne receives the punishing blows of winter while aimlessly looking for work. The weather and mother nature are powerful themes throughout the book and make just as formidable an entrance in the opening pages of the book. Nature is what Etienne fights against more so than any greedy capitalist or cruel pit manager. It is also what poses the largest challenge for the miners on strike later on in the book - and so the blistering winter against which Etienne battles foreshadows the long struggle that he will experience.
The dark, damp and sometimes blazing hot environment of the mine deep within the Earth is yet another battlefront that Etienne and his lot confront. The setting is pivotal in setting up the unromantic, unflattering depiction of proletariat conditions of existence that serve as the main fuel for the strike and revolt. The conditions also serve as the content of rhetoric, speeches, and moments of deep reflection for the strikers. The conditions and environment are - despite the fight against the Company and the people running the mine - the main targets of the strikers' indictment.
When Etienne goes down, he becomes acutely aware of not just the mechanisms of production but also the incredible impoverishment that they create among the workers - that the time, labor, and blood the workers put in is disproportionately high compared to what they receive in return. The mine becomes the site where the worker is not only systematically exploited, but also where the worker experiences a destruction of conscience and humanness.