The Gregoire family is made up of Monsieur and Madame Gregoire and their daughter, Cecile. Their fortune, about forty thousand francs a year, was entirely invested in a share of the Montsou mines. The origin of this fortune dates back to the very formation of the Company. The Gregoires live a well-regulated existence; the forty thousand francs are spent quietly, and the savings expended on Cecile. The parents satisfy all her whims and shower her with affection, warmth, and adulation.
They are having dinner and are joined by Monsieur Deneulin, a cousin of Monsieur Gregoire. Deneulin had inherited a denier (a unit of currency) in the Montsou mines and hastened to sell out when the denier had reached a million. Nonetheless, Deneulin is not good at money managing and asks Gregoire for a loan. In seeing the Gregoires’ disturbed faces in light of this request, he saves face by saying that he is joking. Madame Gregoire also reveals that Negrel, M. Hennebeau’s (manager of the Veroux mine) nephew, is set to be married to Cecil.
Zola attends to events that occur on the same day but focuses on Maheude (the mother). The Maheus wake up to eat their meager breakfast and head out to work. Maheude sets out with Lenore and Henri to Maigrat’s, who had a shop that had everything from grocery, pork, fruit, beer, and saucepans. Maigrat was formerly an overseer at the Voreux, and eventually started a business that grew so large as to kill the Montsou retail trade. He centralized merchandise, and the considerable custom of the settlements enabled him to sell more cheaply and to give longer credit.
Maheude comes asking for more credit, and explains that the previous strike has prevented her from paying back the previous credit. Maigrat refuses. It is well known that when a miner wishes to prolong his credit, he only had to send his daughter or his wife, plain or pretty, provided they were complacent. Maheude feels the menacing stare of Maigrat on her body and leaves in anger. She marches off to the Gregoires. Cecile’s parents ask her and the maids to bring out a parcel to give to Maheude. Cecile unfastens it and takes out two dresses. She adds comforters, stockings, and mittens. Cecile offers Henri and Lenore a brioche (a French pastry), and Maheude drags them back to Maigrat’s on their way home. She begs so persistently that at last she carries away bread, coffee, butter, and even a five-franc piece. He asks for Catherine in return, and Maheude understands that when he advises her to send her daughter to fetch the provisions from him.
Later that day, while Maheude is running errands and gossiping with some of the other women, Madame Hennebeau brings visitors to the settlement. Whenever the Company brings visitors they never fail to go straight to Pierronne’s place, because it was clean. This is because Pierrone is having an affair with the head captain of the pit (who makes a lot of money). M. Hennebeau next takes them to the Maheus, which terrifies Maheude. Luckily Alzire has tidied the place up. The visitors though uncomfortable offer complements to Maheude and her children. The visitors leave, and the entire settlement comes outside to watch them leave. Three o’clock strikes, and the workers set out and return home.
After having dropped off Etienne at Rasseneur’s place, Maheu returns home. As they heartily eat dinner, each member also, besides the fire, begins to wash him or herself in the half barrel transformed into a tub. With all the children having gone upstairs, Maheu is the last to take a bath, and Maheude washes him and tells him how she got all the provisions. They then have sex. After drying himself, Maheu sees Catherine come downstairs in her Sunday dress. She says she is off to buy a bonnet. Maheu tends to his garden later that afternoon, and Pierronne comes to ask if it was with Jeanlin that her daughter Lydie had gone off. Levaque, also present in Maheu’s garden, replies that it must be something of the sort, because Bebert had also disappeared.
At Rasseneur’s, Etienne goes back into the small chamber beneath the roof and faces the Voreux that he is to occupy. He is overcome with fatigue as he lays on his bed and wakes in the twilight. He goes out for some fresh air and walks randomly about the settlement. He sees Zacharie demanding money from his mistress Philomene to spend at the Volcan. Philomene gives him money in return for a vow of marriage. Etienne also sees Jeanlin violently snubbing Lydie and Bebert. They have stolen money, but Jeanlin takes more than his fair share. They see Etienne watching them and run.
Etienne then comes upon the Requillart, where all the girls of Montsou prowl about with their lovers. It is the common rendezvous, the remote and deserted spot to which the putters come to have sex. A caretaker by the name of Moque also lives in the Requillart with his family. He and Mouquet (his son) live in one room and Mouquette (his granddaughter) in the other. Catherine and Chaval also come to Requillart, but Catherine hesitates and resists. Etienne cannot see their faces, but wonders if he should interfere. He decides not to. Catherine hastens to regain the road back to the settlement. Chaval continues to attempt to charm her. They eventually go to Maigrat’s shop to buy Catherine’s bonnet. Seeing them together infuriates Maigrat. Etienne follows them and is tormented by the desire to see their faces. They pass by him without noticing his presence. Etienne then returns to Rasseneur’s.
Zola shifts to a description of how the other half - the bourgeois owners, investors, and managers of the mines - lives. An important element of bourgeois behavior is the marked acceptance and tolerance of the inhumane conditions in which the workers live. The Gregoires think that the workers are a lucky lot who should appreciate the opportunity to work and not complain about the hardships they experience (or that the things miners complain of count as hardships at all). The oblivious mannerisms and mentality of the Gregoires speaks to two things: the indifference that bourgeois conscience entails regarding the working class and/or a defense mechanism to deal with the guilt the wealthy experience about how much misery they are causing. Zola seems to subscribe to a less hostile reading of bourgeois intentions: they are ignorant and aloofly complacent.
However, at the same time, the stark contrasts between the living conditions of the proletariat and the bourgeoisie indicate Zola's departure from his signature naturalistic writing. The reader's attention is drawn to how easily the Gregoires dismiss the harsh realities of the workers. Zola's bias becomes apparent as a result of this entreaty to induce a sense of sympathy for the miners. Though this does not compromise the richness of his prose, it does depart from his commitment to maintaining a critical distance from his subject of analysis.
The importance of family also becomes very apparent - but the family is described in Zola's terms of naturalism. The Maheus are described in a scientific and observational fashion - the bedroom, kitchen, and morning routine are presented factually. The actual thoughts and conscience of the Maheus (and Catherine, who is described at length) are not entertained.
Maheude occupies a special position in Zola's plot because of how resilient she is psychologically and physically. She is persistent in getting a loan and food from Maigrat and the Gregoires (albeit hesitantly from the latter), and shows little care for the fact that Maigrat asks for a sexual favor from Catherine in return for his generosity. From the beginning, Maheude is thus shown to be very family-oriented and far more capable of providing for her family than many of the more "refined" or "educated" women of the gentry, such as Madame Hennebeau or Madame Gregoire. The way Zola portrays Maheude as a fighter seems to be more than simple happenstance, as she later becomes the most vehement supporter of and advocate for the strike - her anger and determination outlasting that of even Etienne's.
The bourgeois family was a place of privacy and affect but also a place from which new private citizens gaining greater wealth could project themselves outward to a civil society. This is why the Gregoires take great care in their public image when they engage in charitable acts (such as when they refuse to give Maheude money and only offer food and clothing). Ideally such a structure should be freed up from government control, and this helps to explain why certain members of the bourgeoisie became critical of state control.
The reader is also introduced to the incredulous, mischievous, and violent Jeanlin. The special attention given to Jeanlin among the siblings exhibits Zola's intention to understand the relationship between heredity and environment. While most of the Maheu siblings are actually quite harmless, Jeanlin is an especially egregious manifestation of vileness and evil. He hits his friends Lydie and Bebert and later on subjects them to humiliation in an almost slavish way. He enjoins them to play hooky from work and encourages them to drink still alcohol, thus debauching them. Zola likens him to a variety of animals, such as a cat, wolf, and dog - all of which function to create a persona of animality and brutality. He becomes the symbolic antithesis of what Etienne wishes to accomplish, but ironically also serves as an important ally in a time of need.