Germinal Summary and Analysis of Part 3


On the next day, and the days that follow, Etienne continues his work at the pit. He grows accustomed to it, and his life becomes regulated by this labor and the new habits that at first seemed so hard to him. Now like his mates, he gets up at three o’clock, drinks his coffee, and carries off the lunch Madame Rassenuer makes for him. Maheu holds Etienne in high regard and respects him for the work he does. There is at first some rivalry between Zacharie and Etienne, but the former is quickly appeased by the friendliness of the latter. Levaque is also on good terms with Etienne. The only one towards which Etienne feels a deep hostility is Chaval.

Catherine works in a docile way, submissive to Chaval, whose caresses she now openly receives. It is an accepted situation to which the family itself closes its eyes to such a degree that Chaval every evening leads Catherine behind the pit-bank. Spring comes, and Etienne no longer startles lovers during his long walks. He grows accustomed to Souvarine, a Russian émigré who is an engine man at the pit. He is also lodging at Rassenuer’s. Every evening when the inn is emptying, Etienne remains to talk to Souvarine. In these conversations, Etienne grows enthusiastic about a revolt. Rassenuer, Etienne, and Souvarine all argue about new possible futures: higher wages, revolutions, anarchy, and labor unions. Especially consumed by the need for knowledge, Etienne at last borrows a French book on Cooperative Societies and regularly reads a newspaper Souvarine is subscribed to called Combat, an anarchist journal published in Geneva.

The months go by, and on the last Sunday in July the settlement celebrates Montsou Feast Day (also known as La Ducasse, a traditional festival specific to the Nord Department of France). The settlement is in a flutter, and the Maheus dine at mid-day. Gradually the settlement is emptied, with only the mothers left behind to tend to the children. All the men go off one behind the other, and the girls set out from the opposite side on the arms of their lovers.

Maheu, Rassenuer, and Etienne converse at the inn, and Etienne gives long explanations to Maheu regarding the necessity for the Montsou miners to establish a Provident Fund. Maheu says that he is willing. Maheu, Etienne, and Levaque go to a few different bars, eventually ending up at the Volcan. Chaval and Catherine walk around and enjoy the fair, and on the evening of feast day the fair ends in the ballroom of the Bon-Joyeux. A widow, Madame Desir, keeps this ballroom. There is dancing from five o’clock in the evening to the early morning. Maheu, Etienne, Pierron, Chaval, Catherine, and Philomene come in and sit down (except for Philomene, who prefers to stand). Maheude eventually comes with Estelle, Alzire, Lenore, and Henri.

The Maheus find out that Zacharie and Philomene are getting married and moving in together. Maheude decides to take in Etienne as a lodger, whilst Etienne himself is seeking to convince Pierron of creating a Providence Fund. Towards the middle of August, Etienne moves in with the Maheus. He initially feels constrained because of Catherine’s presence. Going to bed and getting up, he has to dress and undress near her, and see her take off and put on her garments. At the end of the first month, Etienne and Catherine seem no longer to see each other when in the evening, before blowing out the candle, they move about the room, undressed. They grow accustomed to one another.

It is at this time that Etienne begins to understand the ideas that are buzzing in his brain about revolution. He reads books borrowed from Souvarine, and ignorance leaves him. He has a certain pride now when he feels himself thinking. Every evening, Etienne always introduces and speaks passionately on the subject of injustice and the necessity of revolt to the Maheus. At first, Maheude refuses to listen, possessed by a deep dread. But little by little, Etienne’s charm of hope and change works on her as well.

During these conversations, neighbors come in as well, including the Levaques and the Pierrons. Zacharie attends as well, with Chaval going to extremes and wanting to draw blood. During the evenings, Chaval gives off a certain unconfessed jealousy, a fear that he will be robbed of Catherine. Etienne’s influence increases, and gradually he revolutionizes the entire settlement. In September, he establishes his Provident Fund, which was initially precarious and included only settlement inhabitants. He is made secretary of the association and receives a small salary for his clerkship services. Etienne begins to become more refined and indulges in the comforts of clothing.

Etienne also feels a barrier grow between him and Catherine. The more they live side by side, the more a barrier of shames, repugnancies, and delicacies of friendship grow – a barrier they are unable to explain even to themselves. On a Saturday in late October, Etienne receives news that the Company is growing more discontent over the timbering. They are overwhelming the workmen with fines, and a conflict appears inevitable. Etienne thinks that the Company wants a strike, which would extinguish the growing Provident Fund (which is hardly three thousand francs) it finds so threatening to its power. On the other hand, Rasseneur thinks a strike would hurt both the company and the miners, and that it is best to come to an understanding.

The Company announces that it will apply a new method of payment for the extraction of coal. The Company will pay for the timbering separately, and the price of a tub of coal will naturally decrease. In other words, the overall payment will decrease. Maheu and his fellow miners quickly realize that they can never make up with the timbering for the ten centimes taken off the coal tram. When Maheu goes to collect his payment, the clerk tells Maheu that the general secretary wants to see him. The secretary reprimands him for getting involved with politics and the Fund. Maheu leaves furious after a failed attempt to convince the secretary of his benevolent intentions. Maheu brings home a meager pay, and Maheude cries. The Levaques are furious about the cut in pay, and that evening at the Avantage the strike is decided. Rasseneur no longer protests against it, and Souvarine accepts it as a first step.

A week passes by and work goes on suspiciously and mournfully in expectation of a conflict. One day at work, as Jeanlin is attempting to rejoin and push his train in the mine, a landslip engulfs him. Jeanlin is underneath the rubble, and Maheu calls Jeanlin many times over. Not a breath is heard. From each end, a group of miners attack the landslip with a pick and shovel. They dig on, soaked in sweat, their muscles tense to breaking. The men who are clearing the soil from the opposite side of Maheu shout that they have found Jeanlin unconscious, with both legs broken and still breathing. A miner sends for a doctor and Jeanlin (along with the dead miner, Chicot, who was also engulfed) are placed in the captain’s room. Richomme (the captain), Negrel (the engineer), and Dansaert (the manager) take account of what happened.

Three weeks pass, and the doctor finds it possible to avoid amputation. Jeanlin keeps both legs, but he remains lame. On investigation, the Company donates fifty francs. The Maheus learn that Chaval is keeping Catherine, and to avoid reproaches he suddenly leaves the Voreux and finds work at Jean-Bart, M. Deneulin’s mine. Catherine follows him as a putter. They continue to live in Montsou, however. Maheude is furious, but Maheu calms her and says that it would not do any good to be angry.


Zola heightens the sense of betrayal that Maheu and Maheude feel when Zacharie and Philomene decide to get married and move in with one another - and when Chaval takes Catherine as his lover. They lose two sources of income, and, as Maheude notes, she had the kids so that they could help provide for the family. For Maheude, Zacharie and Catherine no longer serve the main purpose for which they were brought into the world. Maheude's perspective on children and reproduction appears to be a rather utilitarian one, and in that way may off put a bourgeois or modern reader, who see children as beings to be loved and nurtured for their own sake. But this too is Zola's attempt to, through naturalistic description, show the rationale behind the choices that the working class and poor make on a daily basis.

The fictional setting of the book is given a "real feel" by diving into the quotidian realities of the poor. Zola uses a very real historical and social setting to make fiction more like reality. Moreover the particular concerns of the poor that he attends to - about social woes, economic hardships, and political gridlock - adds currency to the book's function as a manifesto for social change.

Simultaneously, Zola provides detailed accounts of the conversations that Etienne has with Rasseneur, Souvarine, and even Maheu regarding socialism and revolution. The form of engagement, debate, and celebration of ideas that Zola portrays in Rasseneur's tavern speaks strongly to arguments made by the likes of Jürgen Habermas, who provides a historical characterization of rational debates in eighteenth-century European cafes and taverns: they are open to everyone and there is talk of politics, identity, religion, etc. Habermas argues that in the eighteenth century the “reading public” was able to “engage in the intimate exchange of letters” and create “subjectivity that was focused on the public sphere.” Because of this privacy, literary and political “experimentation” as related to the intersubjective experience of all humans and the experience abstracted to the singular human was possible.

Etienne and company are able to engage with ideas and brainstorm new, grandiose possibilities in Rasseneur's tavern. The strike is a manifestation of Etienne's intellectual effort to generate normative standards from within modernity: how can equality be achieved using without having to go back to a "simpler" time when there were no malicious mechanisms of capitalism at play? Rasseneur himself preserves a social intercourse that, far from presupposing the equality of status, disregarded status altogether.

As Habermas notes, "The parity on whose basis alone the authority of the better argument could assert itself against that of social hierarchy and in the end carry the day meant, in the thought of the day, the parity of 'common humanity.'" Rasseneur makes it possible for interlocutors of various backgrounds and commitments to disregard status and deliberate as if they were social peers (which is why Etienne finds himself so comfortably speaking to Souvarine about revolution despite his lack of education).