Germinal Summary and Analysis of Part 4, Chapters I-III


On that Monday, the Hennebeaus invite the Gregoires to lunch. Negrel plans to take the ladies to a nearby mine, Saint Thomas. However this is an amiable pretext, as the lunch and trip to the mine is Madame Hennebeau’s plan to hasten the marriage of Cecile and Paul. Suddenly, the strike breaks out on the same day. Dansaert tells M. Hennebeau that not a single man had gone down at the Voreux. In light of this, M. Hennebeau attempts to convince his wife to cancel the lunch, but fails to do so.

Though the Hennebeaus have been married for many years, an increasing irritation has detached Madame Hennebeau, who had been brought up to respect money, and was disdainful of her husband who gained a small salary with such difficulty. The Hennebeaus, since they have lived at Montsou, returned to the irritated boredom of their early marriage days. At one point during their time in Montsou, Paul Negrel, M. Hennebeau’s nephew, arrived at Montsou – his uncle having offered him a job as an engineer at Voreux. Two years passed by, and M. Hennebeau at various points suspected that Negrel and his wife were having an affair (it turns out that they are, but M. Hennebeau doesn’t find concrete evidence until later in the story).

The Gregoires arrive, with M. Gregoire already aware of the strike and rather unworried about it. A distressed Deneulin arrives at the Hennebeaus as well, and is asked to stay for lunch. The guests and hosts laugh, rejoice, and overall attempt to keep the lunch and conversation away from the issue of the strike. The men begin talking about the wages and slow growth of business in recent years. The ladies are not interested at all, and at that moment Dansaert arrives at the door, whom Hennebeau tasks with bringing a report to him every day regarding the strike.

Hennebeau thinks that the men will be back down in a few days, and the Provident Fund will not last them very long. His only anxiety is concerning his own possible disgrace should the directors put the responsibility of the strike on him. For some time he has felt that he has been diminishing in favor. After a conversation covering everything from the 1789 French Revolution to Negrel and Cecile’s wedding, a group of delegates representing the strikers bang on the door. Hennebeau tells the maid to take them into the drawing room.

The previous day, Etienne had managed to recruit Maheu and make him the spokesperson of the delegation, to the chagrin of Maheude. On their way out, they call for Pierron and Levaque and go over to Rassaneur’s. With a delegation of twenty, they set out for Hennebeau’s. When they get to his house and come into the drawing room, there is initially a moment of silence. Maheu describes the wretchedness that is common to all of them, the brutal life, and the family that need to be fed. He demands that the pay be raised. Hennebeau refuses, and after some confusion during which all of them are talking over one another, Etienne speaks up. From that moment, the struggle goes on between M. Hennebeau and Etienne as though the other miners are no longer there. Hennebeau says that his hands are tied, as he speaks of a hidden force (the investors in Paris) behind him delivering orders. The debate is of no use. The miners leave, overwhelmed with discouragement.

Fifteen days pass, and on the Monday of the third week the lists sent up to the managers show a fresh decrease in the number of the miners who have gone down. This surprises the directors. The Voreux, Crevecœur, Mirou, and Madeleine are all closed. The obstinate ethos of the Voreux miners spread elsewhere and inspires a general strike. Etienne has already divided the Provident Fund, and now all the settlement’s resources are exhausted. The miners have no more money to keep up the strike, and hunger is threatening them. Etienne becomes the unquestioned leader. In the evening conversations, he gives oracles, spends nights reading, and receives a larger number of letters – growing more popular as the strike goes on.

One day, Catherine suddenly shows up to the Maheus, and Maheude immediately begins to abuse her. She defends herself by saying that Chaval is strong and abusive, and so she had to go along with his demands. Chaval comes in the front door and kicks Catherine hard, accusing her of coming back home to sleep with Etienne. At last he grabs Catherine’s wrist and attempts to drag her out. After a standoff with Etienne, Catherine convinces Chaval to leave.


In a somewhat surprising turn, Zola sets up a tension between Hennebeau and his adulterous wife. Hennebeau's struggle to satisfy and connect with his wife is the main source of misery for him. During the strike, he passes by the settlement and hears the miners making love to their lovers and wishes that he was one of them. They do not realize, he believes, how lucky they truly are. The disadvantage of holding a "respectable" position in society is that one is not allotted the freedom to do what he wants - especially when it comes to taking sexual liberties. He envies the miners' ability to engage freely in the pleasures of the body, which as someone who is both married and well off, he is unable to do.

When the Gregoires arrive for lunch and as the strike begins, Hennebeau is beholden to his duty to be a good host. His attention and concerns are elsewhere, but the ignorance with which the Gregoires and his wife carry themselves prevent him from attending to the strike. Hennebeau feels constrained by his obligations and states at multiple points throughout the plot that he would give up all his wealth for a life of romance and love-making.

Hennebeau's feelings suggest that bourgeois living is more than access to resources and necessities. Rather it provides the basics but does not offer a sense of fulfillment. Hennebeau is also blatantly unaware of how unenlightened his perspective is. The fact that the miners are able to be so openly and freely sexually promiscuous is because they have few other luxuries of life available to them. It is an escape from the hardships that they experience on a daily basis. However this love-making is not without its costs, as it is but one (important) factor that contributes to their state of poverty by producing more children.

Nonetheless, this does not stop the Maheus from having seven children - or evading the problems that these children bring with them. This is seen when Catherine returns home after having left with Chaval. Maheude lambasts her for returning, but also for betraying her family. Catherine attempts to defend her actions, but Chaval comes in and kicks her hard. Chaval has a standoff with Etienne and Maheude - accusing Maheude of infidelity because she has left her shirt undone in front of Etienne. Zola indirectly provides reason to believe that there are costs and benefits to familial situations of both the poor and the wealthy.

The indifference and the reckless (but also calculated) moves that the miners make when it comes to children is an instance in which Zola remains faithful to his naturalism. The miners, in other words, are not angels - despite the fact the incredible oppression they are subjected to. These miners too engage in violence and rapacity. Zola at once issues a damning critique of capitalist society and modes of production but also destabilizes the view that miners were passive bodies upon which bourgeois greed was practiced.