It is now mid-February and the strikers are even more miserable. Montsou is under the surveillance of armed police officers. Nothing is heard along the streets but the slow movement of patrols. Nowhere has work been resumed. The strike has spread to Crevecœur, Mirou, and Madeleine. The frightful mutilation of Maigrat’s corpse has already become surrounded by legend. The new priest Abbé Ranvier adds to the misery of the Montsou strikers: he defends the strikers and violently attacks the middle class, throwing on them the whole of responsibility.
While the breath of panic spreads across the settlement, Etienne dwells beneath the ground in Jeanlin’s burrow at the bottom of Requillart. He is hiding there, and no one believes that he could be so near. Etienne remains for hours at a stretch laying on the hay in darkness, which is his chief torment. At the beginning of the second week, Jeanlin tells Etienne that the police officers think that he has left for Belgium. Etienne ventures out of his hole at nightfall; he does not want to admit defeat. A few days later, Etienne speaks to a small soldier named Jules on patrol and tries to get a sense of what is going on. He sees Jeanlin beckoning him to leave because he sees that another sentinel is heading Etienne’s way.
The snow and the cold have taken a toll on Alzire in particular, who is dying. Every day quarrels break out because of the constant gossiping of the women. Levaque’s wife comes in and accuses Maheude of spreading rumors about her infidelity. Maheude is taken aback and asks who is spreading the rumor that she (Maheude) is telling people that Levaque’s wife is sleeping with Bouteloup (the Levaques’ lodger). She tells her it is Pierrone, and they all head over to her house. They tell Pierron, who is returning to his house from doing his laundry, that his wife is going around spreading rumors about Levaque and Maheude. Pierron is astonished and does not understand. Pierrone is seized with fear and opens the door on hearing the tumult of voices. They see her with her dress open, as well as Danseart in the back, who is putting his clothes back on. The head captain rushes away, trembling with fear that this story will reach the manager’s ears. Pierron defends his wife, and in a rage Maheu and Levaque attack him. The fight is broken up, and the Maheus head back to their house. Abbé Ranvier comes to the Maheus in an attempt to proselytize and guilt them into coming to Mass. He is unsuccessful and leaves. Soon after Etienne comes in. He regularly visits them at night, and no one else is aware of his visits.
Maheu wants the strike to end, but Maheude, infuriated at his hesitance to continue, threatens to punch him. Etienne is shocked to see what he has instilled in Maheude. She is so changed that he can no longer recognize the woman who was once so sensible. Dr. Vanderhagen arrives and tells them that Alzire is going to die, and he leaves in hurry. Maheude cries, repeatedly asking for death. On the next Sunday, Etienne arrives at Rasseneur’s. Rasseneur tells Etienne that the workmen’s association is being devoured and slowly destroyed by an internal struggle between vanities and ambitions. Souvarine angrily argues that any striker who is not an anarchist simply wants to become bourgeois himself. During Souvarine’s rant, Catherine and Chaval walk into the tavern. After throwing a few insults at one another, Chaval and Etienne get into a physical altercation. Catherine is motionless against the wall, and Rasseneur attempts to interfere but is stopped by his wife. Chaval pulls out a knife, but Etienne manages to get a hold of it. He holds Chaval down beneath his knee and threatens to slit his throat open. But something inside Etienne stops him, and he lets go. Chaval leaves the tavern, and when Catherine tries to follow him he tells her to stay with Etienne.
When they came out of Rasseneur’s, Etienne and Catherine walked on in silence. Catherine embarrasses Etienne, because she has been given to him. The past slowly comes back to them, including their old longings for each other. Catherine goes back to Chaval’s place, and Etienne can find no argument to convince her to stay with him. As Etienne is walking away from Chaval’s and is by the pit-bank, he sees Jeanlin stalking a sentinel. Jeanlin suddenly jumps on the sentinel’s shoulders and buries his large open knife in his throat. Etienne is shocked and runs up to Jeanlin, asking him why he killed the sentinel. Jeanlin replies that he doesn’t know why, he just wanted to. Etienne recognizes the killed sentinel: it was the same one he was talking to, Jules, a few days ago. Etienne begins to think of where to dispose of the body and grows more anxious by the minute. He has a sudden inspiration: if he could carry the body as far as Requillart, he would be able to bury it there forever. They eventually bury him with his gun in a gallery of the old pit. They finish by breaking the timber holding up the walls at the risk of being buried themselves. The rock gives way immediately, and they scarcely have time to crawl back on their elbows and knees. Jeanlin retreats to his lair, as does Etienne, who cries whilst Jeanlin is sound asleep. Since midnight, Catherine has been wandering about the settlement after having been kicked out by Chaval.
Catherine comes back to the pit because Chaval is supposed to be going down that morning. The sound of a trumpet startles Catherine. She sees the Voreux guards taking up their arms. Etienne arrives running, and a band of men and women are coming from the settlement, gesticulating wildly with anger. All the entrances to the Voreux are closed, and the sixty soldiers are barring the only door left free. A new flood of settlement strikers soon arrives, and all rushed forward. Etienne has to stop them. He goes up to the captain with a despairing, resolute face, attempting to convince him to join the strikers’ cause. The captain refuses to budge. Etienne hears the strikers shout and call for death, and he draws back into the crowd in despair. The women start insulting the soldiers, and Levaque seizes three bayonets in his hands. The soldiers receive strict orders to not make use of their weapons until the last extremity. Tensions rise as the soldiers are backed up to the wall with their rifles loaded. There is the sound of a gun’s recoil, followed by deep silence. The strikers all run to the pile of bricks nearby and the battle of stones begins. Many of the strikers forget themselves there, absorbed in the battle.
Captain Richomme places himself between the soldiers and the miners. The soldiers are wounded, and the captain sees the soldiers losing obedience. The rain of bricks increases, and just as the captain is about to tell them to fire, the guns go off themselves. Bebert and Lydie are killed. Captain Richomme is accidentally struck in the back from one of bullets. Mouquet dies, as does Mouquette, who saves Catherine by jumping in front of her and taking a bullet. Maheu is struck in the heart and dies on the spot.
An awkward tension develops between a defeated, demoralized Etienne and a still impassioned Maheude. Maheu wants the strike to end, but Maheude, infuriated at his hesitance to continue, threatens to punch him. Etienne is shocked to see what he has instilled in Maheude. Standing in front of him is a product entirely of his own doing. Ironically, she has lost much more than most of the other strikers, including Etienne. But she still chooses to be hopeful and resilient, engendering an optimistic outlook in what appears to be an otherwise bleak future.
Though she is furious at Etienne, Maheude is one of the only people who keeps her friendship with Etienne after the failed strike. The triumph over adversity and hardship during and after a long period of indenture is a leading theme of historical interpretation of a future that Maheude too thinks of not just in terms of economic prosperity but also political representation. Hope and the struggle for a better tomorrow does not stop with the strike. She believes that by accepting defeat the settlement will return to passive acceptance of proletarian life. The death of Maheu throws Maheude into a kind of disbelief about the actuality of the strike. But instead of disarming her emotionally, Maheu's death pushes her further into a struggle for freedom.
Victory does not come easily. The death and mutilation of Maigrat was a kind of draw - because the female strikers did not actually kill him. It is this insufficient retribution, this wanting more of a satisfaction of sadistic desires, that drives Maheude. That the miners and their lot have so little to subsist on in the first place means that they are willing to broaden what counts as ingratiation or satisfaction. They go to great lengths to satisfy even the lowliest of pleasures, and what may be a pleasure to them (pillaging Maigrat's body of its parts) may be a crime to others.
Rasseneur tells Etienne that the workmen’s association is being devoured and slowly destroyed by an internal struggle between vanities and ambitions. Souvarine angrily argues that any striker who is not an anarchist simply wants to become bourgeois himself. Souvarine points out a major hypocrisy amongst the strikers but especially one that persistently arises in Etienne's behavior. The egoism that built up in Etienne as he became more popular among the miners and as he became more knowledgeable about Marxist and socialist doctrine inculcates a lethal arrogance. Etienne's overzealous propositions and calls to action rile the crowd to visit unchecked violence and destruction upon the pits and the countryside - thus reinforcing the idea that the miners are authentically unrefined.
Etienne lets his desire to win and more importantly to lead the strike blur the line between what is practical and what is almost impossible. Rasseneur reminds the reader that change is very difficult and that if the settlement is to achieve or receive anything at all through political struggle, it is going to be far less than what Etienne is (falsely) promising.
Etienne's arrogance also indexes the naïveté of his youth and the lack of exposure to the inertial nature of politics and the broader realities of life. His anger blinds any hope of calm and collective thought processes and a calculated approach to reform. He loses much more than he gains, as do the miners. Ignorance and misery have compromised Etienne and the strikers' way of life.