Though capitalists have exploited the earth for its resources and have caused a great deal of environmental destruction in the novel, it is the pit itself that carries out the exploitation of the workers. Zola describes the mine as a “voracious beast” that has a ravenous hunger for bodies. As Sara Pritchard notes, Zola renders the mine as “an organic, monstrous creature that evokes Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.” However Zola is a naturalist, not a romantic. Pritchard further argues that by portraying the harsh innards of capitalist exploitation of the miners and the environment, Zola critiques the broader socioeconomic system of which Montsou is a part.
Miners as Animals (Allegory)
Throughout the novel, Zola consistently characterizes the miners as brutes who live in a primitive world, contrasted with the sumptuous and advanced dwellings and lifestyle of the wealthy. The miners are likened to ants and insects, as they “dig in the earth in primal conditions and have been reduced to a degenerate form of humanity.” They are far from civilization, even while the management and the owners - who are physically near them - are firmly within civilization. The vast symbolic distance between miners and management alludes to the deep class divides in society.
Lamarckism is the theory that biological adaptations to one’s environment are passed on to offspring. The inheritance of acquired characteristics and the adaptation to the environment are powerful forces wherein miners become ant-like in their daily tasks. The children miners (like Jeanlin) are, Pritchard notes, “even better suited to the life and environment of the mines.” Zola combines adaptation, inheritance, and evolution to show how nature can play a powerful role in shaping the mannerisms of entire swaths of society. However this nature is not a default or “first” nature. Rather it is a “second” nature that is a product of both nature and culture. In this way, the miners are also responsible for their own change and degradation.
Whether it is in the ditches of the settlement, in the pit itself, or Hennebeau's sumptuous bedroom, sex pervades as a conduit for power, pleasure, envy, and escape from the daily woes that the characters face. Hennebeau - despite having access to ample resources and luxuries - finds that the one thing he cannot have and the miners have in abundance, passionate sex, is what he desires the most. The sexual tension between Catherine and Etienne also serves as a source of extreme animosity, to the point that Catherine defends the vile actions of Chaval - and ultimately to the point that Etienne kills Chaval.
Etienne's start as a lowly worker in utter destitution provides appropriate and ample fire and ambition for him to become the eventual head of the strike. But his growing arrogance represents the hypocrisy of the powerful man (speaking to Souvarine's lambasting of the poor): that people are only Marxist or socialist until they become wealthy or powerful. Slowly, instead of distributing influence and power for the strike (like a good socialist), Etienne begins to consolidate it. He also attempts to eliminate threats to his ambitions, specifically Rasseneur and Chaval.
Germinal Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Germinal is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.