Germinal Themes


Without hope, there would have been no survival for the main characters - at least at the psychological level. The dangerous work conditions, blistering cold, inconsistent and low pay, and lack of access to proper healthcare are some of the significant barriers to a quality lifestyle that many of the workers aspire to. There are simply too many dangers and scarcity of resources for Etienne and Maheude in particular to not survive without hope. There is no guarantee that the strike will inaugurate a new era of labor relations and conditions, but like any revolution or resistance movement there needs to be a constant and consistent rhetoric of victory - which Etienne, and later Maheude, provides.


What the miners and their wives do for their children and for each other can largely be explained in terms of kinship. Despite the conditions that may allow illicit and irresponsible behavior (which are many), surprisingly many of the characters refrain from stealing or hurting one another for food. There is an eerie sense of diplomacy among a population that is in the throws of a protracted battle with its own existence - an existence whose basis depends on comestibles, hygiene, and safety. This possibly might be the case because there looms a larger enemy, the elite who own the pits. The antagonism and hostility exists, but the will to execute on the anger is quite premature. Etienne notes this anger, and channels it quite effectively.


Despite the tumultuous relationship between Catherine and Etienne, circumstances force the hand of fate: Etienne kills Catherine’s lover - fueled by the rage of his genetic tendency to act impulsively at certain moments - and makes love to her as they are on the brink of death. This is arguably the most important moment of closure in the entire story, and in fact might hold more importance than the strike itself, which was not successful. Zola’s fatalistic Realism animates many of the crude deaths of important characters like Maheu and Catherine, but that moment of physical intimacy is at the receiving end of Etienne’s sexual frustration. He achieves a state of completion, but only for that satisfaction to be taken away after Catherine’s death. Love is what lead Etienne to kill, to sacrifice, and to persist in his fight against injustice. Regardless of Catherine’s unflinching commitment to her abusive partner, he is unable to forget her and hate her.


The strike illuminates not gendered, religious, or ethnic tensions, but rather focuses on class almost exclusively. The penetrative influence of Marx and socialism is the central philosophy of Etienne’s speeches and rhetoric. He believes that economic relationships have shaped history and are the dominant form of oppression in a profit-driven society. There are moments of tension for both rich and poor: for example, when Etienne and company arrive at Hennebeau’s house and are put off by the opulence of the house, surprised to see how one wooden table could support entire families in the settlements for days and even weeks. At the end, despite all the losses incurred as a result of the strike, the wealthy remain wealthy. The poor remain poor. They go back down into the pits, and the fervor of change and revolution dies along with the many people who attempted to provoke it.


At various points throughout the story, the wealthy attempt to convince others (whether they have convinced themselves is unclear) of the difficulty and hardships they will experience if they choose to raise worker salary. They have been able to remove themselves psychologically enough from the inhumane working conditions of the miners, despite spending their entire day seeing first-hand the atrocities and dangers that those miners face. In some sense, one might be able to argue that the psychic distancing is a defense mechanism against the guilt they might experience: that these well-off managers and investors were actually acutely aware of what was going on in their pits. Yet, the Gregoires attempt to justify their ownership of the mine on the basis of ancestry, and how hard their ancestors worked to secure the fruits of their pit’s labor. Their daughter feels “bad,” and when Maheude visits the Gregoires, the girl gives her some clothes. The Gregoires feel no sense of duty to help the poor, and it precisely their passiveness that makes them oppressive. Though they may not be negotiating salaries, shooting into the protesting crowd, or refusing the miners and their families food, they nonetheless implicitly approve of all that is being done - as long as their pit’s productivity is not compromised.


The spring symbolizes that moment of rejuvenation and emergence from the cold sterility of the winter. It represents the ability to try and live again: the characters of the novel have an indomitable ability to resist and persist. The weather in this sense is a kind of character in its own right as well, with its moods and random, sometimes violent and fatal tendencies. It is promising and joyful in the spring, but punishing and hostile during the winter. The cycle of weather represents death and rebirth, in some sense completely erasing the woes of the past seasons and also indifferent to the harsh realities that the miners experience. The seed of revolution on the other hand is rather disappointing: instead of growing, it actually dies before sprouting. There was some struggle, some light at the end of the tunnel and the serving of just desserts for the miners and the owners of the mine. But at the end of it all, the seeds did not germinate properly. The rebirth of revolution and struggle can, however, be understood in the context of future revolutions (in the course of nineteenth-century France), wherein workers did successfully negotiate better working conditions.


Societal mobility and survival more generally require resistance. Many of the characters - Catherine in particular - have been conditioned into accepting the status quo and obeying authority. By lifting the veil of oppression and giving them hope, Etienne mobilizes the miners and their families to reflect on their existence and daily routines. By uncritically living their lives, there was no way better living conditions could come to fruition. Hope thus assumes that there is already some degree of reflection and critique of one’s routine existence. Why am I treated like this? Why do I settle for so little? Such questions marked a major shift in the miners’ outlook on the conditions of their existence. Before Etienne could inspire and instill any sense of hope, he needed his fellow protesters to think - an activity that both their occupation and the people running the pits either discouraged or did not require. To even be able to think about the “why” is in itself an act of protest; it represents a stark contrast from the demands. To even be able to experience anger also required reflection.