Where is the modern day Germinal?
I have just finished reading Émile Zola’s Germinal and I have to say it deserves its billing as one of his seminal works. Étienne Lantier arrives at the Le Voreux mining pit desperate for work, having been thrown out of his previous job for hitting his supervisor. He acquires work and meets Catherine, his love interest for the entire novel. However, the world underground awakens within him a longing for social justice and a desire to fight for it; a passion which catapults him into the position of unofficial leader of a ( ultimately unsuccessful) strike action against the tyrannical and greedy Company that runs the pit.
Most see Germinal as Zola’s most left-wing work, ending as it does with the expectation that despite their defeat, the workers continue to seethe under the surface, their existences bound inexorably to an inevitable revolt and transformation of society. However, it is not as clear-cut as all that – for sure, Zola hates capitalism and constantly paints it as a far-off and distant monster, consuming human flesh and lives in the same way he describes Le Voreux consuming its pound of human flesh ceaselessly. The bourgeoisie characters in the book are not demonised and are described almost sympathetically. Rather than being malign individuals most are presented as naive tools who often mean well but know not what they do.
When Monsieur Hannebeau discovers his wife’s affair with their adopted ‘nephew’ and is then confronted with the protests of striking workers it is pretty impossible not to sympathise with his pain and anger. However, the bourgeoisie world is accurately portrayed as being oceans apart from that of the Le Voreux. One can’t help but think of our current government and how their social background mean they cannot possibly comprehend the damage they are doing. Maybe they do not mean the harm they do but their ignorance makes the net effect the same no matter what they intend and it is the same in Germinal – the good intentions of the some of the bourgeoisie is unleavened by understanding of consequence and thus their intentions do pave the road to hell for their workers.
Zola doesn’t spare the workers either and he does not, as some people frequently accuse him of doing, romanticise the workers and put them on a pedestal. Their frequent violence (towards both the bourgeois characters, their masters and each other) is not something that Zola celebrates. He describes it in painful detail and does not spare it from criticism. Nor is his hero, Étienne spared, he is presented as a dreamer and the accusations that he would climb to power on the backs of his comrades are shown to have some grounding in truth. However, ultimately he is loyal to both his comrades and love for Catherine. His love for Catherine is at first subsumed in his quest for justice, a burial which becomes necessary as she chooses Chaval over him. He hides from the pain in his eloquent speechs and his lofty standing but as the strike crumbles and his popularity fades all he is left with is this love and whereas in the beginning he disdained of a woman getting in the way of his quest, by the end all he wants is her embrace. Something he experiences, just before she dies, killed in the mine sabotaged by the resident anarchist.
Étienne and Chaval’s rivalary is ostensibly for the love of Catherine but in reality it also represents a tension between the ideological dreaming of the revolution and the brutal reality of the miners lives. Chaval beats Catherine and also dramatically deserts his comrades after being effectively bribed too with the prospect of promotion. In reality, this extreme display of self-interest is little different from that displayed by the bourgeoisie. It, along with Étienne’s scarcely concealed Parliamentary ambitions (and occasional contempt for his comrades), warns us against replacing one kind of exploitation with another and Zola prefigures the fate of the Russian Revolution in this. We have to take a broader view but also, the miners on the march, are portrayed as a violent mob whose grip of sense is questionably.
Eventually, Étienne triumphs literally by smashing the skull of Chaval and at last, however briefly, receiving Catherine’s love. Catherine is one of the few characters to be remain relatively pure and unsullied by any critique and is emblematic of the ideals Étienne aspires too. She remains loyal to Chaval despite his beatings and is far from promiscuous like the other tram girls. However, her view of Chaval is hopelessly naive and in her naivety she mirrors Étienne’s politics. Catherine’s family, the Maheus, are also treated sympathetically by Zola. Jenlin, who becomes something of a ‘bad apple’, is only made that way by an accident that cripples him and similarly with Bonnemort, who callously strangles Cécile Grégoire, they are both implied to be exceptions caused by the brutalisation of the lot life deals them. In that sense, Zola is not glorifying the mis-deeds of the workers but contextualising them in the brutality of their environment.It is important we make a distinction.
The overt political discourses take place primarily between Étienne, Rasseneur and Sourvine. Étienne is the hot-headed revolutionary, Rasseneur the hard-headed reformist and Sourvine the shadowy anarchist. Étienne’s initial popularity shows the rise of the revolutionary arc as the workers are radicalised by the actions of the Company, but Rasseneur soon regains his previous standing as the strike ends in failure. Étienne balks from Sourvine’s conclusions but it is constantly suggested that he understands the logical conclusion of his position leads along Sourvine’s path. Sourvine himself always is semi-detached, he does not get involved in the same way both Étienne and Rasseneur are and separates himself totally from the strike (in fact, he works through it). However, ironically, it is Sourvine’s last desperate act of sabortage that frees Étienne from all his constraints and allows him to finally slay Chaval and embrace Catherine. In that sense, Germinal is an empty bottle into which you tend to feel the reader will find solace for whatever perspective they already take. In the triangulation conflict between the three it reaches no definite conclusions and their deliberations are shown as being separate to some degree from the lives of those people they are each so desperate to save.
You cannot say it truly predicts a final revolutionary triumph because whole tracts detail the impossibility of the miners final victory and Catherine, who is intended as the personification of social justice, is ultimately slain by the cold and calculating Sourvine – something that implies anarchism may well set people temporarily free but its methods are antithetical to its stated goal. Equally, you cannot say it justifies the brutality of revolutionary violence though it suggests its inevitable and caused by the conditions that breed it not by the malignancy of the workers themselves. Frequently, the miners are said to be desperately trying to exercise restraint but they finally surrender to what is simmering beneath and when they do, Zola does not attempt to justify that surrender.
Germinal definitely is a searing indictment of capitalism and privations it inflicts upon human beings – both bourgeoisie and proletarian alike – and this is why the lack of a modern version puzzles me. We imagine ourselves a world away from the desperate squalor of mining village Two Hundred and Forty which even at the beginning without the strike is scraping by but are we really? Articles like this suggest not – they suggest that under the surface many struggle like the Maheus scraping their last sous together and barely able to eat.
Following on from the financial crash more than ever more and more people are seeing capitalism as the monster Zola portrays it as. Bourgeoisie and proletarian alike bound together in suffering (albeit of different kinds) and each and every one straining at the leash to be free from the baneful tyranny inflicted upon us. Maybe that is the germ, the inkling of a new society in the old, the human desire to be free and in control of our destiny and it is that desire that will bring us together, united against the beast and by a common desire to build the new society Étienne and Zola dreamed of.