Germinal – Emile Zola

Germinal is one of the most moving novels written about the sufferings of the working class. Zola’s undisguised sympathy for them flows abundantly throughout the novel, inviting the reader’s sympathy for this unfortunate section of society, who are treated no better than animals by their superior brethren. Zola himself wrote that “This is one of those books you write for yourself, as an act of conscience”. It’s therefore clear that Germinal is Zola’s need to raise awareness, invoke sympathy, and appease the urge to do something within his power to alleviate to some extent the suffering of the workers.

The title “Germinal” is derived from the seventh month of the Republican Calendar which was introduced following the 1789 Revolution. The name depicts germination and renewal, and the story takes a similar pattern accordingly. The two central subjects are the political struggle between the bourgeoisie and the working class and how the process of nature affects and shapes the lives of the workers.

To write his novel, Zola has chosen a section of the workers who face the greatest danger above all others of the working class, and who, according to him, suffer the most, who are unappreciated with no returned reward for the great sacrifice they make daily. They are the colliers. Being a naturalist writer, Zola describes the poor living conditions of these workers who live in cramped, gloomy, dirty, and unhygienic spaces that can barely be called “houses”. “Living on top of another” is Zola’s phrase to describe the condition. They had no privacy, living together like a herd of animals. Zola did his research meticulously before writing the novel, personally visiting a mining district, and first-hand witnessing the working conditions of coal pits and the living conditions of the mining villages so that no one can accuse him of exaggeration.

The novel flows on how the Capital exploited labour. While the workers drowned in poverty, generations threatened with malnourishment, the bourgeoise was fattening themselves with idle indulgence. Even when an industrial crisis occurs, it was from the workers that the loss was recovered. The unjust of it was sickening. And the lack of education among the working class, part passively submitting to unjust exploitation, and part engaging in revolutionary actions driven by half-understood ideas, made the workers’ cause for justice suffer.

In the novel, the protagonist, Etienne, is a misguided socialist. Being self-educated, his understanding of socialistic idealism is sketchy. His effort to lead the workers prematurely to win their rights without a correct understanding as to what their “proper rights” are, embracing a fantastic impractical ideal, brings a disastrous calamity damaging the workers’ cause. Zola demonstrates quite clearly in the novel the danger of guiding an uneducated lot, for their zeal can be destructive bordering on anarchy. The anarchist Souvarine sees the socialist views and actions as nonsense, for they believe total destruction is the only way to a new beginning. Both Etienne and Souvarine are extremists in their ends. Only Rasseneur is the calm mind who advocates for moderate negotiation as the suitable method of approach to win workers’ rights. Zola is not judgemental, but he points out the dangers and defects of anarchy and socialist fanaticism. It’s not clear what his personal views are, but I thought I could trace a preference for a moderate approach.

When reading this novel, another beloved classic constantly passed through my mind. Germinal has a lot of similarities with Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South. Although the North and South depicts the struggles of cotton mill workers, and in Germinal, it was colliers, the working and living conditions, poverty, and lack of education demonstrate a similarity between the two. The strike, the disastrous consequence of its failure, and the importation of workers to replace the ones on strike give both storylines a kinship. The difference I observed was only in Zola’s writing. Unlike Elizabeth Gaskell, Zola writes his story with vigour and boldness; there is no screening of undesirable facts.

Zola’s writing in Germinal is beautiful and evocative. The actions are dramatized so that the reader feels their tension. With his magical writing, Zola binds the readers tightly to his story and takes them through the up and down journey of its characters. Boldly, realistically, and with power, he presents his story as a nonjudgmental observer. Zola doesn’t impose on us his perspectives. Rather, he submits his facts for others’ judgment. This quality of writing makes Zola more attractive.

Germinal is only my second novel by Emile Zola and the first in the Rougon-Macquart series. Reading Zola isn’t easy. His stories are distressing. Nevertheless, he speaks the truth about a bygone era in France that I want to know about.

Rating: 4/5

About the author

Piyangie Jay Ediriwickrema is an Attorney-at-Law by profession. Her devotion to literature has taken shape in reading and reviewing books of various genres set in different periods of time. She dabs at a little poetry and fiction of her own and hopes to share her work with the readers in the future.