Tuesday, May 25, 2010

353. Germinal – Emile Zola

History: This book was published in 1885. It was the first major work on a strike, based on his research notes on labor conditions in the coal mines. Germinal was criticized by right-wing political groups as a call to revolution.
Plot: The novel's central character is Étienne Lantier, previously seen in L'Assommoir (1877), a young migrant worker who arrives at the foreboding coalmining town of Montsou in the bleak far north of France to earn a living as a miner. Sacked from his previous job on the railways for assaulting a superior - Étienne was originally to have been the central character in Zola's "murder on the trains" thriller La Bête humaine (1890), before the overwhelmingly positive reaction to Germinal persuaded him otherwise - he befriends the veteran miner Maheu, who finds him somewhere to stay and gets him a job pushing the carts down the pit.
Étienne is portrayed as a hard-working idealist but also a naïve youth; Zola's genetic theories come into play as Étienne is presumed to have inherited his Macquart ancestors' traits of hotheaded impulsiveness and an addictive personality capable of exploding into rage under the influence of drink or strong passions. Zola keeps his theorizing in the background and Étienne's motivations are much more natural as a result. He embraces socialist principles, reading large amounts of working class movement literature and fraternizing with Souvarine, a Russian anarchist and political émigré who has also come to Montsou to seek a living in the pits. Étienne's simplistic understanding of socialist politics and their rousing effect on him are very reminiscent of the rebel Silvère in the first novel in the cycle, La Fortune des Rougon (1871).
While this is going on, Étienne also falls for Maheu's daughter Catherine, also employed pushing carts in the mines, and he is drawn into the relationship between her and her brutish lover Chaval, a prototype for the character of Buteau in Zola's later novel La Terre (1887). The complex tangle of the miners' lives is played out against a backdrop of severe poverty and oppression, as their working and living conditions continue to worsen throughout the novel; eventually, pushed to breaking point, the miners decide to strike and Étienne, now a respected member of the community and recognized as a political idealist, becomes the leader of the movement. While the anarchist Souvarine preaches violent action, the miners and their families hold back, their poverty becoming ever more disastrous, until they are sparked into a ferocious riot, the violence of which is described in explicit terms by Zola, as well as providing some of the novelist's best and most evocative crowd scenes. The rioters are eventually confronted by police and the army, who repress the revolt in a violent and unforgettable episode. Disillusioned, the miners go back to work, blaming Étienne for the failure of the strike; then, in a fit of anarchist fervour, Souvarine sabotages the entrance shaft of one of the Montsou pits, trapping Étienne, Catherine and Chaval at the bottom. The ensuing drama and the long wait for rescue are among some of Zola's best scenes, and the novel draws to a dramatic close. Étienne is eventually rescued and fired but he goes on to live in Paris with Pluchart.
Review: This book is not really about the plot. It's about the premise behind the plot. It's about rich versus poor, about labor laws and selfishness and leadership and abuse of leadership and socialism versus capitalism and violence against women and child labor and human rights. That makes it sound like a political book, and it is, but it's not dry. All of this stuff is slipped in carefully, fitting in between the cracks of the plot to fill it up and fatten it with all this meaning. And Zola isn't one-sided. No. While it's obvious he cares more about the poor than the rich, he doesn't excuse the bad actions of the poor and doesn't give the rich worry-free lives. He shows them both realistically, both with problems and worries and pain, and in some places, has them working together, alongside each other, towards a single goal.
In the 19th century, women were viewed differently than they are now, and those differences really play a part in the roles women played in the literature of their time. It seems though, that general groups of women remain the same despite time differences. The way women cope with the working class, lower class, or generally difficult situations is by aligning their personalities with specific walks of life. In Zola's Germinal, the women usually fit into three general categories: the first and most important category is the maternal role of motherly conduct or at least maternal instinct, the second category is that of the tom-boy or the woman striving for equality/masculinity amongst the men, and the final category is that of the consort or the wanton. Each group of women has a unique way of improving their lives in relation to others through specific means that may be either demeaning or admirable in their difficulty
The darkness was pervasive and it just got worse. Even when the people began to strike, they also began to starve and made almost no progress in their strike. It was hard to bear, especially when they were contrasted with the wealthier mine owners. One of the managers even envies the poor people their freedom as compared to his restricted aristocratic lifestyle – I don’t think he quite understood the situation.
Opening Line: “Over the open plain, beneath a starless sky as dark and thick as ink, a man walked alone along the highway from Marchiennes to Montsou, a straight paved road ten kilometers in length, intersecting the beetroot-fields.”
Closing Line: “Men were springing forth, a black avenging army, germinating slowly in the furrows, growing towards the harvests of the next century, and this germination would soon overturn the earth.”
Quotes: "Blow the candle out, I don't need to see what my thoughts look like."
Rating: Good, but sad.

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