71 of 73 people found the following review helpful
on January 23, 2003
Germinal is generally considered the greatest of Emile Zola's twenty novel Rougon-Macquart cycle. Of these, Germinal is the most concerned with the daily life of the working poor. Set in the mid 1860's, the novel's protaganist Etienne Lantier is hungry and homeless, wandering the French countryside, looking for work. He stumbles upon village 240, the home of a coal mine, La Voreteux. He quickly gets a job in the depths of the mine, experiencing the backbreaking work of toiling hundreds of feet below the earth. He is befriended by a local family and they all lament the constant work required to earn just enough to slowly starve. Fired up by Marxist ideology, he convinces the miners to strike for a pay raise. The remainder of the novel tells the story of the strike and its effect on the workers, managers, owners and shareholders.
Zola weaves a strong plot line along with a multitude of characters. The hallmark of this novel is the wealth of people who populate the pages. The miners are not the noble poor but men and women who live day to day, cruel in some ways, generous in others. The managers are owners are not evil, greedy men but complex characters who in some ways envy the freedom of the miners from conventional morality.
As with most Zola novels, don't expect a happy ending. But the reader can expect to be transported to a world and a way of life almost unimaginable for its brutality and bleakness. Like other great works of literature, the novel explores the thoughts and actions of people who suffer the daily indignities of poverty and injustice. Germinal is different however because the thoughts and actions are not noble and the consequences of their actions are felt by all. I would strongly recommend Germinal as one of the major novels of the 19th century but one that transcends time and place. The issues evoked in the novel regarding labor versus capital are just as relevant to today's world.
29 of 30 people found the following review helpful
on December 27, 2008
For those who don't know, Germinal is the month of April on the Revolutionary calendar, instituted in France in the late eighteenth century. The idea of germination, the springing forth of new life, pervades the entire story, and it is rich with symbolism throughout. Étienne, a newcomer who quickly becomes the leader of the workers' rebellion, literally plants the seeds of socialism and the promise of a new world order in the minds of these otherwise simple miners. But throughout the book, the lives of the miners remain bleak, going from simply struggling to make each day's soup and constantly running out of coffee, to simply dying from starvation during the strike, which lasts for more than two months.
But in spite of their poverty and general misery, the miners still enjoy a level of freedom that the bourgeoisie, whole live a life of idleness and ignorance among their workers, do not. They are free to openly engage in sexual activities, which is something that is absolutely forbidden to the upper classes. Even the manager of the mine, M. Hennebeau, as he looks out his window at the swarm of strikers, envies them for their emotional freedom, his own marriage being nothing more than a loveless sham.
There are events in the book that will shock the uninformed reader. The miners regularly beat their wives and children, and the mothers look on their children as little more than wage-earners in some respects. A reader must place himself in the period and environment in which this story takes place. These mining families are holding on with both hands, and struggle everyday just to simply survive. So it's no wonder that when a child's legs are crushed in a tragic mining accident, his mother laments the loss of his income more than his injuries and pain. In the end, this book simply shows that the will to survive, and to achieve a just world, can conquer anything.
17 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on February 2, 2011
Aw, do I really have to write a book report, Mr Taylor? Why can't I just lie here on the sofa and reverberate with the beauty of the language and the ferocity of the story? Will you give me a decent grade if I go and sabotage a coal mine, or at least honor the picket line around our local Walmart, since that's what Zola's passion for social justice inspires me to do? This novel is too grand and powerful to demean with a paltry book report. I'm sure that's why there are only two reviews posted here; everyone is intimidated by greatness.
"Germinal" is widely regarded as Zola's masterpiece. I'm inclined to agree. It's surely his most passionate, suspenseful, kinesthetic novel, with a cast of characters so vividly depicted that you'd recognize them on a crowded street. The focal character is the young laborer Etienne Lantier -- the family link to the other novels of Zola's Rougon-Macquart epic -- who takes a job, out of desperation, in a coal mine. Zola did his homework on mining technology and working conditions in the mines of mid-19th C France. His word-paintings of the mines are worth a thousand pictures, and the conditions of work are beyond hellish. Life for the miners and their families in the company-owned villages is squalid and brutish, while the luxury enjoyed by the bourgeois managers and stockholders is hatefully excessive. Exploiters and exploited are both trapped in an orgy of moral and psychological corruption. Young Etienne, a self-educated idealist pushed and yanked every which way by his reading and his contact with utopian socialism, becomes the instigator of a massive strike that begins with orderly optimism but that devolves into misery and violence. Meanwhile the poor lad falls in love with a miner's daughter ...
"Germinal" IS a 19th C novel, and accordingly there's a lot of predictable melodrama and improbable coincidence in it, none of which detracts from its real dramatic potency. It's a "labor" novel, right? In fact, possibly the first muck-raking hard-hitting labor novel ever written, and still arguably the finest! But in a "labor" novel there has to be a strike, and the strike has to be crushed by the cynical might of avaricious capitalism. Likewise, it's a novel set in the dank dark fissures of a coal mine; what could a reader possibly expect but a cave-in followed by heroic efforts to rescue the trapped miners? Would Zola's first readers in the 1880s have had such obvious expectations? Perhaps not. One could credit Zola with inventing all the formulae of the modern novel and be at least half right. In any case, the descriptions of the catastrophic cave-in and the struggles of the trapped miners to survive will curl your hair and set your heart thumping. [Yes, teacher, this is an exciting novel that I could hardly put down even for dinner and that's why I couldn't study for my math test.]
Etienne's efforts to prepare himself as a charismatic 'leader' of the working class are stimulated by his friendship with Souvarine, an educated Russian exile employed as an engineer in the mines. Souvarine has books to lend and ideologies to impart, as well as a sinister arrogance that will strike fear in the heart of a post-20th C reader. He's an astoundingly prophetic figure, this Souvarine, a libertarian/anarchist fanatic as cold-blooded and self-righteous as Pinochet or Pol Pot. If only Zola had had his hands on the real man and could have expunged him from the future!
Naive awareness of Bakunin, Marx, and Darwin all add confusion to Etienne Lantier's worldview, as Zola portrays him becoming strangely aware of his own ambiguity. The more he learns and thinks about the injustice of capitalist society, the more he separates himself from the brutish and brutalized workers whom he aspires to organize and elevate. There's a good measure of profundity in Zola's portrayal of Etienne, whose mentality is uncomfortably familiar to readers a century later. He's the prototype of all ardent organizers and politicians whose "sympathy" for the downtrodden and degraded of society eventually clashes with their disapproval of the stubborn ignorance and viciousness of the 'masses.'
Conservative critics of Zola in his own era and in the earlier decades of the 20th C harped on his 'lascivious' amoral depiction of sexuality. Liberal critics berated him for his portrayal of lower-class vices - drunkenness, wife beating, child abuse, filthiness, shiftlessness. Yes, there's a "whole lotta shakin' goin' on" between the males and females in Germinal, the poor and the rich, in the moonlit fields, in the fetid galleries of the mines, and in the poshly wallpapered bedrooms of the bourgeois also, and very little of all this fornication is devoted to the protection of marriage. But Zola was actually a rather stiff-necked moralist and all the raw sexuality in his novels was anything but erotic. Despite the conventions of the 19th C melodramatic novel that Zola never defied, "Germinal" is fearlessly realistic in its exposure of human nature and social complexity. The Rougon-Macquart novels rank among the highest accomplishments of all literature.
10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on March 12, 2006
This book is Zola's masterpiece about a coal miner strike in northeast France in the second half of the nineteenth century before the Franco-Prussian war. The title of the book, `Germinal', is explained in the introduction and has a double meaning. On the one hand, it refers to the month during the French revolution when the Parisians rose up in bloody rebellion against the government. The title therefore implies violent, bloody revolution. On the other hand, it also signifies cleansing and rebirth. These are the main themes of this book, and the title is quite appropriate. This book paints a clear, uncompromising picture of abject squalor and misery in which the coal miners worked during this era, and probably describes the conditions of miners in every Western country at the time. The miners live their lives as little more than animals or beasts of burden. Like most of Zola's work, the story is dark, and the miners' lot in life only gets worse as the story progress. If you are looking for an uplifting, feel good story, this ain't it. Zola's writing style is brutally and graphically realistic, he pulls no punches. This is a book about hope and struggle, failure and perserverance.
For those unfamiliar with Zola, he is regarded as one of the two greats in French literature (Hugo being the other), standing well above all other authors. He is certainly one of the greatest novelists ever to put pen to paper in any language. He is perhaps best known, however, for a newspaper article that he wrote entitled `J'accuse' (I accuse) in which he called much of the political and military leadership of France in the 1890s liars for their role in covering up the innocence of Alfred Dreyfus. The novel `Germinal' is one in a series of twenty books that Zola wrote (the Rougon-Macquart series) to describe various aspects of life in France under the Empire before it was destroyed by the Prussians in 1870. All the books are linked (ala Balzac), with many characters recurring throughout the series. For example, the main character in `Germinal', Etienne Lantier, is the son of the washerwoman Gervaise from `L'Assomoir', an earlier book in the series.
I cannot write a review to do this outstanding novel justice. The characters are realistic, three dimensional, well developed, and believable. Zola's dialogue is outstanding. He writes as people actually talk, I have never read anyone who writes dialogue as well as Zola. He writes about the human condition and all that is good and evil in men. The story is complex and well developed, yet easy to read. This translation is highly readable, and contains detailed endnotes that give the reader information on people, places, and historical events that contemporaries of Zola would have understood, but that modern readers may not be familiar with. I would, in general, recommend Zola's work to others with caution, but I highly recommend this book to anyone who is perusing these reviews. This is a great novel by a great writer - you will not be disappointed.
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on September 16, 2010
What I think will hold back many currently fashionable writers from having their books survive as masterpieces is their smallness, their inability to honor the greatness of the human condition. You can't get there with contempt, disdain and loathing, no matter how entertaining and enthralling the smirking can be. Zola was the original "New Journalism," but he did it with sincere, heartfelt, compassion, and, in Germinal, he created an extraordinarily propulsive social work that also ushered in the modern disaster novel. That's it's also a page turner only makes it better. It's one of a handful of books I read and re-read. It's not just a classic, it's a Masterpiece.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on November 3, 2001
Reading Germinal is like receiving a hefty punch in the face, albeit in a good sense. I can only imagine what Zola's contemporaries must have thought as they finished it. It's a very brutal book in numerous ways - I was expecting the sentiments of Hugo, and man oh man, was I surprised. Germinal is a prime example of the burgeoning "naturalism" movement. And yet, it's hard to believe that Zola approached it scientifically, as he claimed to, since it's so utterly jam-packed with passion. In many places, the book is mind-numbingly brutal, shocking even today. Indeed, while many of Zola's contemporaries poetized the working class, Zola was careful to tell the truth about them - they are illiterate, brutal savages. Now, that fact is not their fault, as they have been raped by the system since birth, but it is nonetheless a fact that the author makes no effort to hide. Numerous scenes will leave the reader amazed at the senseless cruelty - the sorry end of the shopkeeper Maigrat, for instance - but this cruelty is not limited to any one side, giving the (correct) impression that it's inherent to the _system_, not any of the people.
But all of the politics would seem hollow if the book wasn't filled with unforgettable people. Monsieur Hennebeau's life of luxury is sharply contrasted with the lives of the starving workers - and yet one simply _cannot_ dismiss the aching, naked loneliness he feels every second as the pettiness of a rich man. It's real and it's terribly sad. Likewise, the repressed love that Etienne and Catherine (as well as Bebert and Lydie - now that was one of the most touching scenes I've ever read...) feel for each other is poignant beyond words. And while La Mouquette is certainly quite the ribald slut, she's also one of the book's most warmly sympathetic characters, and the love she bears Etienne is one of the purest feelings anyone feels in the book. And pure feelings seem precious to a reader when a lot of the book is filled with such disturbing depravity (Jeanlin's senseless abuse of his friends and ultimately senseless crimes, for instance).
Though the book makes a point that the horrible conditions of workers' life _cannot_ go on for much longer, it also very accurately shows the flaws of socialism - its description of the fall of the International, in hindsight, also fits the collapse of the Soviet Union as well as that of any other fallen ideal. In essence, the book pits two extremes against one another - the ideals of liberty/equality/fraternity versus the blackest form of corporate atavism, and the result is apocalyptically harrowing, and almost unbearably bleak. Zola's hope-filled ending in fact seems a little forced in lieu of all the shattering events of the rest of the book. That aside, it's definitely a classic in its own right (quite the page turner, too - I finished it in two days), and definitely deserves to be read.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on March 4, 2013
My knowledge about Emile Zola had been limited to his letter, J'accuse, and his trial. Germinal was the first book I read and I just wish I had become familiar with his work much earlier.
One cannot really say that one enjoys Germinal, because the content is shows some really depressing aspects of life of human beings. And yet it was not easy to put the book down. This 1951 edition had an introduction by the translator, Havelock Ellis. Friends who have read a much later translation made the right decision, as in 1951 edition one missed a map, and some of the language would have meant a lot more to those with knowledge of the French language.
However, Germinal is a must for anyone who needs to begin to understand the awful conditions the miners lived in the second half of the nineteenth century, and how their lives contrasted with those of the bourgeoisie. Yet the book must help any reader get an understanding about historical and contemporary rebellions or struggles by people who are existing in awful circumstances. These people have the courage to try and fight, and even when they seem to be losing, they do not want to give up. Those of us who are fortunate enough to live in financial and material comfort are shown that a revolution, like the French Revolution, does not resolve all human problems.
But at the same time, human beings do not give up. In this respect Germinal is an appropriate title. It indicates spring in French, but it also suggests failure does not mean the end. The last sentence in the book is revealing:
"men were springing forth, a black avenging army, germinating slowly in the furrows, growing towards the harvests of the next century, and their germination would soon overturn the earth."
Zola is able to describe his characters very well, and at the same time, his perception of different human relationships, for example, linked to love, jealousy and so on is brilliant. In order to get the most out of the book, it needs to be studied, not just read.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on October 27, 2004
After "L'Assommoir" and "Nana," I was accustomed to Zola's "naturalist" style of reporting the details and constructing a story to make a point about Second Empire society. But "Germinal" surpasses those two, mainly due to Zola's efficiency. Middle-class readers in his day were likely to have invested more time than contemporary readers in reading (no search engines or video games in the late 19th century), so it's understandable why "Germinal" is so saturated with detail. That being noted, this is a masterfully written and passionate book that makes for fast reading. Zola is at his best evoking the coal elevator, the movements of an enraged crowd, the gossiping wives of miners, etc., giving the reader a clear description of the sights, sounds and smells of the moment.
A few reviewers have interpreted this is a tale of oppresive capitalism. While much of symbolism (the mine that eats the workers, the sufferings of Catherine and so on) could give that impression, this is story of disasterous ideology. Set in 1866-1867, when the Civil War in the U.S. exacerbated the coal industry's overcapitalization in France, Etienne falls in love with the proto-socialist movement (instead of Catherine) and sets off catastrophe. The episode in which Etienne, Chaval and Catherine wait underground for their rescuers is a potent metaphor for his relationship with the miners.
There are a number of very interesting characters in this book, who evolve to the decaying situations around them and often end up doing some very shocking things. Sprinkled with references to Darwin, "Germinal" features multiple characters that seems to revert to animal-like behavior. Whether Zola was not into economic progress as some suggest here is debatable, but there can be no mistake that he wanted to show the tremendous sacrifices that are involved. The change to the timbering rules by the company, the charge by the miners to Jean-Bart, and the act of sabotage by the Souvarine all have their disasterous unintended consequences. And it has been unintended consequences that defeated Marxism. In this way Zola was prophetic.
Chaval is mostly portrayed as a cruel man who represents the natural urges that Etienne constantly battles. A very good website by a professor at Washington State mentioned that "Chaval" resembles "cheval," which means "horse." So the practicality, beast-of-the-mines existence of Chaval is linked by name to the very sympathetic horses in this story. In this way Chaval is a fully-developed character in "Germinal."
Does this book have contemporary interpretations? During the week that I read this, there were two newspaper stories about coal mining. One in the weekend Milwaukee paper, told of a labor shortage in American coal mines, where in Pennsylvania and Ohio, veteran miners are returning to the towns they once had to leave. Soon afterward, the N.Y. Times described a tragic collapse in a coal mine in the central Henan province of China, showing a picture of thin, grey-clad family members crowding a building next to the entrance to the mine, waiting for names of the survivors and the still missing. Given the (capitalist) history of the U.S. and the (Communist) history of China, would Zola be surprised by the content of these two newspaper stories in 2004?
Coal mining in the U.S., of course, is a segment of the economy of which many environmentalists disapprove; its fate may be decided by the upcoming presidential election. Zola's "Germinal" is a masterpiece (I enjoyed the translation by Leonard Tanock), but its lessons may not be as simple as some readers may hope.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on February 9, 2013
If you're in a class, or just need to up your dose of Culture, and it's come down to a choice of Dead White Men, I'd take Zola over Melville, any day. I have some questions about this translation, however; and the quality of this binding wasn't exactly the best, either. By the end, the last few pages kept falling out of the book. On the other hand, if you're going to translate a book about coal miners in France, who better than a person named Collier?
For a book as old as this one (1885, taking place in 1866) it comes across as remarkably fresh. One citizen reviewer complained of the archaic writing---indicating that they either read another edition, or don't fare well with British english. The writing in this edtion is quite modern, and very British. Guys hang with their "mates"; people are told to "Bugger off". I don't think the French translates so clearly British. It wouldn't be any better if they were calling each other "Dudes" and saying "Go F yourself". I'm not familiar with the standards of translation, but I've read other translations, of other books, most recently "Love In The Time Of Cholera", and the native language and it's poetry were much more intact.
The Story takes off in the first couple of pages and never lets up. Where many writers would write up to the strike The way Celine Dion sings a song, Zola sort of slouches towards it. He illustrates the lives of his cast in rich, and often horrifying detail. He shows us where and how they live, how they sleep, and how they work in the Dante-esque conditions of 19th century French mines. And then, he switches to the lives of the Bourgeoisie (here the comfortable familes whose small fortunes derive from earlier investments in the mines, and as such, they don't work) and so does his language as it describes the warm, complacent, sunny comfort of their existence in the pays noir. When the Strike finally occurs, it happens while we're turning pages, between two parts of the book. It's already on, when we, and one of the mining share holder families finds out about it.
The miners are a sad lot, and Zola doesn't glamorize them. They don't make any money in good times, and the company protects its profits in bad times by cutting their wages to starvation levels (one sandwich of bread and butter, for 10 hours underground, in back breaking, toxic conditions) and so they partake in the one thing that's available to them for free: Sex. The kids are having sex all over the book. Babies are having babies, so 8 year olds work in the mines. With all this excess labor available, and desperation so acute, it's no wonder Capitalism is harsh and exploitive. It's here that Zola and Steinbeck part ways and stare across the fence at each other. Where Steinbeck lionized his impoverished characters, and often treated them like saints and sages, Zola isn't so kind. There are no saints in this book, just sinners in varying degrees, at different stages. Zola shows the physical folly of his characters lives, and then climbs into their minds to expose their vanity, their ignorance, their complacency. In short, the miners are as responsible for the misery of their lives as the bourgeoisie. Without any forgiveness due the latter. By the end of the book, the miners have let down the reader almost as much as the share holders have screwed the miners.
I see they've made a movie, and with Gerard Depardieu no less. From Zolas description, it must be hilarious to see one of France's most obese actors waddling through mine shafts that starving, stunted, fifteen year old kids can barely manage. I'll get back to you on that.
Given the subject matter, and the unhappy ending (it's no spoiler, unless you came to the book without any historical knowlege of the era) a lot of people, and probably students at that, seem to think the book is sad. It isn't. That's the odd thing. Zola was writing when the first glimmer of hope for the working man could be seen on the near horizon. The story takes place twenty years earlier, when that hope was little more than a dream, at the beginning of the struggle for workers rights. While his story reflects a sense of hopeless desperation among the miners, it also reflects Zola's own idea that, eventually, the worker would have his day. And as a result, Zola spends much of the book developing his characters, examining them and their motivations; their vanity, their greed, their complacency, their beliefs one way or the other. Thus, while the most dramatic part of the book does indeed come across as every bit as dramatic as it should, much of the rest of the book is oddly quiet, about lives lived in small worlds and even smaller internal spaces.
And believe me, this book, at its worst, isn't nearly as sad as Reality, where it took another eighty years from the 1860s, to see the workers finally gain something akin to parity with the bosses, and that only lasted for twenty five years or so. Now, we're right back where Zola's characters are, in the sense of realizing the importance of organization. We don't. Worse, many working folks----way too many of them retired for more than a decade, on pensions no longer available to their children or grand children----are turning against everything socialist, and favoring the working man; motivated by an inner rage against the slights of a perceived Liberal Elite; and the trumped up evils of minorities and immigrants; all of it seen through a retirement that wasn't as golden as they'd hoped, just a long slow road to the grave, pinching pennies as before. Zola had no idea it would come to this.
Having recently waded half way into "Moby Dick" and stepped out for some fresh air, I would enthusiastically steer you towards Zola. So much easier, so much more interesting, and compelling, a read. I do question the quality of this translation, again, a French novel should still read like a French novel, not a British (or American) novel with French characters, in France. And, if you read it in public, those who aren't familiar with Zola will think you're so cultured, and here you are reading about fifteen year olds having sex! Vive La France! Vive La Culture!
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on December 6, 2002
In addition to their renowned pievishness, the French are expert pessimists. Indeed, they have raised pride, scorn, and sarcasm to such high art. But they were also great pioneers, from the political caricatures of Daumier to modernism.
Germinal was one of the first truly excellent muckraker novels, exploring the complex tableau of oppressed workers in early industrial society. THough there is some excessive melodrama in the characters, they open a world that few would be able to know without direct experience. We should never forget how new this was, how much of a pioneer Zola was. It is a huge success.
But the novel also stands very well on its own. The writing is austerely beautiful, textured to feel as dusty and cold as the mines themselves. THere are realistic good guys and bad guys, highly complex characters who enter into difficult fights, who were types that Zola largely invented and that have been copied many many times. On every page, I wanted to find out what would happen to them, how they grew or died, where they were from. I hoped for them, pitied them, and hated them and even wept from them in the climactic ending when a glimmer of humanity transcended the class struggle for just a moment.
I was fascinated and repelled by the world Zola recreates, which has been my reaction to French culture throughout my contact with it for the last 34 years!