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Suffering humanity, lessons of history,
This review is from: Germinal (Penguin Classics) (Paperback)
From the very start - with an icy wind blowing across a dark and desolate landscape - the author evokes a place with a story that is graphic and harrowing. Etienne Lantier arrives destitute at a mining pit at Montsou (which loosely means mountain of money) without any prospects but still with the energy of a youth. Stopping to find some warmth from the biting cold, he lingers long enough to find himself descending into the abyss of a coal mine. From that point he becomes entangled with the misfortunes of the Maheu family, who are caught in a vicious cycle of debt, hopelessly slaving away for starvation wages.
The events of the novel take place during the 1860s in France. The industrial revolution has commenced and a raw form of capitalism is the rule of the day - no needless government intrusion into the affairs of private industry. Children of a shockingly young age, about 10 years old, girls as well as boys, are sent down to work in the coal mines. Health and safety standards are set by the company; that is, by the local management, who are totally at the beck and call of a distant Board of Directors, who in turn are beholden to absent shareholders. Whenever an accident occurs, the company has nothing to prevent it from covering up whatever actually occurs. Labor is cheap and plentiful enough that given the choice of cutting the dividend when things get tough, the company will figure out a way to cheat the workers.
At this stage in history, industrial workers have only begun a desperate fight for their rights. The unfortunate part of it is that they have been so beaten down, so accustomed to being treated like cattle, that they tend to act accordingly. Outside of their labors, life is a constant obsession with food, drink, and sex. This habitual instinctual behavior and feeding of addictions not only degrades them but traps them all the more. The horse, Bataille, doomed to spend his life deep within the mine pit, is portrayed as showing about as much compassion and humanity as any of the miners. Etienne, the outsider without attachments, has hopes of galvanizing their better instincts by organizing a strike. But as the strike gains momentum, so does a sense of impending violence and tragedy. The miners have very little chance of getting significant concessions from the company, and though they doggedly struggle, their efforts to stave off starvation are costly. When they are pushed to the brink, horrible things happen.
Although this is a work of fiction, it is a valuable piece of history that contains lessons. It is clear that when there are only the most laissez-faire of laws - basically no government standards or oversight, the desperate and vulnerable get crushed by the rising tide of greed. Extreme conditions trigger extreme reactions, and all hell breaks loose.