Not content merely to follow in the footsteps of such realists as Gustave Flaubert Madame Bovary ), Émile Zola decided to create his own literary movement and call it “naturalism.” A variant of realism, it emphasizes even more than realism careful research to prepare settings and other details to be described. Zola’s theories also embody a kind of determinism in which the characters’ heredity and environment essentially determine their actions. Characters are representative types rather than unique individuals. Groups are often important. In addition, Zola’s naturalist novels usually end in some sort of large-scale catastrophe. Modern disaster novels and films can trace their heritage back to Germinal.

Germinalis part of a 20-volume series of novels depicting various aspects of life in France in the second half of the nineteenth century, intended as a kind of sequel to Honoré de Balzac’s Human Comedy, which was a lengthy series of stories and novels depicting the early part of the century. Characters reoccur in various books and are related to characters in other books. Étienne Lantier, for instance, was born to alcoholic parents in L’assommoir (1877) and became a leader of the radical and disastrous uprising of the 1870-1871 Commune in La débâcle (1892) and is the brother of the protagonist of Nana (1880). The series as a whole is called after the two families whose genetic inheritance determines the fates of their members: the Rougon-Macquart.

Labor groups objected that in L’assommoir Zola had depicted the laboring classes in an entirely unflattering light, neglecting the labor movement which was in the process of transforming capitalism; so he set himself the task of researching radical and reformist labor movements for this novel. The result is the only important 19th-century piece of fiction to take seriously the ideas of the labor movement of the time. Not that he entirely endorsed them: although Zola was eventually to become a socialist, at this point he did not ally himself entirely with the workers. Although he clearly sympathizes with their sufferings, he also portrays them as irrational and destructive.

It is vital to keep some facts in mind about the labor movement in France. As in most industrialized countries, workers tended to want more than higher wages and shorter working hours. In many cases, the labor organizations were socialist, aiming at the total transformation of society and the redistribution of property. The bourgeois readers who made up most of Zola’s audience certainly viewed them that way, and made no distinctions between mild reformers and revolutionaries. Essentially all labor organizing activities, including all strikes, were illegal, and were routinely broken up by force.

Most members of Zola’s audience in 1885 could remember the disastrous Commune of 1870, the first communist revolution in world history. When the characters of Germinal, set in 1866-67, predict that the revolution will come they are uttering a prophecy that the audience knew had come true just three years later. This is no empty radical gesturing, but a sober statement of historical fact. And the readers doubtless saw these predictions as a warning of what could happen again in the near future if conditions for workers were not improved.


Part One

Chapter 1

Germinal is famous for its use of a carefully controlled palette. Here the color black is prominent, and will remain so throughout the novel. What other colors can you find recurring throughout the novel, and what significance do they seem to have? It is March 1866 when the novel begins. Late March and early April together formed the Revolutionary month called “Germinal,” the month of germination. The calendar used during the French Revolution substituted rational, natural names for those traditionally given the months of the year: the rainy month, the foggy month, the windy month, etc. Germinal is the month in which plants first begin to sprout from the ground; but the image of sprouting plant life is also used throughout the novel (and particularly at its conclusion) to symbolize the rising consciousness of the workers as they realize the sources of their suffering and organize to combat them. Look carefully for mentions of growing things and germination, especially as they are linked to sex and reproduction. Although Zola claims to be a meticulous realist, in fact his descriptions are often deliberately overstated to achieve poetic effects. How realistic is it that a man’s hands would actually be bleeding from the lash of the wind if he could stick them in his pockets?

Le Voreux means “the voracious one.” Note the use of the word “devour” on this page. Look for instances in which the mine is compared to an all-devouring beast. This is one of the central metaphors of the novel, based partly on the legend of Melek or Moloch, a Canaanite god to whom children were sometimes sacrificed, and which came to represent human greed (Amos 5:26, compare “Mammon” in Matthew 6:24). Flaubert had memorably depicted such a child-devouring god in his novel of ancient Carthage, Salammbô. What does the imagery imply about the nature of the mine itself and of the economic system which has produced it? Montsou means “mountain of pennies,” which suggests a large number of very poor people clustered tightly together.

Bonnemort means “good death.” What about Grandfather Maheu has caused him to be given this nickname?

What evidence is there that Bonnemort has black lung disease?

Why is it ironic that his grandfather had discovered the mine? What connection is there between hard work and ownership in this novel?

What earlier image does Bonnemort’s vision of the “crouching god” connect with? What do you think this second god represents?

Chapter 2

Montsou is a “company town,” a relatively new, artificial mass of crowded-together buildings erected to house the miners and workers brought into the area. It has no historic roots, and little sense of itself as a place. How does Zola convey the depersonalized nature of this town as he introduces us to it?

Catherine is going to be the most important young woman in the novel. How is her description strikingly different from the sort of portraits we find of young female protagonists in most nineteenth-century novels? On the next few pages, how many instances can you find of a carelessness about sex that would have shocked Zola’s staid middle-class audience? What is he trying to say about the effects of poverty on these people?

Maheu’s brutality here is not paralleled anywhere else in the novel. Usually he is a model father and husband. Keep an eye on him as a representative of the miners. In this particular area of France (the far northeastern corner, near Belgium), the miners have adopted the custom of calling women by the feminine article La and their husbands’ or fathers’ last names with a feminine ending. Thus the wife of Maheu is La Maheude, the wife of Pierron is La Pierronne, and the daughter of Old Mouque is La Mouquette. A similar effect in English would be to call Mr. Smith’s wife “The Smithess” or “Smithette.” This pattern would have seemed as strange to Parisian readers as it does to modern Americans. La Maheude is perhaps the most interesting character in the novel, and the one whose transformations most fully reflect its themes. Try to note the changes she goes through.

Chapter 3

“Richomme” means “rich man.” Dansaert, as chief foreman, is neither owner nor laborer. Chosen by the mine administration to oversee the other workers, he is identified by both sides as not being truly one of them. How is his exploitative role reflected in his private life as well?

On his tour of a typical coal mine, Zola had taken careful notes about the cage (the elevator in which workers and coal are raised and lowered) which he here incorporates in the novel. What elements of his description go beyond mere documentation to a kind of symbolism? Many readers would have regarded La Mouquette as a “slut.” How does Zola try to convey a more positive image of her?

What does it tell us about Catherine that Étienne can mistake her for a boy? What has caused her immaturity?

Note the mentions of the leaks in the shaft casing which allow subterranean water to leak into the mine. Zola sets up in this scene much of what you need to know to understand the action in the rest of the novel, but without embarking on a dry technical lecture. He is highly skilled at integrating description with action, a technique that many other authors were to imitate.

The Maheu team calls the passageway where it works “hell.” Hellish metaphors are going to occur frequently in the novel. Chaval is pronounced almost the same as cheval– “horse.” What about Chaval is horse-like?

Chapter 4

What is the dilemma that keeps the team from paying proper attention to “timbering” (shoring up the roof with large timbers)?

Pierrot is a traditional Commedia dell’Arte figure you have probably seen in the form of porcelain figurines: a sad-looking clown dressed in white ruffles and a tall peaked cap. In what ways does Zola continue to break with the Romantic stereotypes of depicting the first encounter of two people destined to be lovers in his portrait of this encounter of Étienne and Catherine?

Lydie exemplifies the premature sexuality which pervades the novel. What causes this phenomenon? What effect is it designed to have on the reader? How is sex made animalistic here?

Zola began this novel with the intention of showing how Étienne had inherited his parents’ alcoholism. Try to decide as you follow his story whether he is genuinely an alcoholic.

Firedamp (methane) is an invisible, odorless, but deadly gas which occurs frequently in coal mines. It can cause suffocation or, by being ignited by a random spark, explosions. It is still one of the chief hazards of coal mining.

Chapter 5

Paul Négrel represents the type of the rebellious offspring of the bourgeoisie who rebels against his upbringing, but who does not really identify with the workers. Note his transformation in the crisis which comes later.

Explain Maheu’s analysis of what the change in payment means.

In classic love stories the lovers must overcome external obstacles, often in the form of a tyrannical father who opposes the match. What keeps Catherine and Étienne apart?

How does the protest against the Company begin? What role does Étienne play in it?

Rasseneur is a former activist, leader of an earlier strike, now living off what his wife’s tavern makes in defiance of the Company. Watch how his relationship with Étienne develops. Note that it is taken for granted among the workers that women work both as laborers and as business owners. The 19th-century stereotype of the housewife was reserved for the bourgeoisie.

Pluchart is an organizer for the Communist International Workingmen’s Association, an organization to which Karl Marx and Friederich Engels originally belonged. It tried to organize laborers from many countries into a single movement to overthrow capitalism and establish socialism.

Why does Étienne decide to continue working at Le Voreux?


Part Two

Chapter 1

Compare this chapter with Chapter 2 of Part One. In what ways are the settings, characters, and events deliberately contrasted to stress the differences between the workers and the owners? Have the Grégoires become rich through hard labor, or any other virtue? How does their story illustrate Marx’s dictum that those who work acquire nothing, and those who acquire anything, do not work?

Chapter 2

How do the pressures of poverty interfere with education?

Maigrat suggests maigre, “meager,” which alludes to the storekeeper’s stingy, greedy nature. He runs the company store, which is the only store that will advance credit to the miners when they have no ready cash. Perpetually in debt, they can only shop at this store where they are overcharged and abused in a pattern which in agricultural settings is known as debt peonage. They are never able to accumulate enough money to escape from the Company’s demands; and since they live in company-controlled housing, they have no basis for independence whatsoever. Company stores and towns were not built out of a charitable concern for workers: they were a means of shackling them firmly to the company in a state of semi-slavery. Zola here explores a theme much discussed currently: sexual exploitation by men in authority of women in their power.

The Grégoires have conventional ideas about charity. What do we know about the Maheus that makes their ideas unfair?

Why do the poor have more children than the rich?

Note La Maheude’s humble philosophy of life, and how it will change.

Chapter 3

What evidence is there that the workers lack a sense of solidarity with each other?

Why do mothers object to their sons getting married early?

How does Mme Hennebeau try to deny the suffering in front of her?

Chapter 4

Why would it make economic sense to reserve scarce meat for the father of the family?

Jeanlin’s tyranny over Bébert and Lydie is going to parallel that of the owners over the workers. Watch how he becomes transformed into a monster incarnating all the evils of their lot.

102-103: Why do you think sex is so insistently linked with reproduction in this novel? How is it linked to nature, to germination?


Part Three

Chapter 1

111-112: Why does Catherine allow herself to be dominated by Chaval when she really loves Étienne? How is the image of germination used here?

113-115: Souvarine (Russian Suvarin) is modeled on the violent anarchist leader Mikhail Bakunin (1814-1876), who escaped from exile in Siberia to London. His split with Karl Marx caused the first International Workingmen’s Association eventually to collapse. He advocated terrorist acts of assassination and destruction to disrupt governments and inspire people to rise up against them and create a peaceful egalitarian utopia. Marx rejected secret conspiratorial activities on the grounds that only an open movement could provide the necessary basis for a true socialist revolution. Czar Alexander II was in fact assassinated by a terrorist plot in 1881, just four years before the publication of Germinal. The violent anarchists of Russia called nihilists were the leading image in most people’s mind of radical activists. They were said to act out of an irrational desire for destruction, and their ideals were normally ignored. Zola demonstrates remarkable insight in portraying Souvarine as a sensitive man traumatized by love, who has turned to violence out of compassion. This pattern in fact fits many of history’s most violent nihilists. What signs can you find here and later that Souvarine is in fact a loving, kindly man? It should be noted that although all anarchists were lumped together in the public mind, many of them rejected nihilism, and were in fact pacifists. Much of Poland was dominated by Russia in the nineteenth century. Why do you think the Russian Souvarine calls his pet rabbit “Poland?”

How do the workers view the famous French Revolution of 1789? Why do they feel the need for another revolution? The so-called “iron law of wages” of the English economist Ricardo was adopted by Marx in his own philosophy. It argues that in a capitalist society wages tend always to be depressed to the lowest minimum capable of allowing the workers to reproduce. How is this mechanism used to portray the workers as being treated as a commodity rather than as living people? Étienne is interested the ideas of Ferdinand Lasalle (German, 1825-1864), who believed in achieving socialism by popular elections which would force governments to set up self-governing , worker-owned cooperatives. His ideas lie at the opposite end of the radical political spectrum from those of Souvarine. Note how Zola is careful to distinguish among the many shades of radical opinion, usually lumped together in the popular mind.

The method of having teams of workers bid for mining contracts had in fact been outlawed shortly before this novel is set; but Zola includes it to illustrate how wages are set in a competitive environment in which there is a surplus of labor. What effect does this bidding process have on wages? How does it illustrate Ricardo’s “iron law of wages?”

Chapter 2

The nailmaker’s fair is a classic example of “slice of life realism,” a detailed description based on his observations and notes. Zola was an extremely efficient writer: he used in his novels almost every note he made, which led sometimes to more detail than is strictly relevant to the action being depicted. But in a time without film or television, readers were entranced by detailed depictions of unfamiliar places and customs. Note how in the dance scene he manages to describe the movements of the group as a whole, a technique he specialized in.

How is Étienne being changed by his studies?

How is the image of germination being used here? Keep this passage in mind. It is echoed at the end of the novel. The image of a crop of men growing out of the land comes from the Greco-Roman myth of the dragon’s teeth. Cadmus slew a dragon and planted its teeth, which sprouted into armed men. Zola was not the only writer to use this myth for political purposes. Upton Sinclair, an American radical writer, called his third novel Dragon’s Teeth (1942). Both ignored the part of the myth in which the newly-born men slew each other and had to be replaced by a new generation. Zola may be also drawing on the story of Deucalion and his wife, who plant bones which become a new race of men and women. Despite his radical literary theories, Zola was very fond of using classical mythology in his works.

What does the socialist slogan, “To each according to his worth, and his worth according to his work” mean? What changes would its implementation cause in the society of Montsou? How does La Maheude react to Étienne’s radical talk?

Chapter 4

In 1866 the French coal industry was struck by a crisis. America had stopped importing massive quantities of steel to build its railroads, which had the effect of lessening the demand for coal to manufacture the steel (see p. 306). What great historical event had interrupted the export trade and was eventually to lead to America building its own steel industry and becoming one of the world’s great industrial powers? Why is this a bad time for the workers to go on strike?

How does the Company try to separate the workers from Étienne? This technique is very widely used by oppressive groups: identify leaders as “outside agitators,” and insist that “our people” are contented if not “stirred up.” Is this a fair analysis of the situation in Montsou? Might the workers have struck even without Étienne?

Chapter 5

Note Jeanlin’s prophetic comment early in the chapter.

The cave-in is the first in a series of disasters in which Zola methodically explores all safety hazards of coal mining. Why is it logical that he should begin with a cave-in, given the developments that have preceded this accident?

How is La Maheude’s grief over Jeanlin’s accident warped by her poverty?


Part Four

Chapter 1

Madame Hennebeau’s affair is meant to provide the mine company manager with suffering to balance that of the miners. Is Zola successful it making you feel that his sufferings equal theirs? This motif is developed further in a passage below that Zola cited to someone who criticized his novel as being too sympathetic with the miners.

Marx argued that capitalists tend, during periods of economic growth, to over-expand, leading to the creation of excess capacity which is reduced only in times of economic recession. How does Hennebeau’s explanation of the current crisis reflect this theory?

Why is it ironic that Hennebeau thinks Rasseneur is responsible for pushing the miners toward a strike?

Paul Négrel is obviously familiar with the popular socialist slogan, “Property is theft,” which meant that under capitalism wealth was created only by owners expropriating the profits generated by underpaid workers. Socialism was driven not merely by a desire for equality, but by the conviction that the current system of economic exploitation was a form of legal robbery. What three conventional arguments does Grégoire give to defend himself as a capitalist? What weaknesses can you find in his arguments?

Why is Hennebeau not necessarily opposed to a strike? What advantages for him might a strike have over massive lay-offs?

Chapter 2

How well does Maheu serve as a spokesman for the miners?

What is the significance of the unknown god referred to at the bottom of the page?

Chapter 3

How has La Maheude changed?

What keeps Catherine from leaving Chaval?

Chapter 4

How have Étienne’s political ideas changed?

How do Souvarine’s ideas differ from Étienne’s? Note the reference to Bakunin (Pt three, Chapter 1).

What do we learn here about Souvarine that explains his powerful aversion to getting involved with women?

What effect does the attempt of the gendarmes to break up the meeting have on the miners?

Chapter 5

How is La Maheude continuing to develop?

Chapter 6

The wildness of Jeanlin and the other children prepares us for the animalistic behavior of their elders later.

Chapter 7

Note how the rally is punctuated by an ominous silence.

Zola does a fair job of summarizing typical 19th-century socialist ideals here. What are their main features? Note in the rest of the chapter how he depicts the collective emotions of the miners.

How does Étienne make use of Bonnemort?

Note the recurrence of the dragon’s teeth motif. How is it further developed here? What other motif is it connected to?

What effect does Zola create by balancing the shouts of the crowd against the silence of nature?


Part Five

Chapter 1

Le Tartaret refers to the Greek hell, Tartarus. What is Zola’s intended symbolism in creating an inferno underground which creates a paradise on the surface? What idea is he trying to convey?

Chapter 2

How does Catherine’s nakedness reinforce the symbolism?

What does Catherine’s fatalism tell us about the lives of most of the mining women?

Before the days of steam-powered lifts, ladders were used to descend into the mines and haul the coal out. Now they serve as emergency exits. Catherine has almost been asphyxiated when this crisis begins. Follow her through the rest of the following episode and see how Zola subjects her to almost unbearable suffering, though in the end she survives remarkably well. Try to list all the things that happen to her.

Chapter 3

Étienne begins drinking. Try to follow the course of his drunkenness. Does Zola convince you that it is the alcohol that causes his actions?

Note that although three thousand had sworn to strike last night, only a tenth as many have shown up for this protest. Watch as the numbers grow throughout the day.

Jeanlin with his horn is meant to suggest the Greek god Pan, who could inspire panic (named after him) by blowing on his pipes. Pan had goat’s legs, suggested here by Jeanlin’s crippled limbs.

How does Zola make the mine seem more human than ever here? Why is it ironic that it is Deneulin’s mine which is the first to be damaged?

Chapter 4

The immediate cause of the French Revolution was a shortage of bread. Both the miners and the owners are keenly aware of this as the former shout “Bread! Bread! We want bread!” They are symbolically calling not only for food, but for revolution. Is Étienne leading this riot? Is his drunkenness causing him to urge them on to excesses?

Old Quandieu (“when God”) faces down the crowd according to the standard 19th-century view of crowd behavior which argued that one bold individual could turn away a riotous mob.

What techniques does Zola use here and elsewhere to depict the mob as a group?

Are you convinced that Étienne’s actions are satisfactorily explained by his alcoholism?

Chapter 5

Why does Zola time Hennebeau’s discovery of his wife’s ether flacon to coincide with the arrival of the workers?

Zola prided himself on his visual sense. He was an important art critic, especially as a friend and defender of the Impressionists. He often spoke of his writing as a kind of painting. If he had lived in our time he would probably have become a film director. Try to visualize the scene that follows, as the women hiding with Paul Négrel peer out the barely-opened stable door and see the mob thundering past. The point of view is clearly established. How does Zola build this scene to a climax? The singing of the Marseillaise, the revolutionary anthem that was written for the 1789 revolution, was strictly forbidden. The miners are committing a revolutionary act by singing it. Which is the last and most violent group to pass? La Mouquette’s ultimate gesture of contempt may be Zola’s one slip in trying to build this awesome scene to a grand climax. Does he convince you that there is nothing comic about it?

Chapter 6

Although it is rather crudely done, Zola’s contrast between the point of view of the miners, which we know so well, and that of the owners is powerful. How do you react to it?

Vol-au-vent (“fly in the wind”) pastry shells are classic lighter-than-air containers for creamy fillings of various sorts, and are highly fragile.

Note how even Hennebeau, more sophisticated than most of the bourgeois, is so poorly informed about the political currents among the miners as to suppose that Rasseneur is some sort of revolutionary leader. See page 300 for Rasseneur’s real attitude.

This incident, in which the mining women and Bonnemort almost kill Cécile, is one of their more repulsive deeds. Why do you think Zola included it? To what extent it is symbolic of the entire class struggle depicted in the novel?

How does Zola contrive to make Maigrat at least partially responsible for his own death?

How does Zola use the scene of Maigrat’s mutilation to underline the theme–which runs throughout the novel–of the contrast in sexual experiences and attitudes between the bourgeoisie and the workers?


Part Six

Chapter 1

During the riot, most of the miners’ rage was directed against inappropriate targets in a way that did not further their cause. How is the owners’ revenge similarly inept? How is the Abbé Ranvier different from his predecessor, and what are his motivations?

What does Zola present as Étienne’s main contradictions and failings?

Chapter 2

Zola shows the miners as conducting a fairly successful campaign to continue the strike, and yet as lacking much of a sense of community. Do you find it persuasive?

How has the strike changed La Maheude?

Chapter 3

Note the ominous news of the collapse of the International. Try to note how many other disasters follow during the rest of the book.

What do you think of Souvarine’s critique of Étienne and the others?

Zola here avoids the traditional successful union of the lovers (or postpones it). How realistic do you think this scene is? What does it tell you about the two characters?

What is the significance of Jeanlin’s murder of the little soldier? What points do you think Zola is trying to make in this scene?

Chapter 5

This scene depicts a kind of confrontation repeated many times during labor and political struggles in modern times: angry protesters armed only with stones and bricks facing armed militia. Such confrontations have often had momentous consequences. How does this scene illustrate Étienne’s musings in the last chapter about the way poor people are manipulated into opposing each other? How do the deaths of the miners affect you? Does having lived with these characters through 350 pages make you regret their deaths more?


Part Seven

Chapter 1

The opposition newspapers would be those owned by parties opposed to the current government, and therefore seeking to make use of the shootings to discredit the leadership.

How has the strike affected Deneulin?

Probably no other 19th-century writer would have dared to use a girl’s first menstruation in this way. What is Zola trying to symbolize here?

How does the relationship between Étienne and Rasseneur change?

How does the transfer of the abbé Ranvier fit in one the other events in this chapter?

Chapter 2

Are Pluchart and Étienne completely discredited as leaders now? Why does Souvarine object to Étienne’s interpretation of Darwin?

How convincing do you find Souvarine’s explanation of his total opposition to love among revolutionaries? Can you understand his motivations in acting as he does in the rest of the chapter?

Why do you think love inhibits Étienne and Catherine?

Chapter 3

How does Zola’s description of the Torrent here go beyond the strict limits of realism?

The spectacular collapse described in these pages may seem far-fetched, but in fact it follows quite closely newspaper accounts of a similar event (an accident) which had happened at a coal mine in France the year before the novel was published. Does knowing that fact make you regard it as any more realistic? Should it? How does transform Souvarine into a symbol at the end of the chapter?

Chapter 4

Why is the Company anxious to hush up the fact that the disaster was caused by sabotage?

Which of the many forms of possible disaster in coal mining is depicted here?

What do you think of Zola’s attempt here to create an encounter which will encapsulate the conflict between workers and owners? Is it credible? Is it effective?

Chapter 5

Bataille means “battle.” Why is it an appropriate name here?

Does Zola convince you that this episode is caused by alcoholism?

Sensational stories of subterranean starvation or suffocation were very popular in the 19th century. What are the main effects of this one? How does Zola try to de-romanticize the experience? Does he also romanticize it? How? How does tragedy overcome old enmity here?

Chapter 6

This final chapter is a prose poem drawing heavily on the mythical themes that Zola had used earlier. Remember that Étienne is going off to join a revolution in Paris that in fact proved temporarily successful, if ultimately disastrous. Although the miners have seemingly been defeated on every front and the Maheu family has been reduced to a fragment, Zola has taken pains to plant signs of hope for the future throughout this chapter. How many of them can you find? Remember that hope for the miners may mean a successful uprising. What is the final stage in La Maheude’s development? How does Zola use nature imagery to reinforce his revolutionary theme? Note that the novel ends, as it began, in the month of Germinal (early April).

What do you think Zola was trying to accomplish in writing this novel? Revolutionary agitation? Conservative warning against revolution? Something else? What is your reaction to the events in this novel? With whom do you ultimately sympathize? How do you feel about the political views of the various characters?

More Study Guides for 18th and 19th Century European Classics

Notes by Paul Brians, Department of English, Washington State University, Pullman 99164-5020.

First mounted June 15, 1995.

Last revised March 22, 2005.