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.