Originally reviewed June 2015
First a little background: Emile Zola was a French novelist during the late nineteenth century and is credited with founding the naturalist school of fiction writing. His contemporaries, and indeed friends, included Flaubert, Balzac, and Stendhal. Zola attempted to apply the methods of natural science to fiction writing to make it more realistic. As a result, he was sometimes censured for his somewhat graphic depictions of sex and some of his plotlines contain characters who are less than savory. I would not recommend Zola to young students for these reasons as well as the mature themes and generally depressing tone that pervades some of his work.
Having gotten the disclaimer out of the way, a little about Germinal. There are passages in this book that rival Flaubert for beauty. When Zola describes the mine as an organic being that is chewing up the lives of the miners, it is not cheesy and the reader wants to reread it again—this one did anyway. The main character Etienne is on the road, having lost his job. He approaches the mining town of Monstsou, where he meets various members of the downtrodden proletariat and proceeds to become a Socialist, leading the miners on an ill-fated strike, in which there are no winners—only losers. The descriptions of the starving workers, especially children are not for the faint of heart, but the value here is the beauty of some of the writing and the realistic depiction of the working classes, warts and all. Zola has been called the Dickens of France, and having read this novel, I can see why. The suffering of the miners and the families is beyond understanding, but Zola makes us understand. There is also a possible discussion of Etienne’s socialist “conversion” and what it really means to him. He wants to help the workers, but Zola is honest about what Etienne is gaining—popular acclaim, respect, even money are his through his association with the socialists. At the end, when the miners are back down in the mine having gained nothing for their efforts, Etienne is on his way to become a part of the socialist machinery—his lot in life has actually improved.
Read this if you are looking for something to balance th4e beach-fare of the summer. It clocks in at just about 600 pages and it fairly heavy going, but worth it!