Germinal – Émile Zola

Considered by André Gide to be one of the ten greatest novels in the French language, Germinal is the story of a miners’ strike. Set in northern France during the 1860s, the work takes its title from the name of a month in the Republican calendar. This calendar, introduced by decree on 5 October 1793 and backdated to 22 September 1792 (which thus became the first day of the First Republic), was a logical consequence of the ban on the Christian religion in France following the Revolution of 1789. Replacing the Gregorian calendar, it took the autumnal equinox as its starting point and was designed to segment time in a non-Christian manner. Each of the year’s twelve months was divided into three ten-day periods known as décades , while the five (or, in leap years, six) remaining days became national holidays. The months themselves were renamed to evoke the principal organic or meteorological characteristic of the moment: Vendémiaire, Brumaire and Frimaire for the autumn months of vintage, mist and frost; Nivôse, Pluviôse, Ventôse for the winter months of snow, rain and storm; Germinal, Floréal, Prairial for the spring months of seed, flowers and meadows; and Messidor, Thermidor and Fructidor for the summer months of harvest, heat and fruit. Derived from Latin, these names –like those of the renamed days ( primidi , duodi , tridi , etc.) – were intended to evoke the Roman Republic, which revolutionary France proudly if briefly took as its model. However, following Napoleon Bonaparte’s coup d’état in 1799 and his Concordat with the Roman Catholic Church in 1801, the calendar was eventually abandoned as from 1 January 1806.

Germinal was thus the seventh month – from 21 March to 19 April during the first seven years of the calendar, but from 22 March to 20 April during the subsequent six – and its name suggests germination and renewal. Not only was the calendar itself the product of the Revolution, but the date of 12–13 Germinal in the Year Three (1–2 April 1795) is also of particular significance because of a famous uprising mounted by the Parisian populace who were facing starvation. As a title, therefore, Germinal neatly focuses on the novel’s two central subjects: political struggle and the processes of nature. Indeed at the centre of the title is the mine itself (in French the word is pronounced like ‘mean’), Zola’s chosen emblem of the oppressive working conditions in which ill-paid labour makes a fortune for capital. Since the novel opens in March and ends in the April of the following year, its chronology combines one annual cycle with a symbolic passage through the month of ‘germination’. Thus, more obliquely still, the title also encapsulates a profound ambiguity at the heart of Zola’s narrative and perhaps at the heart of all human striving. Can there be progress – social, political, intellectual, moral progress – or is every new beginning but the repetition of an eternal cycle of growth and decay? If a revolution is one turn of the wheel, does it take us forward or bring us full circle? Are we getting somewhere or going nowhere?


Germinal was originally published in serialized form in the newspaper Le Gil Blas . The first of the eighty-nine instalments appeared on 26 November 1884, the last on 25 February 1885. The completed novel was then published in book form on 2 March, and over the first five years this original French version sold some 83,000 copies. It was the thirteenth of the twenty novels comprising Zola’s great family saga entitled Les Rougon-Macquart (1871–93): its central character, Étienne Lantier, is the son of Gervaise, a laundry-woman, in L’Assommoir ( The Drinking Den : 1877) and brother to the eponymous heroine of Nana (1880), to the artist Claude Lantier in L’Œuvre ( The Masterpiece : 1886) and to the psychopathic engine-driver Jacques Lantier in La Bête humaine (1890). Les Rougon-Macquart was intended, as its subtitle states, to present ‘The Natural and Social History of a Family under the Second Empire’, and Émile Zola (1840–1902) was only in his late twenties when he submitted a book proposal to the publisher Lacroix in 1869 outlining the project. Between the ages of twenty-one and twenty-five he had been working for the major Parisian publishing house Hachette, at first in the dispatch department and then in marketing, where he quickly rose to become head of publicity. There he learned the ‘business’ of being a professional writer: how to write, what to write, how to sell what you write. Notoriety helps, and the racy bedroom scenes of his first novel La Confession de Claude (1865) soon made his name widely known. The sex and violence of Thérèse Raquin (1867) caused an even greater stir, and in the following year controversy was further fuelled by his uncompromising Preface to its second edition. Rejecting all charges of sensationalism and pornography he roundly defended the ‘scientific’ purpose of the book: namely, a physiological rather than psychological analysis of the ‘love’ that brings two people of differing ‘temperaments’ together and an attempt to present the ‘remorse’ which follows their murder of an inconvenient husband as an entirely physical, ‘natural’ process. By the time, therefore, that Zola submitted his book proposal to Lacroix he was a distinctly marketable commodity, and the project itself did not disappoint: a series of ten novels which would trace the effects of heredity and environment on the successive generations of one family while presenting an exposé of French society under the rule of the Emperor Napoleon III. Something like Balzac’s Comédie humaine therefore (which reflects the earlier decades of the century), but more ‘scientific’ – especially in its study of the effects of heredity – and also less coloured by the subjective opinions of its author. After an opening novel which traced the origins of the family and its division into a respectable and wealthy branch (the Rougons) and an illegitimate and genetically flawed branch (the Macquarts, from whom Gervaise Lantier and her children are descended), the remaining nine novels would focus in turn on the separate worlds of fashionable upper-class youth, banking and financial chicanery, government and the civil service, the Church, the army, the working class, the demi-monde , bohemia and the legal profession. A lucrative contract was secured. Fortuitously the Second Empire ended – with the Franco-Prussian War and the disastrous defeat at Sedan on 1 September 1870 – just as Zola was writing the first of these ten novels, so that his new saga at once became the record of a fallen dynasty and a vanished world. At the same time his enthusiasm for the project grew, with the result that within a year or so he was already conceiving of a further seven novels for the series. Perhaps because of his experience of the Commune when republican elements took control of the city of Paris between March and May 1871, he now intended that one of these extra novels should focus on the domain of left-wing politics. In his earlier plan he had envisaged that his novel on the working class – which became L’Assommoir – would depict the appalling conditions in which the new urban proletariat was forced to live and work and how the demands and pressures of such an existence rendered it a prey to the alcohol which was so cheaply available and so injurious to health, resolve and marital harmony. Now he wanted to write another novel about working-class life, which would chart the contemporary manifestations of the revolutionary currents that – in France at least – had sprung to view in 1789, 1830, 1848 and 1871. Germinal would be that novel, the people’s novel.


When L’Assommoir was published in 1877 (as the seventh novel in the series), it earned Zola large royalties and vociferous reviews. Those on the political Right charged him once again with being tasteless and immoral, while – more importantly for someone of his own moderate left-of-centre views – those on the Left condemned him for depicting the working class in such a negative light. Where Zola had thought he was indicting the system by showing how low human beings can be brought by background and circumstance – and often, as in Gervaise’s case, despite their very best efforts – his socialist detractors saw a degrading portrait which would only reinforce bourgeois prejudice. They were unwilling to acknowledge that in so powerfully eliciting the reader’s sympathy for Gervaise as the honourable victim of insuperable and malign forces Zola might have been hoping to make that reader a partisan of social and political reform. By way of defending the honourableness of his intentions Zola let it be known that he was planning another novel about the working class, and one which would focus on its political aspirations and on the economic and social conditions in which its members lived. But which area of work should he choose?

While on holiday at Bénodet in Brittany in 1883, Zola met Alfred Giard (1846–1908), the left-wing député for Valenciennes and a biologist with a particular research interest in the reproductive organs. Since his constituency in northern France was one of the centres of the French coal-mining industry, Giard no doubt saw a golden opportunity to secure the services of a brilliant publicist for the miners’ cause; while Zola, no doubt keen to re-establish his radicalist credentials, could also see the artistic and polemical merits of taking a miners’ strike as his subject. Accordingly, and characteristically, he began to document himself thoroughly, reading book after book about the mining industry, about the topography and geology of the area around Valenciennes and about radical politics: about the history of socialism and about the International Working Men’s Association founded in 1864, better known as the First International.

He familiarized himself with the full range of radical political theory: the libertarian socialism of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809–65), who had famously declared in 1840 that property is theft (if it means the ability of one man to exploit the labour of another but not if it means the individual’s right to possess his own ‘means of production’, be it land or a workshop full of tools); the ‘Communism’ or ‘centralized socialism’ of Karl Marx (1818–83), who had published his Manifesto of the Communist Party in 1848 and whose Das Kapital (1867) had begun to appear in French translation in 1875; the ideas of Auguste Blanqui (1805–81), the revolutionary socialist and insurrectionary who had been prominently involved in the revolutions of 1830 and 1848 and was elected President of the Commune (1870–71) while in prison, where indeed he spent long periods; and finally the anarchism, or ‘nihilism’, of the Russian revolutionary Mikhail Bakunin (1814–76), author of Statehood and Anarchy (1873). More particularly, Zola read how Marx had been elected one of the thirty-two members of the First International’s provisional General Council and then assumed its leadership; how the representatives of the national federations would meet at a congress every year in a different city; and how at The Hague in 1872 the clash between supporters of Marx’s socialism and Bakunin’s anarchism led to an irrevocable split in the movement. In order to prevent the Bakunists from gaining control of the Association, the General Council, at Marx’s behest, moved its headquarters to New York before finally disbanding at a conference in Philadelphia in 1876. The Bakunists nevertheless took over the de facto leadership of the International and held their own congresses from 1873 to 1877. At the Socialist World Congress in Ghent in 1877 the Social Democrats broke away because their motion to restore the unity of the First International was rejected by the anarchist majority. But the International now began to wither, and after the Anarchist Congress in London in 1881, it ceased to represent an organized movement. Only later, four years after the publication of Germinal in 1885, was the Second International, the so-called Socialist International, founded at a congress in Paris.

This Second International supported parliamentary democracy and finally, at its congress in London in 1896, expelled the anarchists (who opposed it) from its ranks, reaffirming the Marxist doctrine of the class struggle and the unstoppable advent of proletarian rule. Germinal was thus set at a time when the International was in its infancy and yet published after its (temporary) demise, and it must therefore have left its first readers with an overwhelming sense of both the ephemerality and the inevitable recurrence (1789, 1830, 1848, 1870–1…) of revolutionary fervour. But by way of preparing to write Germinal Zola did not just read books. At first posing as Giard’s secretary (but then, when his cover was blown, being shown round by Giard’s brother Jules), he visited the small mining town of Anzin, near Valenciennes, on 23 February 1884. A strike had begun there four days earlier, and he remained for approximately a week, taking copious notes on what he saw and heard – a document which remains a powerful and accurate account of the realities of colliery life at that time. Zola was aware that there had been a major strike at Anzin in 1866 (as well as several since), and because Les Rougon-Macquart was set during the Second Empire, he chose this as the focus for his imaginative reconstruction of the past. Hence the chronology of Germinal , which begins in March 1866 – a date which is not given in the novel itself but which can be inferred from the reference in the opening chapter to the Emperor waging war in Mexico. But Zola drew on other strikes for his novel, notably on the strike at La Ricamarie in the mining area of Saint-Étienne, where on 16 June 1869 troops fired on the striking workers. Thirteen miners were killed, including two women, and sixty were given a prison sentence. Similarly at Aubin, in the Aveyron, fourteen striking miners were shot dead on 7 October 1869, and twenty were wounded. Working conditions in the mines had changed little in the intervening years, and so Zola could use what he saw at Anzin in 1884 for the fictional recreation of events in 1866–7. But the political situation had evolved considerably. A law passed on 19 May 1874 had made it illegal to employ women to work underground or children under twelve to work anywhere in a mine; and on 21 March 1884 a bill sponsored by René Waldeck-Rousseau (1846–1904) was passed, legalizing trade unions. The next day saw the beginning of what would have been the revolutionary month of Germinal. Twelve days later, on his very own ‘12 Germinal’ – and indeed on the day of his forty-fourth birthday – Zola began to write the first chapter of his novel. As he wrote in a letter to Georges Montorgueil on 8 March 1885,

Perhaps this time they’ll stop seeing me as someone who insults the people. Is not the true socialist he who describes their poverty and wretchedness and the ways in which they are remorselessly dragged down, who shows the prison-house of hunger in all its horror? Those who extol the blessedness of the people are mere elegists who should be consigned to history along with the humanitarian claptrap of 1848. If the people are so perfect and divine, why try and improve their lot? No, the people are downtrodden, in ignorance and the mire, and it is from that ignorance and that mire that we should endeavour to raise them .

In illustrating ‘the struggle between capital and labour’, Zola is careful above all to nuance his effects and to avoid a crass polarization of goodies and baddies. On the side of ‘labour’, Maheu and his wife may be the models of decency and good sense, but their neighbours the Levaques are their feckless, hot-headed opposites. Chaval is a wife-beater (like Levaque), even if his ‘wife’ is only a girl in her mid teens who has not yet reached puberty. He is without principle, a violent, jealous man, a trimmer ready to call the comrades out to impress his girl and no less ready to send them back to work again at the first hint of promotion. The Pierrons are collaborators, selfish enough to lock their daughter in the cellar and send her grandmother on a fool’s errand while they stuff themselves on rabbit and drink wine before a roaring fire. On the side of ‘capital’, the Grégoires are doting parents and benevolent employers. It is, of course, easy to be both these things when you have the money, but Deneulin manages it in straitened circumstances, and his daughters are no less resourceful in their penny-pinching than the beleaguered La Maheude. Mme Hennebeau is the model of the blithe bourgeoise, oblivious to the reality of the miners’ suffering, but her husband is intended to evoke sympathy as the victim of a sexless and unhappy marriage; and the current cause of his cuckoldry, his young nephew Paul Négrel, is not without his merits as an engineer and a leader of men, professionally and genuinely concerned for the miners’ safety and a devoted and courageous participant in their rescue. Maigrat, the shopkeeper – whose name in French suggests the presence of a rat in the midst of fasting and lean times – is the fat and unacceptable face of capitalism, at once a usurer charging exorbitant rates of interest and a man for whom a woman’s body is but part of a universal barter system regulated by the exigencies of supply and demand. But his silent, suffering wife, chained to her ledgers from morning till night, may become the focus of the reader’s compassion and illicit glee as she looks down from a window at the terrible mutilation of her dead husband’s very own means of (re)production.

%d bloggers like this: