Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Germinal (Émile Zola)

I asked a French friend about Germinal, by Emile Zola, and he said that since this book is on the French syllabus, it is often thought about with a groan. That’s a shame, because I loved all the books I read in school. For some people, I can imagine that remembering a novel they were forced to read, takes them back to those dusty, classrooms full of youthful boredom. For me, reading always had the opposite effect; novels I read in school let my imagination soar and transported me to distant worlds far away from the a lecturing, hectoring Mrs Gibbs. I thought Germinal was amazing. This book not only paints a vivid, and necessary, picture of poverty, but also provides some interesting challenges to the economic system we live in.

Germinal tells the story of a miner’s strike in 18th century France. Etienne is a poor but bright drifting worker. Impoverished and hungry, he comes across a mining village and falls into a job hewing coal. It’s backbreaking work. The villagers slog underground all day in the dark and the damp, but are barely paid enough to survive. Etienne becomes deeply radicalized by the suffering he sees around him; the capitalist system that allows this to continue must be immoral and corrupt.  At the same time, the coalmine bosses are trying to reduce the workers’ pay yet further. The villagers are scared that they simply will not be able to live under these harsh new terms. Etienne, with his staunch political views, is well placed to lead the coalminers into a standoff - a strike. This strike becomes bloody and brutal as the workers starve, and the company’s profits dry up. Anger bubbles and festers, and the standoff becomes a war. This is no longer about simply trying to win a bread-line wage. They want to send the whole system to hell. And at the root of it all is a crazy dream – that all men are equal under the sun.

My thoughts

This book is the perfect antidote to Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand.  In Atlas Shrugged, unfettered capitalism leads to advancement and beatification of the human race. In Germinal it leads to effective slavery, conflict and suffering. I don’t think Ayn Rand’s was blind to the ‘Germinal’ critique, she just didn’t care. I think she would say that if a man let himself live a miserable existence  - in a coalmine or anywhere else - then he was a fool.  But the two books are perfect to read together. At times, they almost seem to be in dialogue with each other putting forward arguments and counter-arguments. For example, Atlas Shrugged posits that since it is the capitalist that takes the risk that creates wealth, they deserve the rewards. But Germinal neatly undercuts this by comparing these wealthy bourgeois throwing around a little of their money, whilst the workers stake their lives on the company.


Germinal isn’t exactly an advocate for socialism. In fact, the socialist beliefs and believers are exposed throughout as somewhat naïve and all too human.  However, it certainly is a shrill voice highlighting rottenness at the core of the capitalist system. 

And I think it’s very effective. The descriptions of poverty in the book are vivid and crushing.  It’s always worth remembering that we belong to an economic system that can treat people very cruelly. And also that it is in our nature to accept and live with it, rather than to challenge it. The kind of suffering that Germinal describes is still endemic in the world today, and I feel far too – dangerously too – complacent about it.  Reading this novel flared up something inside of me, and I found it quite deeply radicalizing.  Whatever the cause, and whatever the reason, and however impossible it is to stop – I think it must be a universal declaration that this kind of suffering is wrong.

It is true though, that for those in the West, Germinal’s central point has become less relevant. The story describes how workers might get trapped in horrible working conditions with a wage that is not enough to survive. Today, the legacy of the Union movement has ensured a certain standard of work safety, and we have a minimum wage, both of which largely prevents the kind of situation that Germinal describes. 

Perhaps then, Germinal can be seen today as a good argument against socialism. A problem – poor working conditions and lower wagers - had a good solution within the current system. Beyond this, Germinal describes the wider rumblings of socialism  - calls to destroy the bosses, uniting all the workers of the world, totalitarianism. But none of this is effectual in the book, and none of it has been effective in real life.

I’d like to make one final moderating point. It’s easy to write a story that focuses on a salient example of human suffering, but it is harder to focus on the things that are not as visible. I’d suggest some things to keep in mind whilst reading. 1) If these miners weren’t employed in a coalmine, they might have been in worse work or unemployed, or dead from starvation. 2) The coal they were producing was powering the industrial revolution. This means a) it was directly improving thousands of peoples lives, powering hospitals, schools and saving lives b) it was a temporary phase the West needed to go through to develop. Billions of people are better off now – and that couldn’t have happened if men didn’t go down coalmines. 3) Worker’s conditions did improve, and worker’s did take a greater share of the profits 4) For most of history nasty jobs were normal, and it is only the capitalist system that has ever liberated people from it.

One more thing

Germinal is a really exciting book that will pull you into a dark and unfamiliar world.  Some of the scenes underground, trapped in bowels of this living mine are scarier and more claustrophic than any horror film I’ve seen.  But more than that, Germinal is a question, a challenge, and a call to arms to stand-up for the disenfranchised of the world.


  1. Looking forward to reading Zola some day soon, very tempted and this review just makes me even more so.

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