Sunday, August 22, 2010


I heard that Germinal was the most famous among Émile Zola's works, so I wanted to read this. I have just finished it. It tells about the coal miners in the town of Montsou. Our hero, Étienne, is the son of Gervais - from L'Assommoir novel. The book starts with the arrival of Étienne in Montsou (and ends with his leaving). Penniless and hungry, he finds a work in a pit called le Voreux and stays in the house of his colleague, Maheu, and falls in love with Maheu's daughter Catherine. The miners work very hard, yet they are underpaid. Their wives have to make debts to buy bread - sometimes they have to sell their flesh or their daughter's to the grocer. Étienne gathers the workers to hold a strike, trying to force the Company to raise the wage. However, the Company will not surrender and the strike prolongs until 2 months - and all that time, the workers, whose wages are usually only enough to keep them living, don't work at all and earn nothing. They are forced to sell everything and in hunger there are nothing to do but waiting for death.

The story becomes very gripping when the miners, determine to keep not working until the Company meets their demand, have heard that they have been betrayed: that some of them will be working. They go together to ruin the pits so that nobody can work. In this chaos, after trying to attack the manager's house, the women have a cruel revenge to the grocer. I was shocked as the violent scene came from a 19th century literature.

Next, comes the news that the Company hire workers from Belgium. The village workers march again, and this time they have to face armed soldiers. Maheu dies this time by a bullet. However, the Company return the Belgians. Does it mean the village workers win? No, for after 2 1/2 months not working, they have to give up to hunger. It seems a waste of time, after all the tears, they have to give up. They return to work, but as Étienne has sabotaged the pit, it is soon flooded with around 20 men trapped underground. Masters and workers work together to save whoever can be saved.

The love story between Étienne and Catherine also doesn't end well. She chooses Chaval over Étienne and stands for Chaval when the villagers are angry upon him, as he has betrayed them. Chaval knows that Catherine likes his rival more and after Étienne defeated him in a fight, he gives her to Étienne. But Étienne has no work and money and cannot feed her and the whole town are against him after the useless strike, so she returns to Chaval, only to be kicked out again. It's one of gloomiest moment in the book, knowing that Étienne has won the girl but has to give her up as he has nothing for her. Later, trapped in the flooded pit, both rivals face each other again, with the poor girl between them. Help comes too late, and after the death of Chaval, Étienne embraces Catherine until she dies.

No comments: