Monday, 20 February 2012


'He squatted down inside one of the tubs with his workmates, it plunged down again, then, barely four minutes later, it surged back up again, ready to swallow down another load of men. For half an hour the pit gulped down these meals, in more or less greedy mouthfuls, depending on the depth of the level they were bound for, but without ever stopping, always hungry, its giant bowels capable of digesting a nation. It filled and filled again, and the dark depths remained silent as the cage rose up from the void, silently opening its gaping jaws.'

Germinal is set in a mining village in northern France in the 1860s.   When the 'Company' cuts the wages of the already impoverished miners, a strike is called, fuelled by the idealism of the young outsider Etienne.  As the days turn into weeks and then months, the miners are driven to desperate measures and a series of appalling events is set in motion.

Germinal is the thirteenth in Zola's twenty volume series depicting the life of ordinary people during the second French empire.   It pulls no punches in its description of conditions down the pit, or of the poverty and promiscuity of the mining community. His writing was driven by his belief in naturalism and the desire to portray, in a scientific fashion, the effects of heredity and environment on individuals and their community.  His description of the miners' life is detailed and convincing, but his powerful prose goes beyond observation into the realms of myth.

From time to time, in the course of my literary studies, I come across a book that leaves a lasting impression.  Germinal has moved and disturbed me as much as anything I have ever read.


  1. That paragraph has moved and disturbed me, and I've not read the rest of the book. Powerful stuff.

  2. I've read several Zola novels now, and found them all to be reliably good (well, brutal, vivid and emotionally draining). I'm just starting Germinal, which is one of the big famous ones that I haven't read. All my students loved Zola, no matter how little they had related to the 19th century before, they were always fired up and passionate about his work. He was an amazing novelist, I think. Extraordinarily moving.

  3. Germinal seems to have divided students on our forum. Some have found it unbearably bleak, yet others have loved it. I'd be interested to know what you think of it.


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