A.N. Wilson’s The Victorians, reviewed on this site, mentions four 19th century novels that deal with radical social conflict. I decided to read all of the them, one of which will be a rereading.
The first is Germinal, written in the 1880’s. We meet Etienne wandering down a country road in northern France. He is freezing and starving and homeless. When characters fear starvation in Germinal it’s not a metaphor. Working people in Zola’s novel are often depicted as being a couple of paychecks away from starvation. And in the mining industry that Zola describes, it’s common for workers already modest salaries to be lowered further by fines and intermittent layoffs.
Etienne had a relatively good job but was fired for striking his supervisor…so the motif of worker rebellion is introduced early. Germinal is about Etienne’s social education. And when that education is considered complete, the novel is over. We find him better educated than his peers but not by much. But that education is enough to make him less submissive.
One memorable observation in Germinal is that education makes people less likely to be cowed. Education confers self respect. (“Who does he think he is?” I heard that at work. Well, if you are educated, you think who the fuck you are, I guess.)
The mine workers in the novel are, in general, submissive to management. This is attributed, in part, to their lack of literacy.They are treated not much better, perhaps worse, than the horses that are lowered deep into the mines to perform haulage, never to see the surface again.
There’s an amazingly brutal scene of a mining horse attempting to escape a cave in. It runs down galleries it knows so well trying frantically to escape engulfing water. Finally, it is wedged into a narrow passage and breaks both its front legs. If you’re impressionable, like I am, you can hear its dying screams. It reminded me of the dying horse in Picasso’s Guernica, which I saw many times before it was moved from MoMA to Barcelona.
If Zola were alive today, I think he would be making documentaries. The part of the novel I liked best was its cinema verite sociology. We focus on the Maheu mining family. They live in company housing and receive free company fuel for their fireplace. But it’s just another way the mining company controls them. If they cause too much trouble, they’d be thrown out of the settlement.
Their diet seems to consist mostly of soup. The soup consists mostly of bread and potatoes, which seems to cover the bulk of their diet. They gather greens from the fields. The households prepare “bricks” for the miners to take to work. These consist of thick slices of bread with butter. Meat is rare. There’s one incident where Maheu’s wife obtains a low grade portion of meat for him. When he comes home, he’s served the meat and told that his family has already eaten their portion. But his wife is lying. There was only enough for him. As chief breadwinner, he was felt to need it the most.
There is no privacy for the working class in Zola’s novel. That’s a middle class privilege. Family members share beds and even men and women, brothers and sisters, grandparents and infants, sleep in the same room. In contrast, the mine manager and his wife have the luxury of separate bedrooms since their marriage is chilly. Actually, they’ve never slept together. And they cause outrage in the mining community when they send their maid in a carriage to do food shopping for their entertaining.
When Etienne is taken on as a boarder, bringing in a welcome rental income, he sleeps in the same room as Catherine, elder daughter of the house, who he is attracted to, and in the same room are her siblings. Catherine and Etienne can listen to each other breathing at night in their close separate beds. When it’s time for Catherine to bathe, she strips down in front of him. There is no shame. They can’t afford it.
Everyone in the family is expected to work, and if necessary, go on the road and beg, in order to meet their expenses. And if the family, through mischance, owes somebody money, then they can never get caught up because they have no surplus with which to pay an invoice.
As soon as children are old enough to work, they go into the mines, grandparents as well. In one incident, there is bitter resentment directed at Catherine, who has formed a relationship with an abusive miner. If the affair ends in a marriage, then Catherine will leave the household and the family will lose her income. Catherine also works in the mines and sometimes she strips even there as do the males, sometimes covered in nothing but coal dust. It can get so oppressively hot below that there is no alternative other than fainting.
Sex is candid in Germinal. This is not a Victorian novel, although the story is within the time period of one. Where a novelist like Henry James, a near contemporary, won’t mention that a couple have walked into a bedroom, in Germinal unmarried couples have sex in the fields. As you have seen from my description of the Maheu household, there is no privacy at home. Premarital sex and pregnancy often…usually…precede marriage in the open air. But Zola indicates that most relationships initiated this way end in marriage.
There’s a riot scene where a food merchant, who bargains for sex in return for credit, has his dick partially ripped off and paraded on a pike. I was amazed at Zola’s courage and daring as a writer. What his 19th century readership would think, I can’t imagine. I’d like to know who was reading him in the 1880’s.
I’d admired Zola for taking so many chances. Not everything he tries in Germinal works as literature…but it works as experimental literature…if you don’t consider that I am contradicting myself. Henry James can fail as a writer sometimes as well, especially in his early work. But when James fails, he fails decorously. When Zola fails he falls flat on his face.
The concluding third of the novel I found weaker and more ruminative, despite its hyperactivity. I didn’t buy the unrealistic coincidence of who was trapped in a mine collapse with whom. And it reminded me of a melodramatic rescue opera. This was an earlier genre where the plot revolves around rescuing someone in dire straits. It also reminded me of a silent film cliffhanger, which in relation to Zola, would be an avant-garde form.
But then I pulled back from my criticism when I realized that Germinal could also be seen as an early ecological novel. There is an obsession in Germinal with the greedy exploitation of nature…and with the idea that nature itself, as well as the equally exploited working class, would rise up and rebel against the tyranny of the middle class. In our time, the middle class is commonly viewed as embattled. But in Zola’s novel, they are the villains and are, at one point, literally strangled.
As for Etienne, his fitful but advancing education leaves him astonished with the injustice of society. In his youthful perspective, this unfairness can’t go on for more than a few more months, considering that he had just discovered it as if no one had before. Germinal is millenarian. Hope will come in the 20th century when surely all this injustice will be swept away in a new dawn for mankind. That’s odd, isn’t it? I don’t anyone felt new hope at the verge of the 21st century.
I found Etienne’s struggle to educate himself interesting. It’s immensely difficult for him to get reading material. He’s more likely to read extracts or pamphlets than to have possession of the books on which his reading material is based. One of the writers he reads about is Darwin. Perhaps Zola confuses the social Darwinism of Herbert Spencer with the scientific theory of evolution.
There’s no library for Etienne to consult. Zola must have felt that education would be a vital key to social progress, and that he was trying to provide it, as well as tell an entertaining story, by writing Germinal.
My copy of Germinal is a 1942 Heritage Press edition that I bought at the Strand decades ago when I worked nearby for Barnes and Noble. It’s translated by Havelock Ellis. Bought it for a song, I suppose. Cherished now that I’ve read it.