First published in 1885, the Germinal novel became the thirteenth work in a row, forming the famous Zola cycle – Rugon-Makkara. Bearing the name of the seventh month of the French Republican calendar, introduced after the French Revolution, he talks about the growth of a new public consciousness (germinal from the Latin “germen” – sprout), rising from the depths of the earth. Germinal, like most of Zola’s works, offers a unique analysis of French reality, performed not just in realistic but in naturalistic details.
The main characters in the novel are miners – the poorest, most vulnerable and the most hard-working people in France. The reader is immersed in their life together with the two hundred and forty arrived in the village, who lost their jobs as a mechanic, Etienne Lantier. The first person to meet with a young man is the old Immortal, a senior member of the Mae family. His son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren – all, one way or another, are working or planning to work for the benefit of the Coal Mine Company. This family has not known another life for the past one hundred and six years. Father Mahe heads the coal miners’ artel, his eldest son Zakhariy injects coal along with adult men, his eldest daughter Catherine, at the age of fifteen, works as a hauler and lifts trolleys on his back, weighing up to 700 kilograms. Ten-year-old Janlen Mahe also works in the face, earning her own pair of tens of sou per day. Despite the fact that the Mae artel is considered one of the best and most productive at the Voreysky mine, the family itself lives very poor and is practically impoverished. The youngest children have not yet grown up, the older ones will leave the family and look, old Mae is too old for full-fledged work. He lives well in the village of Two hundred and Forty only to those who please senior shteigers, including their wives. Such miners have money and confidence in the future. When a confrontation arises between coal miners and the directorate due to poor fixtures, the relatively stable life of the heroes collapses. On the one hand, they understand that cut salaries will not give them the opportunity to survive; on the other hand, for lack of faith in God, they gain faith in themselves, in a better life, which they can achieve on this earth themselves. Etienne Lantier is trying to lead the backward (in educational terms) miners to a new life, but due to his personal ignorance and capitalist dominance of large coal corporations, his undertaking fails miserably. The strike organized by coal miners and the subsequent revolt with the destruction of the mines leads to tragic consequences: little Alzira dies of starvation, Mae’s father is killed, Catherine dies in the Voreysky mine blown up by Russian anarchist Suvarin (Comrade Lantier), during a rescue excavation.
The Mahe family in the novel is opposed by two rich but diverse families: Gregoires and Enbo. The former live like drones, earning income from a single share of Monsu’s coal mines. Gregoires are not interested in anything but a quiet life in the company of the adored daughter of Cecile. The second family, the directors of Enbo’s mines, is a love triangle consisting of the director himself, his wife and the director’s nephew, who is also his wife’s lover. Director Enbo is an active, educated, but deeply unhappy person. He madly loves his wife, but cannot access her body. The sight of the rebellious miners causes Enbo a feeling of envy: he is ready to give everything in order to be able to make love anytime, anywhere, not to hide his feelings behind public prudence, to be the true husband of his wife.
The theme of love in the novel is also related to the relationship of Etienne Lantier and Catherine Mahe. These heroes fall in love with each other at first sight, but become close bodily only in the face of death. Thus, the author emphasizes the purity of their feelings and reveals a terrible reality in which the young daughters of the coal miners are physically violently inclined toward family life, which is in the form of simple profligacy.
The artistic value of the novel “Germinal” is associated not only with the one who claims the possibility of a new, happy life, the beginning, but also with the author’s accurate transmission of the details of the life of simple, working people. Difficult working conditions (heat, high humidity, black coal dust, absorbed into a person over many years of work so that even his saliva turns black) and life (a dream of the Mahe family in one room, natural needs in the presence of each other, sickening smells fried onions, common in poor houses of miners), endless, animal sex of youth in the backyards of an abandoned mine, and, like the apotheosis of universal shamelessness and hopelessness, – a manhood strung on a stick torn off by angry women contact the deceased on his own negligence shopkeeper Megra. The realities of life of the lower layers of society can be enumerated endlessly, since they are present on almost every page of the novel, making it a unique work recreating a detailed and natural, unadorned picture of ordinary reality. The frank and terrifying details of the life and death of the Germinal heroes are an objective justification for the revolutionary indignation of a tired and hungry people.