A novel by Émile Zola

Update: The novel is named for the month in the French Revolutionary Calender discussed by Webster 1913 below, Germinal corresponded to Springtime and was a time of rebirth.

Competing with Kafka's The Trial for the title of the most depressing book I've ever read.

It covers events at a coal mine during a period of industrial unrest and makes an unsubtle and stark portrayal of social inequalities and brewing revolution.

This novel continues Émile's bleak exploration of determinism (including some ideas on environmental effects and hereditary traits that seem quaint by today's genome informed standards but were once a significant understanding of evolution that we now call Lamarckism).

The novel covers a range of misery from wage slavery to sexual abuse and a variety of other forms of powerlessness and suffering.

Ostensibly, the novel covers the story of the drifter Etienne Lantier who wanders into town in search of work and soon finds himself as trapped as everyone else. Etienne was a former railway worker (an Engineer IIRC) with a violent temper and after striking a foreman was forced to leave a good job and seek unskilled work elsewhere.

Being without a family to support makes him a little less trapped but thanks to his past he has found work difficult to obtain and must satisfy himself with what he can get. Soon after arrival he takes board with a local family who are desperate for the additional income he provides and he serves as an effective window into the everyday suffering of the working class French miner and his family.

Etienne is at once a protagonist and an observer. Despite being a major actor in the events and a focus of the unfolding conflict, he is also something of a cypher in that he causes nothing and is merely a tool for the clockwork machine that is Émile's deterministic world. If he hadn't of acted in this role, another would have been chosen for it. The sheer (and occasionally knowing) inevitability of the characters actions is a recurring point in Émiles writing', particularly this series of books. This point may be slightly controversial to those who have read the book but I feel that despite Etienne being an actor in several events, he does not cause them but is merely a convenient tool. He is ultimately replaceable in these roles, it is only in his personal interactions that his actions are his own and not instruments of determinism.

Although this is a classic novel, spoilers are still to be avoided I feel and so I will talk around the later outcomes which Émiles has given the capacity to surprise despite their predetermined nature. Etienne is a fleshed out character and reminds one somewhat of Steinbeck's character of George. Indeed, in George's anticipation of his fate without Lenny, there are echoes of Etienne's occasional glimpses of his predetermined actions and reactions. Like George, Etienne is an intelligent man trapped by circumstance in poverty and labour who sees no realistic escape.

As an observer of daily life, Etienne's presence as a boarder is valuable and we see with unremitting detail the suffering, occasional cruelty and hopelessness of the miners lives. Every detail is covered and explored for the misery that can be wrung from it, from the mother rationing the families food out each morning to the grim necessities when credit runs out at the company store. Interestingly, Émile describes the claustrophobic dwellings that the miners lived in as unusual when I think they would have been relatively common for Europe at that time. Émile was writer in residence at the Savoy at one point so perhaps that explains it.

The novel builds to predictable conflict and outcomes but random chance and the man in the crowd still plays a part in events. I believe that Émile was suggesting that these could shift destiny in ways that could not always be anticipated. The novel ends with just the briefest glimpse of a brighter future for France's downtrodden, a little bit like the closing song to Les Misérables.

Like reading 1984 and then Brave New World, read this but have something cheery to read afterwards.

On a personal note, I think Émile would have liked the concept of Psychohistory