After being dismissed from railroad work for attacking his boss during a drunken fit, Étienne wanders the French countryside in search of a job, but cannot find any because the country is suffering from a major economic recession. Only when he reaches the town of Montsou does he find a job at the coal mine of Le Voreux.
In this town and new life, Étienne encounters the many impoverished families that work the coalmines. He soon learns from direct experience that the coalminers of Montsou perform back-breaking and dangerous work down in the pits of the earth only to earn subsistence living that can barely buy enough bread to feed them and their children who live together in squalid homes provided by the mining company. People like the Maheu family work until their old and disease-ridden, spitting up coal dust from years of toil down in the mine, while the bourgeoisie, such as the Grégoires, who have invested their money into the mines live a life of idleness and luxury off of their exhausting work.
After further wage-cuts are instituted, a group of coal miners decide to go on strike, encouraged by Étienne and his newfound Marxist ideas. The wealthy manager of the mines, Monsieur Hennebeau, believes the strike will blow over in two weeks. The miners manage to hold out for three months, but as hunger creeps in things escalate to violence on both sides. Running beside this plot is a frustrated love story in which Étienne struggles with another miner named Chavel over the love and affections of Catherine, Maheu’s daughter.
Emile Zola is generally considered to be part of the Naturalistic movement in literature, a type of realism that dissects the social existence of human beings with a scientific accuracy. Despite its realism, his work still abounds with melodrama and a certain amount of idealism. Germinal caused quite the sensation when it first came out because it is sensationalistic. The terrible and difficult lives of the coalminers are depicted with an unflinching eye. The descriptions of the hellish conditions in the mines, with the miners breathing in noxious gases, working in fits of sweat and with aching muscles, bleeding hands, as cold water splashes down their face from leaks in the earth, all while not even being able to earn enough to buy the food they need, not only brings Dante’s poetic hell into a cold harsh reality, but makes Zola’s social case for him. Even if you’re not a Marxist, it is difficult not to be sympathetic to the lives of the coalminers. Yet, even while making it clear whose side Zola takes, he is a skillful enough writer to show a complicated portrait of his bourgeoisie characters.
Monsieur Hennebeau who is estranged from his wife— a woman engaged in passionate affairs with everyone except her husband—envies the coalminer’s promiscuity and easy access to physical pleasures. He claims many times he would give up all his wealth for such a passionate life. One point the novel is making here is that the bourgeoisie life is full of luxury and idleness, but it is unfulfilling. It also is meant to show Hennebeau’s ignorance; it never occurs to him that the reason they engage in lovemaking with such ease is that the miners have very few other joys available to them, and often this works against them when it produces more children, which impoverishes them further. Mrs. Hennebeau flits from one affair to another because she is unfulfilled by her life as well. She finds one project or lover, followed by another, only to soon grow bored with it.
The other major bourgeoisie family is the Grégoires. It would be so easy for a writer to depict them as unfeeling monsters, but Zola is careful to depict them as human beings. They brag about their life of idleness and luxury, yet instead of coming off as uncaring, they come off more as ignorant and clueless about what the lives of the miners are really like as they live their quotidian existence of luxury. For them the life of idleness and luxury is the good life. Even though they spoil their daughter and enjoy their life of luxury, it is clear that this is a well-meaning family that cherishes their daughter. They love their child as much as the miners love their children. From their perspective, they’ve invested the money in the mine and see nothing wrong with earning a profit from other peoples’ labor. They aren’t evil profiteers or heartless, but just people who enjoy their idle luxury and don’t really think much about what goes into getting their profits. Indeed, one of their pastimes is charity work among the poor miners.
By showing both sides, Zola creates a contrast of their lifestyles; you have people who never work at all, but live this luxurious life full of rich foods and materialistic items that they don’t need compared to people who work the whole week in exhausting labor and can barely pay for a week’s worth of bread. Such a contrast is meant to call our attentions to the inherit unfairness of such a system. There are people literally doing nothing and earning huge sums of money on the backs of other peoples’ labor.
True to his naturalistic style, Zola doesn’t depict the miners as wholly good. Many of the men drink their earnings away, visit whores, are prone to violence, beat their children, and engage in crimes, while many of the women cheat on their husbands. There are many scenes that have the miners in which the miners fall into a frenzied mob in response to the injustices done to them, which Zola uses to show the uncontrollable anarchistic nature of mob mentality. Likewise, Zola even critiques certain forms of Marxism. He depicts a more extreme anarchist form of Marxism through a Russian character working at the mine called Souvarine. In the end, Souvarine commits an act of terrorism that not only damages the company’s property, but kills many miners as well. This is the closest Zola comes to calling a character and their position: evil. Souvarine is willing to kill for his politics and cares little for human life in comparison to larger political goals. Whereas Étienne’s Marxist philosophy revolves around making sure everyone gets a fair share of the good life.
Zola doesn’t restrict his narrative to the political social message. These same ideas are also being explored in relationship to basic human needs and happiness. After his political dreams for a better future fail, Étienne comes to realize that he could be perfectly happy living a life of poverty and back-breaking work if he had Catherine by his side. His love for her comes to trump his political ideas. This part of the narrative then recognizes that happiness in personal relationships, that deeper love and passion, goes beyond concerns of social conditions. Or maybe not. Maheude, Maheu’s wife, promises never to return to work for the mines after her husband is killed, but in the end finds herself back down there in order to earn bread for her family. Her basic needs end up trumping her emotional ideals. In this way, Zola always keeps us thinking and questioning the ideas of his narrative, never letting us quite settle on any final answers, but always raising additional problems and perspectives.