Emile Zola


Summary GERMINAL by Emile Zola

After the invention of the steam engine, Europe and America experienced an industrial revolution. The steam engine used coal as fuel, which became highly sought after on the market (similar to oil in today's era). Coal mining became a lucrative business that brought in large profits. While the owners and concessionaires of coal mines enjoyed a comfortable life, the miners themselves struggled for survival, and their lives were a true torment.
Just to earn enough for basic bread, women and children over the age of eight had to work in coal mines alongside men. The mines were deep, reaching six hundred to seven hundred meters underground, with hundreds of meters of narrow and low corridors where coal was extracted. Accidents were common underground due to cave-ins, the presence of flammable gases, and unbearable heat. In harsh conditions, the miners' life expectancy, even without fatal accidents, was short because they easily fell ill and died from exhaustion.
Despite this, mine owners and managers lived luxuriously and extravagantly, disregarding the conditions their miners faced. Mining families were completely dependent on them, as they had lived in their mining communities for generations, working in the mines for over a hundred years without any improvement in their living conditions. Due to poverty and the harshness of life, miners sank into despair, alcoholism, debauchery, and ruin.
Nevertheless, sometimes among the miners, there were individuals who tried to rebel against such exploitation and the plundering of workers who were generating great capital for the owners. Their only weapon was a complete work stoppage in the mines, strikes with demands for higher wages and improved working conditions. However, ruthless capitalists suppressed such strikes with threats and blackmail, sometimes even resorting to violence with the police and the army, which were on their side.
The novel "Germinal" is about a strike in France that occurred during a major industrial crisis (the story is based on a true event). At that time, there was a cessation of coal mining and a desperate struggle for workers' rights in the Montsou mines, where around ten thousand miners were employed.
The term "Germinal" in the French language denotes the early sprouting and development of seeds, and Zola used it as a metaphor for the emergence of the struggle for workers' rights and the birth of the international labor movement.
This novel belongs to naturalism, a literary movement that emerged as a continuation of stripped-down realism, where the vices, vulgarity, immorality, and poverty of human nature are described in detail without reservation.


  • The main character, a young man named Etienne Lantier, unemployed and without money, is forced to seek a job in the Montsou mines in the town of Vore. He is hired to work as a miner in the deep pit mine, which is located at a depth of six to seven hundred meters. Due to low wages, their wives and children also worked alongside the miners in unbearable conditions, but they were all more hungry than full due to the low wages. Accidents were frequent, mine walls often collapsed and buried alive miners, flammable and toxic gases were released, floods occurred, and many lives were lost due to mining machinery malfunctions. Additionally, the supervisors punished the miners.

  • The miners lived in settlements consisting of small houses and barracks built by the coal companies. These settlements were characterized by poverty, immorality, and despair among the disappointed working class. The men were prone to drinking and violence, and the youth, especially girls, engaged in sexual relationships at an early age, resulting in the birth of children who became part of the new poverty.

  • Etienne worked in a group with the Maheu family, who had been working in the mine for generations. They worked together with Grandfather Bonnemort, Maheu's father who had a wife and seven children, three of whom worked in the mine: the eldest son, a young man named Zacharie, fifteen-year-old Catherine, and a boy named Jeanlin. The Maheu family lived in great hardship and were indebted to a merchant who refused to give them more food on credit, so Maheu's wife was forced to beg from the mine owners for the family's survival.

  • In contrast to the poverty of the miners, the mine owners and managers enjoyed great luxury, showing no compassion for the wretched miners who barely survived. They believed that the miners earned enough and were good to them, considering them dirty and immoral. One of these families, the Anbo family, was the family of the mine manager appointed by the coal company from Paris to manage the mine, while the other family, the Gregoires, had a share in the mine ownership, which provided them with a good living. The mine manager had a nephew named Negrel who was a mining engineer and superintendent in the mine. The families wanted to arrange a marriage between Negrel and Cecile, the only daughter of the Gregoire family. They were preoccupied only with that.

  • Etienne immediately caught the attention of Maheu's daughter Catherine, and she caught his attention as well, but she was already with Chaval, a tall and hot-tempered young man who had a tendency to drink. Chaval worked with everyone in the same group, and from the very beginning, he showed great jealousy towards Etienne.

  • When Maheu's eldest son, Zacharie, got married and moved out, they were forced to give his bed to Etienne, who had been living with them ever since. In their shabby apartment, they all slept, bathed, and changed clothes together, without any intimacy. The affection and desire between Etienne and Catherine grew stronger, but they struggled to resist their instincts because of Chaval. Etienne annoyed him even more, and out of jealousy, Chaval came to the Maheu family's house every evening. In the end, against her parents' will, he took Catherine away from their home to live with him, just to separate her from Etienne.

  • An accident occurred in the mine, in which the earth collapsed and buried one miner and Maheu's son Jeanlin. The miner died, while Jeanlin survived but was left disabled in one leg. The mine management blamed the miners for the accident.

  • Etienne had a desire to form a workers' union, similar to many international ones, which would fight for better conditions and wages for the miners. He knew and corresponded with Pluchart, a man from Paris who was a leader of workers' movements in France. However, Etienne was young and uneducated to be able to realize his plans on his own. He read every literature he could find on the subject, but he still didn't have a clear plan on how to create a fair system for managing the mines and their capital.

  • Etienne befriended Rasseneur, a former leader of miners' rights who was fired and lived by running a tavern, and Souvarine, a Russian immigrant who fled Russia after a failed assassination attempt on the tsar. They had different opinions on how to fight for miners' rights. Rasseneur believed that improvement for the working class comes through evolution, that is, a silent struggle with gradual progress and steps towards greater rights. On the other hand, Souvarine believed that the situation can only be improved through revolution, violent overthrow of the current system, and then establishing worker control over all goods and capital. Etienne couldn't decide whose proposal was correct.

  • While Etienne was gathering miners in his workers' association, a miners' strike broke out. To make it easier to get through the impending industrial crisis, the mine management reduced the miners' wages. The meager wages, which they barely survived on, were further reduced, causing anger among the miners and a work stoppage in the mines. Representatives of the miners, including Etienne, negotiated with the mine manager with demands to maintain the previous wage rates, but he refused.

  • The mine manager, Anbo, was preoccupied only with his wife, Mrs. Anbo, whom he loved very much, but she didn't care about him. He moved from Paris to manage the Montsou mines to save their marriage from her lovers, but it didn't help him much. His wife still didn't care about him and hadn't let him into her bed for ten years, which he craved. He envied the poor and dirty miners whom he saw making love and indulging in debauchery in the lonely corners of the mine.

  • The strike happened at the beginning of winter, and without wages, the mining settlement sank into hunger and ran out of fuel. Etienne was chosen as the leader of the striking miners, and they received support from Pluchart, who came from Paris and sent some financial aid. But after that, nothing happened, the mine management didn't give in, and the hunger of the mining families grew.

  • After some time, due to hunger, some miners started to give in and return to work in the mines, but that angered the majority who didn't want to end the strike before their demands were met. They believed that with such low wages, they would die of hunger even if they worked. The angry crowd of miners, along with Etienne, headed to the mine to drive out the miners who had betrayed the strike. Among them in the mine were Chaval and Catherine, which particularly angered Etienne. When the miners were expelled from the pits, the strikers triumphantly turned into a mob that nothing could stop anymore. They started breaking machines and coal extraction equipment from pit to pit. Along the way, they beat and dragged Chaval with them, whom they would have killed if Catherine hadn't slapped Etienne, after which he let go of Chaval.

  • In those moments, the manager of the Anbo mine, who directed all his worries towards his ungrateful and insensitive wife, realized that she was cheating on him with his nephew, the engineer and supervisor at the Negrel mine. He was completely desperate, and when he was informed that hungry miners were destroying the mine, he angrily wished to shout at them that he was not happy either. He wished to exchange places with them, to stuff them with the best food and drinks while he remained hungry and dirty, just so he wouldn't be so unhappy. He wanted to show them, through his own example, that being well-fed is not the only happiness. When he calmed down a bit, he realized that from then on, the only thing that mattered to him was for the marriage between Negrel's nephew and Cecile to be concluded as soon as possible, in order to break the love affair between his wife and his nephew. Later on, that happened, Negrel married Cecile to the mutual satisfaction of the Anbo and Gregoire families.

  • The intoxicated mob spent the whole day smashing mining equipment, and after destroying everything, they headed to the home of the mine manager, pelting it with stones, and along the way, they looted a food supply store. Manager Anbo called the gendarmerie, who immediately dispersed the strikers. In the following days, the police began to arrest the leaders of the strike, but Etienne managed to escape. He hid in the depths of one of the mining pits, which were empty due to the strike, and only came out at night, appearing at the home of the Mae family and at Rasseneur's inn because he trusted them not to betray him.

  • The poverty that engulfed the mining settlement became increasingly terrifying. Without work, the settlement was devoid of fuel and food in the middle of winter. Adults were collapsing from hunger, while the weakest, children and the elderly, were dying. Among those who died of hunger was Maevih's eight-year-old daughter, Alzire.

  • While he was at Rasseneur's inn one evening, Chaval and Catherine appeared together. Chaval was drunk and immediately launched into verbal attack against Etienne. Then they fought. Etienne was stronger than Chaval and defeated him, and as Chaval left the inn, he pushed Catherine away.

  • In order to break the strike, the mine management brought in workers from Belgium. When the striking miners found out about this, they went to the mine to drive the Belgians out, but they were met by the army with guns. A commotion broke out between them and the army, and then the army opened fire on the crowd of miners. In that massacre, fourteen miners were killed, including two children and three women, and twenty-five were wounded. Among the dead was Tusen, the head of the Mae family.

  • After the shooting, many miners blamed Etienne for the trouble with the strike. They no longer considered him their leader, and they even tried to stone him as a group, but Rasseneur saved him. Meanwhile, in Paris, there was a major political storm due to the killed miners, which prompted the mine management to try to smooth things over with the miners. They released the arrested miners and stopped pursuing those accused of destroying the mine equipment, but they refused to return the wages to the pre-strike level. The starving miners started signing up for work one after another. Among them were now Etienne and Catherine.

  • The night before the miners returned to work, Souvarine, disappointed with the unsuccessful strike, descended into the mine and carried out sabotage by disabling the mine's support beams. After that, he went somewhere in an unknown direction. The next day, when the miners returned to work, the protection gave way and the mine was flooded. The miners panicked and fled outside while the mine continued to collapse. Among those who failed to escape were Etienne and Catherine. The search for survivors began, with Zacharie doing his best to find his sister Catherine. In the rescue operation, the mining engineer and supervisor, the groom Negrel, stood out as particularly brave, risking his life by descending into the depths of the mine where no one dared to go. However, the rescuers came across flammable gas that exploded, severely burning three miners, and Zacharie was killed.

  • The ladies from the Gregoire and Anbo families wanted to personally see the devastated mine. After the visit, which they found boring and uninteresting, the Gregoire family, together with their daughter Cecile, stopped by the Maevi's house to give them alms for the recently deceased Zaharije. They found only the old Grandfather Bonemort at home, as his wife was still in the mine, waiting for news about their buried daughter Catherine. The Maevi's neighbor, who was taking care of their young children while their mother was away, persuaded Cecile's parents to come and see the children. Meanwhile, Cecile was left alone with Grandfather Bonemort. When her parents returned to see why Cecile hadn't come with them, they wailed upon seeing their dead daughter. Old Bonemort strangled their only child with his bare hands.

  • Trapped and squeezed together in a mine passage, Chaval, Catherine, and Etienne found themselves. In a short time, a fight to the death broke out between Chaval and Etienne. Etienne emerged as the winner, smashing Chaval's head with a stone slab, causing him to drop dead immediately.

  • Etienne and Catherine tried to call for help by banging a stone against the mine wall. When they finally managed to alert the rescuers to their location, it took days for them to be freed. In the meantime, the two of them were starving and exhausted. Near the end of their strength, as they began to lose hope of being rescued, they confessed their love for each other, which had emerged from the first day. Regretting their hesitation until then, they finally surrendered to each other.

  • After fifteen days of excavation, the rescuers finally reached Etienne and Catherine. Etienne was pulled out in critical condition and taken to the hospital, while it was too late for Catherine, as she had already died from exhaustion.

  • The miners' strike was broken: defeated and disappointed, the miners, after hunger, death, and suffering, were forced to return to the mines and work for the reduced wages that had sparked the strike. Some were no longer there, and from the Maheu family, only the boy Jeanlin remained, who now worked as a disabled person, earning less on cleaning coal. Maheu's wife, Jeanlin's mother, had to start working in the mine to feed the remaining family, although she did not understand how she would support them with such a small income.

  • Recovered, Etienne left the mine and went to Paris to politically fight for the rights of the miners with Pluchart. He now had experience in that and swore that if necessary, he would shed the blood of the empire itself, just as the blood of the Montsou miners had flowed. The shootings and their executions would not be forgotten, and there would be no peace because the war declared in the mines continued.

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