Review: Germinal by Emile Zola

Germinal by Emile Zola

Final Verdict: 3.75 out of 4.0

YTD: 23

4 – Plot/Story is interesting/believable and impactful (socially, academically, etc.)

If you ever want to read a book about miners, or a book about family, or a book about unions, or a book about poverty, or a book about the whole wide-world and how awful and wonderful, hopeful and disappointing, romantic and coldly real it is – if you ever want to read a book about humanity and everything that it means, Germinal is that book. The book is one in Zola’s famous twenty-book series, Les Rougan-Macquart.  It is considered to be the best of the series and also Zola’s crowning achievement – a masterpiece. Its purpose is to expose and lament the horrendous and inhumane working and living conditions of miners in rural France during the 1860s.  Germinal vilifies the excesses and indulgencies of the bourgeoisie, while lauding Socialism and Darwinism.  Etienne Lantier, the main character (who first appears in Zola’s L’Assommoir), is an outsider – a wandering mechanic who is searching for employment.  His rise to leadership in the mining community is almost accidental and highly unlikely, in that he never intended to become a worker, nor did he plan to stay in the community.  Yet, as he spends time with these poor creatures, he realizes that someone must force a change – soon, after hours of study and correspondence with strike leaders in Paris- he unites the miners and leads a revolt, with heartbreaking consequences.

3 – Characters well-developed.

Germinal has a host of characters, primarily Etienne and the Maheude family, with whom he lives after his decision to stay at the mining colony.  There are mining women and mining men, managers and invalids, wealthy owners, Parisian visitors, and revolutionaries of all types (including simple strikers and also full anarchists).  There are bar owners, retirees, abusive husbands, whorish daughters, and every imaginable person in-between.  While Zola certainly creates a great and diverse community, with nearly every conceivable character, few of them truly stand out on their own.  Chaval, in his animalistic brutality is one, as is Etienne as the primary focus.  La Maheude, the sensible mother and ultimately one of the most tragedy-stricken of the cast, is interesting particularly in contrast to the other female-mother figures of the village (in that she, for the most part, seems more responsible, less prone to impulse, and, on the whole, a genuine person).  Still, the downfall to such a large cast of characters is that not much time is spent developing many of them, even the major ones.  Etienne certainly has a journey and he changes somewhat over time – but, in the end, it is the community itself, as a whole, which is being characterized.  The community is what is alive – what is awakened.  The miners, as a group, are the story – it is their journey, their oppression, their battle, their failure, which constitutes the growth and development, here.  Their larger story is more interesting to witness than any single story within it.

4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.

For the longest time, I was nervous about reading Zola.  I find French literature to be either extraordinarily appealing (Victor Hugo) or almost impossible to bear (Marcel Proust).  Fortunately, Zola reads to me similarly to the greatest Russian writers – like Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. It is simultaneously beautiful, self-reflective, and transporting.  The language of Germinal is warm and real, it allows you to feel enveloped, but never loses sight of the fact that it is the means to an end – its purpose is to guide the reader through an instructive, meaningful story.  There are moments, such as in the description of the miners’ final revolt, where all sense of restraint has been cast off, when the story seems to press onward with a fierce intensity, like a tidal wave rolling mightily onward, unstoppable – dangerous.  And there are moments of pure tenderness, as when Etienne and Catherine come together after being held apart for so long.  The dialogue is well-crafted and the voices of the bourgeoisie and the managers are distinctly different from that of the miners.  The story itself is powerful, but the prose takes it to a transcendent level.

Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.

When Emile Zola passed away, his funeral was attended by masses of people.  At the ceremony, they began to chant: “Germinal! Germinal!”  It is telling that the crowd would call out the name of this one book, even though the author had been such a prolific writer – it is telling and it is understandable.  Germinal, similar to its peers (such as Les Miserables, War and Peace, and The Grapes of Wrath) is an epic tale about “the people.”  It’s a story of desire and passion, working life, family, friendships, and community.  The nature of humanity, from its most noble capacities to its darkest, most dangerous possibilities, is explored in microscopic detail, painful and wondrous to witness. It is, quite literally, a tale about germination – the planting of a seed, an idea, and the birth and growth of a movement.

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: High School/Adult
Interest: France, Labor, Working Class, Mining Life, Revolution, Sexual Desire, Politics, Philosophy, Class Studies.

Notable Quotes:

“Coal transmits sound over great distances with the clarity of crystal.”

“He went away calmly like an exterminating angel, headed for anywhere that he could find dynamite to blow up cities and the men who live in them.”

“There’s no pleasure in life when you’ve lost your hope.”

“You’re better off on your own, there’s nobody to disagree with.”

“When the men and the girl came back from the pit, they’d have to eat again; for nobody had yet discovered how to live without eating, unfortunately.”

“If people can just love each other a little bit, they can be so happy.”

“Blow the candle out, I don’t need to see what my thoughts look like.”

–Germinal is book #121 completed for the 1,001 Books to Read Before You Die” Challenge.

–Germinal is Book #4 completed for the Victorian Celebration.

Germinal is Book #4 completed for The Classics Club.

15 Comments on “Review: Germinal by Emile Zola

    • Well, goodness – of all the things not to address in my review, how could I have missed that? *face palm*


  1. I’ve had mixed experiences with Zola books (I tend to like the start but hate the ending) but have had Germinal recommended to me as well as managing to pick up a copy. I guess I should put this on my to-read list of 2012 so that I can gain more exposure to him.


    • I sank into this one right away – it’s one of those books that I knew I was going to love, when I was just a few chapters into it. There were a few moments that felt a bit drawn out and I wish some of the characters had been more developed, because I didn’t feel a sincere connection to any one person in the story – but overall it was a really incredible book. I did feel for the miners/workers as a community and since that’s really the point, it’s ultimately effective.


  2. This has been on my list for a long time. I’m so glad you loved it and I really want to get to it now!


    • It really made me think about the valure of trade unions and labor laws – particularly as so much has been happening lately with the vilification of unions, attacks on collective bargaining rights, etc. The book is more than 100 years old, and yet it is some how (sadly) very relevant.


  3. LOL. I thought I saw you tell Allie on Twitter that you hated this book. You were just messing with her? Nicely done! 😛

    Also, wow. This book sounds incredible. The part about the crowd chanting Germinal! Germinal! gave me shivers.


    • Haha – Yeah she had been raving about how great it is, so I messed with her a bit. 😉

      How incredible would it be to have people chanting out the title of your work, at your funeral!? I mean, obviously you’re not there to witness it – unless you pull a Tom Sawyer and show up for your own funeral (I could see myself doing this, to be hoenst) BUT STILL… just incredibly powerful to think about. People chanting for an author!


  4. “language of Germinal is warm and real” – What a wonderful description. Germinal is one of my all-time favorite books, but I have never been able to do it justice in written form. This review beautifully states many of my own opinions regarding the book.

    While I would certainly agree with anyone who argues that Germinal is a masterpiece, and while it is certainly my personal favorite of the Rougon-Macquart books that I’ve read thus far, L’Assommoir is arguably more popular and has a wider appeal, and is equally brilliant and well written. My personal preference is for Germinal possibly because I read it first (and was absolutely blown away by Zola’s writing, his level gaze, and the glorious big-picture social commentary of the novel), but there is no denying that L’Assommoir is just as excellent a book.


  5. “For the longest time, I was nervous about reading Zola.”

    -I am, too. But I am calmer now. This post makes me look forward to it (it’s also included in my list for The Classics Club).


  6. First of all, I am SO HAPPY YOU LOVED THIS. Sometimes I get really nervous when people begin reading some of my favorite books ever, and this week, there were two people finishing books that i love dearly (O was reading The Mill on the Floss). I get all…panicky that you’ll hate it and think I’m an idiot for loving it so dearly.

    But wasn’t is AWESOME? I think it was. And I think that I need to read more by Zola. I mean, I read this book 2 and a half years ago, and I still think about it (oh, that scene near the end, with the water? UGH-gets me!). I just loved the passion in this one, and I wish all books would pull at my heart the way this one did!

    Anyway-closing lines: “Beneath the blazing of the sun, in that morning of new growth, the countryside rang with song, as its belly swelled with a black and avenging army of men, germinating slowly in its furrows, growing upwards in readiness for harvests to come, until one day soon their ripening would burst open the earth itself.”

    And yay! So happy you loved it! 🙂 (I’m 2 for 2 this week!)


  7. From your review, I know I would love Germinal. Seems that this one is more on the community movement than pure psychological study such as Therese Raquin or striking tragedy like L’Assommoir. I have just ordered my copy today, can’t wait to read it!


  8. Pingback: Review Rewind – The Classics Club

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: