Émile Zola’s novel Germinal is often considered his greatest work. The book is certainly one of the triumphs of the movement of ultra-realist Naturalism that dominated much of world literature in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. What interests me in particular about this book is how Zola made the lives of coal miners compelling to readers.
In the introduction to his English translation of Germinal, Havelock Ellis describes the care that Zola took researching the conditions of the miners: “For six months he travelled around the coal-mining district in northern France and Belgium…note-book in hand.”
Zola starts the novel by recounting the home of a mining family:
Now the candle lighted up the room, a square room with two windows, and filled with three beds. There could be seen a cupboard, a table, and two old walnut chairs, whose smoky tone made hard, dark patches against the walls, which were painted a light yellow. And nothing else, only clothes hung to nails, a jug placed on the floor, and a red pan which served as a basin. In the bed on the left, Zacharie, the eldest, a youth of one-and-twenty, was asleep with his brother Jeanlin, who had completed his eleventh year; in the right-hand bed two urchins, Lénore and Henri, the first six years old, the second four, slept in each other's arms, while Catherine shared the third bed with her sister Alzire, so small for her nine years that Catherine would not have felt her near her if it were not for the little invalid’s humpback, which pressed into her side. The glass door was open; one could perceive the lobby of a landing, a sort of recess in which the father and the mother occupied a fourth bed, against which they had been obliged to install the cradle of the latest comer, Estelle, aged scarcely three months.…
“When the old man comes back,” said Zacharie, mischievously, “he’ll like to find the bed unmade. You know I shall tell him it’s you.”
The old man was the grandfather, Bonnemort, who, as he worked during the night, slept by day, so that the bed was never cold; there was always someone snoring there.
Zola skillfully depicts the home of a family with seven children, two parents, and an elderly grandfather, living in little more than one room. The name of the grandfather, Bonnemort, appropriately enough means “Good Death” in French. A good death is all these family members can hope for at the start of the novel, since their lives are an endless cycle of backbreaking toil in the mines, little sleep, and no privacy. The family does not even possess a closet or a wardrobe to hang the few articles of clothing they own.
But this portrait, moving though it is, doesn’t quite make the point from an emotional standpoint. As new as it was when Zola wrote Germinal in 1885 to depict the realities of working class life, there is something almost journalistic and impersonal in the description of the family’s home. Even if we could place ourselves in the life of those family members, and even though Zola has given all of them a name and a gender and an age, there is still a certain distance between the reader and that mining family, maybe even an inevitable distance, since the human heart resists the sort of direct and obvious appeal for sympathy that Zola includes in this section of the book.
But look what happens three chapters later, when Zola introduces us to another inhabitant of the mines, the horse that pulls the coal carts:
It was Bataille, the doyen of the mine, a white horse who had lived below for ten years. These ten years he had lived in this hole, occupying the same corner of the stable, doing the same task along the black galleries without ever seeing daylight. Very fat, with shining coat and a good-natured air, he seemed to lead the existence of a sage, sheltered from the evils of the world above. In this darkness, too, he had become very cunning. The passage in which he worked had grown so familiar to him that he could open the ventilation doors with his head, and he lowered himself to avoid knocks at the narrow spots. Without doubt, also, he counted his turns, for when he had made the regulation number of journeys he refused to do any more, and had to be led back to his manger. Now that old age was coming on, his cat’s eyes were sometimes dimmed with melancholy. Perhaps he vaguely saw again, in the depths of his obscure dreams, the mill at which he was born, near Marchiennes, a mill placed on the edge of the Scarpe, surrounded by large fields over which the wind always blew. Something burnt in the air—an enormous lamp, the exact appearance of which escaped his beast’s memory—and he stood with lowered head, trembling on his old feet, making useless efforts to recall the sun.
I don’t exactly know why, but when I reached this passage in the book, I cried. Zola’s painting of that horse is so unexpected and specific—Bataille’s ducking to avoid the familiar spots where the tunnel is low, the horse’s forgetting of what sunshine is, the cruelty of confining an animal to that space, the bright color of the horse’s coat against the coal. It was through the description of the horse Bataille (which means “Battle”) that I felt emotionally something of the despair of the miners and the stifling world they worked in.
As Shakespeare says in Hamlet, “By indirections find directions out.” By describing the plight of the horse in the mines, Zola makes the human suffering there more tangible. His appeal for sympathy for the horse somehow has more emotional impact because he is not rubbing our faces in the suffering, he is merely showing us a reality and allowing us to empathize. In the passage about the horse Bataille, Zola doesn’t hit the readers over the head with the suffering in the mines. He lets the readers draw their own conclusion that the life of that horse is equivalent to the life of the miners.
Zack’s most recent book of poems, Irreverent Litanies
Zack’s most recent translation, Bérénice 1934–44: An Actress in Occupied Paris by Isabelle Stibbe
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