Germinal Readalong Wrap-Up

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Whoa. What a ride! This story of French coal miners going on strike in the 1860s sounded so dull to me when someone first recommended it. Then someone else mentioned it, then another person, and I began to think I needed to check it out. Before I dive into the details I will say that I ended up loving it. It's a powerful book and a few of the scenes are seared into my memory forever. What did you all think?

by Emilé Zola

From here on out there are spoilers. I'd recommend skipping the review if you haven't read it.

Étienne Lantier arrives in a French town looking for work. Soon he's down in the depths of the earth mining for coal. He becomes friends with a man named Maheu who is a hard worker and well-respected in the mine. The working conditions are atrocious and there's barely enough pay for workers to scrap by. Grumblings start to increase among the workers and eventually they decide to go to their boss to ask for higher compensation and a few small things.

Maheu is chosen to speak for everyone and he does so in a calm and dignified way. When their request is casually rejected the situation inevitably escalates. The decide to strike and a mob forms and they travel through the countryside in a whirlwind of destruction. The mob mentality makes the workers willing to do things they would never normally do, Things spiral out of control as the mob continues to progress. Even Étienne who wants to protect the pump at the beginning, later wants to destroy it in his frustration. It culminates in the death  of a man named Negrel when he falls from a roof while trying to escape the mob. The women gruesomely mutilate his corpse as the police arrive.

"It was the red vision of the revolution, which would one day inevitably carry them all away, on some bloody evening at the end of the century."

Maheu's daughter Catherine's story really struck a chord with me. She is raped by a man named Chaval, but because of the way their culture views women, she basically just becomes his property. He's brutal and jealous and she believes she has no other choice, even though Étienne loves her.

In the final third of the novel there is a collapse at the mine and workers, including Étienne, Catherine, and Chaval, are trapped underground. The scenes are harrowing as we read about their loved ones reactions above ground, but once we descend into the pits it's so much worse. I loved that after all the turmoil the workers still wanted to rescue their fellow miners.

"All the colliers rushed to offer themselves in an upsurge of brotherhood and solidarity. They forgot the strike, they did not trouble themselves at all about payment; they might get nothing, they only asked to risk their lives as soon as comrades lives were in danger."

There was one scene that chronicles the mad dash of a work horse that still haunts me. The animal, Bataille, is desperately trying to find his way out, but in his fearful galloping he becomes trapped as water rises. It was awful to read.

"It was a sight of fearful agony, this old beast shattered and motionless, struggling at this depth, far from the daylight. The flood was drowning his mane, and his cry of distress never ceased; he uttered it more hoarsely, with his large open mouth stretched out."

Another memorable scene took place above ground. The Gregorie family owns the mine. Circumstances lead them to visit one of the miner's homes with a few gifts and during the visit Cécile, the adult daughter, is strangled to death by one of the old workers, Bonnemort. That summery doesn't do the scene justice. The eerie calm as the two people looked at each other before the violence begins, the screams of her mother when she realizes what happened; it's heartbreaking. No one seems to leave this novel completely unscathed. 

BOTTOM LINE: I was expecting a boring book with political rants about social injustice. Instead I found the gripping story of a group of people mired in an impossible situation. They are desperate and in those dire moments they are capable of the unthinkable. Just a fantastic read. 

"He simply wanted to go down the mine again, to suffer and to struggle; and he thought angrily of those 'people' Bonnemort had told him about, and of the squat and sated deity to whom ten thousand starving men and women daily offered up their flesh without ever knowing who or what this god might be." 
Thanks for reading along my fellow #GerminalAlong folks! And thanks to Care's Books and Pie for hosting with me and sending out awesome postcards! 


Brona said...

It really is a gripping story. Zola's ability to portray both social groups in this story sympathetically is very well done. And his use of imagery was so strong I can still 'see' this book in my mind over a year later.

I'm glad you enjoyed it too.

Melissa Hall said...

Brona - You were one of the people who's review convinced me to read it!

Anonymous said...

Brilliant review. Thanks for reading this with me.

Anonymous said...

Am trying to 'capture' the url from this post but I can only seem to get your blogname without the post directive. I would like to provide a link from my post because it is SO GOOD! can you tweet me the true link? (you posted a tiny url or something to twitter, right? because I can't use that either due to my work's security blocking...) THANKS

JoAnn said...

Funny, I had the same expectations (boring, dry, etc) but they were shattered pretty early on. What a ride, indeed! I've never read anything quite like Germinal. Thanks so much for hosting the readalong and giving me the extra push I needed. Will be thinking about this one for a long time.

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

JoAnn - I'm so glad you joined in the fun! I'm with you, I'm sure this one will stick with me. I'm still thinking about some of those vivid scenes.

Jinjer-The Intrepid Angeleno said...

Noooooooooooooo don't tell me about this!!! One quick Google lead me to the discovery of this being one novel in a series of 20 about the same family and a list of the author's recommended reading order and now I feel like I MUST READ ALL 20 in the order he (she?) suggests!!!!


Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

Intrepid- Ha, I know! I had the same problem!