Customer Review

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Terrific, 28 July 2010
This review is from: Germinal (Penguin Classics) (Paperback)
Great stuff. A powerful and distressing story dealing with the awful lives of a group of coal miners in late 19th century France, and the disasters that lead on from their decision to strike for more pay. Zola manages to combine a pulsing story line with social, political and economic commentary and to keep the reader completely involved in the lives of his giant cast of characters. Brilliant.

Five hundred pages about a fictional French miner's strike in 1885 doesn't sound too promising as entertainment, especially when the miners aren't even going to win their battle with the bosses. But this is a gripping and breathtaking story drawing in the lives of ordinary mine workers, their immediate bosses, global capitalism, the rise of socialist and anarchist politics, new science and covering the unbelievable engineering mechanics of the workings of a mine. It's a harrowing tale of grinding poverty and exploitation but there is also tremendous camaraderie, courage, love, tenderness, rage and sadness here, all-in-all a heady mixture.

Zola, like Mark Twain and Charles Dickens, was a journalist and so he knows how to tell a social story without making it into a dull documentary. He starts slowly and on a small scale. A solitary man - Étienne Lantier, an unemployed engineer with a hereditary drinking problem, approaches the massive Le Voreux coal mine in Northern France. There is a deep recession on and jobs are scarce but he has the good fortune to be taken on as a miner in a team led by Maheu, an experienced and respected worker, and including his daughter Catherine, whom Étienne is drawn to. Étienne falls in with the hard working Maheu family and becomes their lodger. Times are tough and they are struggling to make ends meet and so, when the mining company tries to cut the worker's pay, Étienne organises a strike with disastrous consequences for the workers, the company, management and the mine itself.

There is a huge cast of characters, each illustrating a different aspect of life in the mining town. Zola gets right under the skin of the hopeless and grinding lives of the workers who are paid just enough to keep body and soul together, but he also shows the lives and motives of the Bourgeois, M. Hennebeau the mine director and his cuckolding but courageous nephew, Négrel, the Grégoires who live off their huge dividends from the mine, and Deneulin, owner of a rival mine who is to be bankrupted by the strike. Zola manages to cover the economics and politics very deftly and retain his focus on the human story of his various characters and the impact of the strike on them. There is tremendous violence in this book, corporate, institutional, personal, deliberate and casual but there is also a little tenderness, brotherhood, community and family.

The introduction is well worth reading to understand some of the deeper themes and how Zola uses the imagery of the mine, the animals working in it, the landscape and his characters to echo and amplify his social and political ideas. It's very neatly done.

This book had a tremendous impact in its day. 50,000 mineworkers followed Zola's coffin at his funeral chanting `Germinal' as a tribute (the title is one of the days of the week in the revolutionary French calendar) and even today it is powerful stuff. The only aspect I have some difficulty with is that the workers are portrayed as constantly having casual sex with each other, even as children. Roger Pearson's introduction says that there is no contemporary evidence for this and I haven't read similar things in other books about mining communities, such as D H Lawrence's Sons and Lovers. If this part of the book is exaggerated or untrue then it casts doubt on the rest but I haven't enough knowledge of the period to draw a conclusion.

Like Balzac, Zola wrote a series of books that vaguely interlink showing the state of France in his day. So there is another volume, La BÍte Humaine, about Etienne's brother who is a pathological killer, and a third, L'Assommoir, about his mother who is a laundry woman in Paris. On this form I shall certainly be seeking them both out.
Help other customers find the most helpful reviews 
Was this review helpful to you? Yes No

[Add comment]
Post a comment
To insert a product link use the format: [[ASIN:ASIN product-title]] (What's this?)
Amazon will display this name with all your submissions, including reviews and discussion posts. (Learn more)
This badge will be assigned to you and will appear along with your name.
There was an error. Please try again.
Please see the full guidelines ">here.

Official Comment

As a representative of this product you can post one Official Comment on this review. It will appear immediately below the review wherever it is displayed.   Learn more
The following name and badge will be shown with this comment:
 (edit name)
After clicking on the Post button you will be asked to create your public name, which will be shown with all your contributions.

Is this your product?

If you are the author, artist, manufacturer or an official representative of this product, you can post an Official Comment on this review. It will appear immediately below the review wherever it is displayed.  Learn more
Otherwise, you can still post a regular comment on this review.

Is this your product?

If you are the author, artist, manufacturer or an official representative of this product, you can post an Official Comment on this review. It will appear immediately below the review wherever it is displayed.   Learn more
System timed out

We were unable to verify whether you represent the product. Please try again later, or retry now. Otherwise you can post a regular comment.

Since you previously posted an Official Comment, this comment will appear in the comment section below. You also have the option to edit your Official Comment.   Learn more
The maximum number of Official Comments have been posted. This comment will appear in the comment section below.   Learn more
Prompts for sign-in


Sort: Oldest first | Newest first
Showing 1-2 of 2 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 26 Aug 2012 08:26:43 BDT
And of course the famous fourth, Nana, about Etienne's sister!

In reply to an earlier post on 28 Aug 2012 21:08:02 BDT
Brownbear101 says:
Quite so. Apologies for not mentioning it.
‹ Previous 1 Next ›

Review Details


4.7 out of 5 stars (30 customer reviews)
5 star:
4 star:
3 star:    (0)
2 star:
1 star:
£8.99 £6.29
Add to basket Add to wishlist

Top Reviewer Ranking: 8,327