Friday, August 17, 2012

Germinal by Emile Zola

Read it now!
Simply put, I believe this is the greatest novel of all time. Yes, I’m a big Zola fan, but I don’t give all of his books five stars. This is his greatest achievement, and it deserves a place in anyone’s literary canon. The book describes the harsh life of coal miners in the (fictional?) mining town of Montsou in the north of France. Étienne Lantier (son of Gervaise in L’Assomoir) wanders into town looking for work. He gets a job in the mine and finds lodging with the Maheus, a family with seven children, whose daily life totally revolves around the mine. Étienne starts out as a passive Everyman character—we see this bleak world through his eyes. He then takes on a more active role in the lives of the miners by becoming a labor organizer and preaching socialist ideals. The miners decide to strike for better wages, which begins a chain of events leading to more suffering, sacrifice, and eventually violence. Zola beautifully examines the strike’s effect on every person involved: the miners, the town shopkeepers, the mine executives, the small business owner, the government, the shareholders, the communist intellectuals, the soldiers, the radical revolutionaries. Zola’s characteristic attention to detail creates a vivid world for the reader to inhabit. We become involved in these people’s lives and fight their battles within ourselves. No stone goes unturned, and no one emerges from the conflict with clean hands. Zola definitely inspires us to sympathize with the miners, but at the same time he does not absolve them of all responsibility for their own suffering. Nor does he paint the mine owners as evil personified. Instead, he creates human characters we can empathize with, and provides us with the motivations for their actions. Even Étienne, our eyes and ears in the story, does not come out smelling like a rose. Though his visions of socialist utopia may be lofty, his vanity and his limited intellect cloud his judgment, and as a result people suffer. This is mostly a serious novel, but there are lighter moments and bits of social satire as well. The lives of the miners are not all sorrow and woe. At the beginning of the book we enjoy some of their happier moments. From there, tension slowly builds into a snowball effect that climaxes with a series of shocking tragedies. Through it all Zola imbues an underlying philosophical debate on the value of human life and dignity. I would recommend this book to anyone, whether they are habitual readers of classic literature or not. Those who read this book might also enjoy The Octopus by Frank Norris, an American writer who was greatly influenced by this book.
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