Analysis of Naturalism Expressed in Germinal by Emile Zola - Affordable Quality Papers (2022)

During the second half of the nineteenth century, France underwent two major events: the transition from the First Industrial Revolution to the second and the end of the Second Empire followed by the beginning of the Third Republic in the 1870s. During this transition and the last moment of the corrupt Second Empire, the mine owners, who made up the upper middle class, heavily exploited the working class. By cutting down their wages and firing them, most of whom had been working in mines for generations, the mine owners wished to survive the increasingly competitive environment of mining industries. While it was true that the economic outlook was bleak, those mine owners still lived a luxurious life and continued to take advantages of the poor miners for their industries to survive. As a result, the working class was deprived of their economic power, and the class struggle and conflict escalated. Under the influence of ideologies such us communism and socialism, however, they started to rebel and form unions, which were violently suppressed. For example, in 1871 the Paris Commune, the first communist revolt in history, was bloodily putdown, causing more than 20,000 death toll. The extreme hardship experienced by the working class people, or the proletariats, contributed to the growth of realism and naturalism, realms of art and literature that devoted to the depictions of the life of those poor people as it is. Among these artists and authors, Zola was one of the most influential. In order to cry out for the justice for the proletariats and to warn the capitalists of the bloody consequences of over-exploiting them, Zola writes Germinal, which depicts the unfair hardships experienced by them in a naturalistic way. Naturalism is a scientific attitude in the pursuit of art and literature, and Zola’s passion for it stems from his early memories.

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Born in 1840 Zola was living a relatively adequate life with his parents. However, seven years later his father, an abled engineer, died with unfinished project in Aix, the countryside where they lived in. Still, Zola enjoyed the countryside and developed feelings for it. Besides the good time he had there, he was constantly exposed to miseries in his communities after he and his family moved to the slum inhabited by the poor proletariats, who were unfairly taken advantages of by their employees. Nevertheless, it is because of this experience that Zola takes compassion on them and would seek for their justice. In 1858, Zola followed his mother to Paris and continued his education, which he never completed, yet four years later, he received a job at Hachette publication. At first he worked as an art critic. Becoming more familiar with the world of art, he was deeply attracted by Jules Bastien-Lepage, a French painter known for his almost photographic works with realistic details. Those features, in fact, were naturalistic and inspired Zola to realize that the greatest works that reveal the life of the people stay true to the actuality. Moreover, his encounter with the philosopher and literary historian Hippolyte Taine led him to a deeper understanding of Naturalism. Taine believes “vice and virtue are products like vitriol and sugar.” In other words, he thinks that there are material causes to every social phenomenon or human behavior. Taking this idea to heart, Zola creates characters formed by all external forces such as hereditary characteristics, environmental conditions, and historical context. Zola puts this idea as “the soul being absent,” which becomes the core of naturalism.

To write naturalistically, Zola had to engage to the life of those whom he was writing about deeply. Following them and investigating them were one of the most used methods to get to know their life. Not only that, he also had to record their life meticulously so that the resulting books could contain truthful details, which were naturalistic necessities. In 1868, using the naturalistic method, Zola started the creation of the Rougon-Macquart series, to which Zola himself refers as “the natural and social history of a family in the time of the Second Empire.” The whole series includes twenty novels, in which the main characters share the same names but presenting in different settings, and Germinal is the thirteenth of them. To ensure that Germinal reflects the reality of the miners’ living, Zola applied naturalism to it – from the construction of the book to the various details of it.

On February 5th 1884, three days after the strike took place at Anzin mine. Zola went there himself. There he observed the workers and recorded their life revolving around the mine. During his visit, he went down into the mine to watch people working unceasingly in shady tunnels, which were so small that one man can only pass with his hands and knees on the ground and so small that people could barely get out if an accident happened. Not only that, the dripping pit, inflammable gas, and other details indicating the dangers that the miners faced; Zola recorded all these features of the mines and put them into Germinal. Moreover, he also includes details that made the mines a place of suffering such as the unbearable heat that makes people work in nudity. Other than investigating the pits, he also visited the taverns and even the houses where the workers lived, which allowed him to write the shocking scene where Catherine, the main female character and the daughter in a regular miners-family, takes shower in the kitchen while all her family was having meals. Besides the everyday scenes in the miners’ life, Zola even studied their food closely. In Germinal, the workers are always short on food, and what they eat the often is just vermicelli, the thinnest kind of pasta, dissolved into water. Depending on their economic ability, the liquid can be thin or thick. The details of the miners’ working and living conditions can go on and on, which proves that Zola did an in-depth inspection when he went to the Anzin mine.

Coming back from Nord, Zola was ready to write Germinal, the very first book that depicts the life of the proletariats in modern context and reveals the injustice they endure. The story starts with the mechanic Etienne Lantier being fired and seeking for job at Montsou. Soon he begins his work and lives with Toussaint Maheu who introduces him to the mine. The experience he has is not smooth: Mr. Hennebeau lowers the wages of the miners causing the whole Maheu family to be unable to afford food, and the little son becomes disabled from a collapsing incidence which is caused by unsteady timber that the mine company refuses to pay to fix. The company makes its workers miserable by exploiting them while the members in the company indulge in excessive clothes and food. Moreover, the owner of the grocery shop Maigrat, who is related to the mine company, takes advantages of the workers too: he keeps the prices of food high so that he can coerce the women to sleep with him in exchange of food. Those people possessing power over the poor proletariats keep shredding their economic income which puts them into subordinate positions and force them to be submissive. For instance, Toussaint is an honest and hardworking miner who has worked for the mining company for all his life. As a result, even though Etienne asks him many times to consider striking, he declines; it is not until his own son becomes unable to work, which is directly caused by the company’s parsimony, that he decides to stand by Etienne. The time seems to be ripe for the workers to quit and demand higher wages. Nevertheless, life gets harder after the strike. Besides the thinner porridge, even sugar and coffee become luxuries. Mining is the only option for the people to make an income. Without the mine they can hardly survive, and the company knows it. Therefore, by employing the Belgians instead, the mining company successfully threatens the striking miners. Thus once again, the people are powerless, and the mining industry wins. In this conflict, the people only have one way to survive, yet they give it up in hope of forcing their employee to provide them with better condition; however, the company has multiple solutions to its workers’ strike. Germinal ruthlessly reveals this apparent unfairness, accusing the capitalists of exploitation.

Demonstrating and accusing the unjust is not the only purpose of Germinal; it is also an exhibition of violence, which results from the unmerited treatment of the workers. Being taken advantage of for so long, the workers use intense violence to make their anger known. With their axes and cudgels, they march across the city to the bakery, where the women execute Maigrat and take his penis off. Even in the film, this scene is stark. Furthermore, the harmless father of Toussaint Bonnemort –– who starts to work for this mine at the age of eight and is still working, who is now infected with diseases such as black lung and thus weak and feeble –– strangles the rich daughter of the company to death. In the end, after the company gives the jobs to the Belgians, the unarmed miners come to the mine to protest. As the tension builds up, violence occurs again with the miners throwing stones at the army guarding the mine. The result of this is indeed more depressing: Toussaint Bonnemort gets shot to death. Even after thus many deaths, however, Zola continues. In the end, half of the Bonnemort family die, and all deaths happen just because of the strike, which is directly caused by the workers’ injustice treatment. Still, the level of violence in Germinal is just a speck of dust compared to what happened in the Paris Commune. In fact, the story in Germinal happens before the Commune, and Zola wrote the book almost fifteen years after it to warn the contemporary capitalists that the same bloodshed would reoccur if they continue to exploit their workers. Indeed, during the time when Zola composed Germinal, the conditions of the workers, especially of the miners, did not seem to be better. Statistics shows that one out of every five workers strkied, and half of them were miners, who had ten percent of the chance to retire disabled. Moreover, a later research confirms that about 150,000 people in France died from consumption yearly. Therefore, the workers’ situation should be the last to ignore, yet the appetite of the companies continued to grow larger: the capitalism in France was gradually transforming from liberal to monopolistic. Many smaller companies had to curtail the workers to barely survive, which only enrage them more. Therefore, Germinal, a story solely about a strike that happens before and eventually leads to the Paris Commune, is an alert for Zola’s capitalist readers, who still remembered the tragic event and probably would never want it to replicate itself.

To conclude, Germinal is a naturalistic literature, composed of details from factual life and thus reflecting the struggles that the real people endured. Although proletariats’ hardships were the least for the capitalists to care about during the Second Industrial Revolution since making the biggest amount of profits was what they aimed at, there were still people like Emile Zola who devoted their lives into unraveling the poor’s living conditions, making their voice heard, and seeking fairness for them. Furthermore, with the social awakening of the proletariats themselves, there was hope to stop their history of being exploited. During this time of darkness, the proletariats were conserving strength and building energies for earning their justice. The seed of a just world was germinating.

Works Cited
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‘Emile Zola.’ Industrial Revolution: Primary Source, PDF ed., pp. 123-34.
‘Emile Zola.’ Yale French Studies, e-book. Excerpt originally published in GALE CONTEXTUAL ENCYCLOPEDIA OF WORLD LITERATURE, , pp. 1739-42.
‘Germinal (1885), a Novel by Émile Zola.’ Planete Energies, 22 Nov. 2017,
Hunt, Jonathan P. ‘Naturalism.’ New Dictionary of the History of Ideas, PDF ed., pp. 1601-04.
Perkins, Priscilla. ‘Psychology.’ AMERICAN HISTORY THROUGH LITERATURE, 1870 – 1920, PDF ed., pp. 923-28.
Petrey, Sandy D. ‘The Revolutionary Setting of Germinal.’ French Review, American Association of Teachers of French. Jstor, American Association of Teachers of French,
Potter, Polyxeni. ”Sometimes the Naked Taste of Potato Reminds Me of Being Poor.” PDF file.
Schehr, Lawrence R. ‘Deipnomachy, or Cooking with Zola.’ Nineteenth Century Franch Studies, PDF ed., pp. 338-443.
Weisberg, Gabriel P. ‘Naturalism in Art and Literature.’ New Dictionary of the History of Ideas, PDF ed., pp. 1604-07.
Maslin, Janet. ‘Review/Film: Germinal; From Claude Berri, A Zola Classic.’ New York Times, 11 Mar. 1994.
Biography In Context, Accessed 8 Feb. 2019.
Kaplan, Roger. ‘Zola lives.’ The Atlantic, May 1994, p. 129+.
Biography In Context, Accessed 8 Feb. 2019. ‘Zola, Emile.’ PDF file.

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