Cinema Literature and Energy

Germinal (1885), a Novel by Émile Zola

Germinal de Zola
©Livre de Poche

Comment realized by Alain Beltran, Senior Research Fellow, French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS).

The 19th century was marked by the first industrial revolution, which was primarily driven by the steam engine in the areas of both transportation (locomotives) and industry. As a result, coalCoal is ranked by its degree of transformation or maturity, increasing in carbon content from... production became an issue of strategic importance and developed significantly. In addition to providing mechanical energySum of the potential energy and kinetic energy of an object or system... , coal was indispensable for steelmaking, gas lighting and heating. Around the middle of the century, France produced less than 5 million metric tons of coal. By 1900, this figure had jumped to 33 million metric tons, with an overall consumption of nearly 50 million metric tons, meaning that substantial amounts had to be imported. Coal had become by far the main source of energy. Among coal-producing regions, the Nord and Pas-de-Calais departments contributed the most to French production due to their mining basin.

Émile Zola (1840-1902) is the author of an important cycle of novels entitled Les Rougon-Macquart, the “natural and social history of a family under the Second Empire”. Germinal, which is arguably one of the most polished and well-known installments of the series, is the 13th volume and was published in 1885. This means that there is a 20-year difference separating the author’s research and subsequent writing of the novel from the narrative and the events that inspired it (the plot is set in the mid-1860s, as evidenced by an allusion to the second French intervention in Mexico of 1861 to 1867). As is the case for each of Zola’s novels, Germinal is based on highly accurate, in-depth research. In February 1884, Zola took an interest in the strike that had broken out at the Anzin Mining Company (and lasted nearly two months) and decided to go there in person. In a small café, he met a coal miner who had been fired by the company, as well as the director. Seeking to find out more, Zola decided to go down into the nearly 700-meter-deep Renard pit to better understand the working conditions of underground miners. The author coupled this on-site experience with a substantial review of reports on accidents, strikes and work conditions in French coal mines since the early 19th century. This research gives the novel highly accurate documentary value. Germinal is a work dominated by a sense of revolt in response to injustice and poverty. As a result, the novel divided public opinion when it was first released, with some readers considering it a masterpiece and others shocked by the crudeness of certain scenes and dialogue. The unrelenting novel portrays an extremely harsh world, recounts a repressed strike and ends in tragedy following the sabotage of a pit, only offering a glimmer of hope in the final lines: “Germinal” was a month of the French Revolutionary Calendar (March 21 to April 19), symbolizing nature’s renewal after a long winter, just as the underground miners would one day bring about a new, more just society.

An Industry’s Livelihood

Since the end of the 18th century, no industrial expansion had been possible without steam and, by extension, coal. The first steam engines, such as the Newcomen engine, were used to pump water out of coal mines. But the steam era only truly began after the invention of the WattThe watt (symbol W) is the derived unit of power (see definition) in the International System of Units (SI)... steam engine and the Stephenson locomotive. Certain countries, such as Great Britain, had an abundance of mines from which the coal was exported via canals and subsequently by sea. While France had resources in the Nord and Pas-de-Calais departments and in the Lorraine and Centre regions, they were insufficient, often of poor quality, and cut off by overburden, especially in the northern mining basin. Consequently, France had to import a significant amount of coal from Great Britain, Germany and Belgium. Nevertheless, major mining companies started forming in the mid-18th century, such as in Anzin, near Denain, France, mobilizing significant capital, a substantial amount of equipment and a large number of workers, as the coal industry was heavily reliant on manual labor. These powerful companies also had considerable political influence. For example, the main shareholder of the Anzin Mining Company, Jean Casimir-Périer (1847-1907), served as President of the French Republic. A number of independent companies attempted, but struggled, to survive alongside the major mining companies, which were among the largest and richest businesses in the second half of the 19th century. Germinal, however, is set in a period of crisis during which many companies were suffering. Zola drew his inspiration directly from the Anzin Mining Company, the strike of 1884 and Émile Basly (1854-1928), a mining union leader who subsequently became a Congressman and mayor of Lens. The novel’s main character, Étienne Lantier, is based on Basly, whom Zola met.

One Color: Black

If asked to find one color that defines Germinal, black would undoubtedly be the best choice. Coal certainly dominates in the novel, but black also darkens the other colors too, such as in the pitch-black tunnels, the inky night when Étienne Lantier arrives on the scene, the shadows of the trapped workers as they wander around the flooded tunnels, the “black faces” and the coal-filled lungs of the underground miners. The pit banks, gloomy interiors and mourning clothes further darken the atmosphere. In the author’s words, “[...] everything fell back into darkness, pickaxes struck great hollow blows; one only heard panting chests, the grunting of discomfort and weariness beneath the weight of the air and the rain of the springs.” The noise (the carts that pass, collide with each other and go down into the pit, as well as the shouts and orders) and the water, seeping and threatening at all times, add to the anxiety brought on by these places of darkness. One of the most moving scenes in Germinal involves the horses that go down into the mine, never to resurface alive. With sympathy, the author describes the brave horse Bataille and its younger companion, Trompette, who cannot forget the light and sun of its previous life, when it was free and happy.

Danger at Every Turn

When Étienne Lantier sees the Voreux pit for the first time, it is described as “a gluttonous beast crouching there to devour the earth.” This image of an industry that swallows up the population by sucking it underground is reused time and time again, as the dangers of mining were many and Germinal illustrates almost all of them. One hazard was “firedamp”, or pockets of flammable gases that could trigger explosions from tunnel to tunnel. Coal dust explosions were an equally destructive force. The inadequate shoring of the tunnels, which the miners in the novel seem to overlook, created an ever-present risk that the roof might collapse. And water could trickle down from the top of the mine and become a gushing flow by the time it reached the miners in the lower levels, an aspect that had struck Zola when he went down into the Renard pit. In the novel, the sabotage of the tubbing triggers a disaster when torrents of water flood the tunnels. Beyond these physical dangers, accidents occurred when miners were descending into the pit in cages, climbing back to the surface by ladder and inevitably bumping into things due to the feeble lighting of the safety lamps. Naturally, miners’ lungs were clogged with coal and other harmful substances, and rheumatic disorders broke even the strongest among them. As a result, life expectancy was not very long and miners like Bonnemort, who had worked for 50 years, were an exception.

Mining Jobs

While machinery was omnipresent – from steam engines to lower and raise the cages, to blast furnaces and cokeCoke is a coal derivative obtained through pyrolysis. It consists of almost pure carbon... plants – the work was otherwise still manual. In highly accurate terms, Zola describes the movement the pikemen use to extract coal at Piolaine and how the putters push the carts by hand. There were also engine-men, sifters, packers, patchers and carmen. The hierarchy ran from trammers (young miners) to head captains (foremen) and, at the very top, engineers. Mining vocabulary covered more than just work, lending such terms as “briquet” for lunch and “cap” for the miners’ head gear. Zola makes it clear from the beginning of the novel that mine workers started very young. Bonnemort, for example, went down into the mine when he was eight (he is 58 when the narrative unfolds) as a trammer, then became a putter, pikeman, packer, patcher and, finally, carman. Many miners could not imagine their children working anywhere other than the pit, if only for financial reasons. While limits were placed on women and children working in the second half of the 19th century, the regulations were not always followed. Note that Zola’s characters do not speak in the Picard patois, or the more general chti dialect used in this poem:

Well, good old Gaucher, when I’m barely 15 years old, He hires me as a putter so I can make ends meet. It’s a very hard job, my young arms are frail.

The company the story is centered around was undoubtedly based strongly on the Anzin Mining Company, one of France’s oldest and richest, with 19 pits, including 13 in operation, spread across 67 towns, as well as 10,000 workers, 5,000 metric tons of coal produced per day, a railroad and many other assets to its name. A slow modernization process emerged at the end of the 19th century when compressed air and electricityForm of energy resulting from the movement of charged particles (electrons) through a conductor... came into use, but the first true wave of modernization did not occur until after 1930, and especially after 1945, with the introduction of task mechanization and automation, which led to significant improvements in productivity. Zola, however, portrays a work environment that had barely evolved in the second half of the 19th century.

Settlements, Inns and Feast Days

Aside from describing the mine and its miners in detail, Zola was also interested in the daily life of workers (and the middle class), which the painstaking observer portrays with his usual eye for detail. The settlement, made up of standardized, company-built housing, forms another symbol of the mining basin. Zola depicts the houses as sad and uncomfortable, where a lack of privacy reigns and gossip and jealousy are rife among the inhabitants.

Illustration Corons

Much of Zola’s story unfolds in the many inns frequented daily by the miners. Generally run by former miners, inns served as a place to socialize as well as to hold union meetings, with one inn in particular playing a vital role in the novel. Zola also mentions traditional games, including bowling and cockfighting. Parties (called “feast days”) offered further entertainment. In both the 19th and 20th centuries, mining communities also had other specific traditions, such as orchestras and brass bands, pigeon keeping and archery. The world described by Zola in Germinal is a closed one, with Étienne Lantier only just managing to escape at the very end. The pits are located side-by-side and bordered by coal preparation plants. As for lodgings, the miners live in settlements in close proximity to the homes of their bosses and the engineers. Social tensions are clearly high between the haves and the have-nots, but the head captains (foremen) are often the most hated – that is, excluding the grocer, who is seen as an exploiter and whose death takes place in an explosion of hate. The engineer is feared, but has knowledge and demonstrates courage when he goes down into the pit to save Lantier in the novel’s final pages.

An Image Etched in the Collective Memory

Since Germinal was published, a number of strong images have been associated with the Nord and Pas-de-Calais mining basin, including underground work, settlements, strikes (the Carmaux strikes illustrated the combativeness of Jean Jaurès in 1892-1895), clashes with soldiers from other regions (in Germinal, a troop is sent to contain the miners in a confrontation that ends in tragedy) and men trapped in rising water. The miners’ courage and solidarity are greatly emphasized. Their pride is less apparent in the novel than their despair and need of food and justice. The mine is their only future and even those who were the most harshly impacted return to work there, such as Maheude. The bottom of the mine terrifies them, but their livelihood and pride depend on it. These complex, mixed feelings give the miner, “the black face”, a special status in the working-class milieu. Their resistance during World War II, the post-war “battle of coal”, the strike of 1963 and the inevitable decline form part of our history. Today’s landscape is still marked by mining sites that proudly reaffirm their past. In 2012, for example, a large swath of the Nord and Pas-de-Calais mining basin was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List, encompassing 120 kilometers, 87 towns, 17 pits, 21 headframes, 51 mine dumps, 3 train stations, 124 estates, 38 schools, 26 religious buildings, town halls and 4,000 hectares of land. It would not be wrong to assert that Émile Zola is partly to credit for the veneration, the myths and the memory surrounding these people who, while fictional, were fully grounded in reality. And although the children and teenagers who toiled in this exhausting work are no longer a fixture of Western society, this is not yet the case in many developing countries. In this regard, Germinal remains relevant.

Learn more:


  • Adaptations of the novel: theater, cinema (most recently, Claude Berri’s 1993 film), comic books (2010), etc.
  • Other 19th-century literature in which mining plays an important role, such as Nobody’s Boy (volume II).
  • Historical sites: sites in Nord Pas-de-Calais (mine dumps), mining museums (Lewarde in northern France, Puits Couriot in Saint-Etienne), etc.


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