Monday, October 12, 2015

Book Review: Germinal by Émile Zola

I've tried to write a review of this book a few times since reading it, but it's been very difficult to get my thoughts together on it. Hopefully this makes sense.

Germinal is the story of a coal mining town in the north of France in the 1860s. The story follows Etienne, a young newcomer to the town who is looking for work. He is hired in the mines and exposed to the horrible conditions the other workers face. The mine is run on a system that keeps the poor down, never rising above the poverty level, while the middle and upper class owners get more and more wealthy. The miners have little to no morals, they just work day to day to earn the money to feed their large families. Sex is the main way to pass the time, and it seems everyone has something going on in that way, including the children since they see everyone else doing it so much. Their living conditions are filthy and sub par. When the miner owners announce a pay cut, Etienne manages to unionize the workers and being a strike to demand their old wages back. Neither side will relent and the strike goes on for months. The miners eventually form a mob and storm the mines, ruining the equipment to show the owners they mean business. The miners finally can take the starvation no more, deciding little by little to go back to work after they've watched their children die. This decision comes too late though as they have already wrecked the mines beyond use, causing a massive and tragic flooding disaster.

This is undoubtedly the most bleak and depressing book I've ever read. Being a student of the French language my whole school career, I always heard about what a great author Zola was, so when I read that this is reputed to be his best book I decided it would be a good place to start. Zola wrote this as just one part of a larger series of books depicting the horrible living conditions of the poor in the 1860s. I may sound naive in this review, but I just don't see how it was possible for the conditions to be quite what Zola describes. Yes the people are ignorant and uneducated, leading to a lot of mob mentality and missteps which we know can happen with such a background. The part that causes me to question is the absolute lack of any moral fiber whatsoever. The people have zero dignity and don't seem to care. They live their lives like slaves, never desiring things to be any better until Etienne comes along and shows them that they can fight back. I found it hard to get behind the "heroism" of the story because everyone involved is wrong in some way. The people shout that the middle class has caused them to live like slaves and they don't deserve to earn a living by the hands of others, but the mine would not exist had the middle class to invested the money to build it so how can they not deserve some type of compensation? Perhaps I'm just too inherently American to get behind socialism of any kind. I don't deny that the mine conditions in France were awful at the time, but this book didn't motivate me in any way which is usually what you want in a book designed to be an exposé to the masses. The story is definitely well written, and every other review I've read gives this book flying colors, but I just cannot lie and say I enjoyed it in any way. Reading the other reviews made me question if everyone is just saying they enjoyed it because everyone else says they did and so on. I'm sure I will be looked at as closed minded by admitting this, but I just cannot help the way this book struck me. It was an awful reading experience and I couldn't wait for it to be over. I give this book 3 out of 5 stars.

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