Émile Zola, Germinal
Manesse Bibliothek der Weltliteratur, 2002
We live in a consumption-oriented, fast-paced time, where articles on social injustices of all kind are quickly shared via social media, just to be forgotten only seconds later. Thus it seems very easy to deal with other people's misery and trick oneself into thinking, one could understand what they have to cope with. However, literary works like those of Émile Zola can make people understand, just how wrong this kind of thinking really is.
With his world-famous novel "Germinal", Émile Zola (1840-1902) managed to depict the intricate situation of the lower classes without artistic romanticising. He used the novel to show the true meaning of poverty and how people make their living by doing hard physical labour in a mine for hours and hours with no more than a piece of bread and butter and a can of coffee as provision.
The novel is part of the big naturalistic cycle of novels "The Rougon-Macquart", which started publication in 1871 and which consists of 20 volumes. In this cycle, Zola tries to illustrate how people are determined by their place of birth, their social status and their genetics - and how little advancement opportunities they actually have.
"Germinal" tells the story of the machinist Étienne Lantier and his experiences in the mining settlement of Le Voreux. After finding accommodation at the Maheu family and starting work in the mine, he quickly realises just how devastating the working conditions are. He is shocked by the way the workers have to earn their wages in Le Voreux and tries to convince people to start a strike. This only makes things worse, though, as some people refuse to take part in the strike and it merely ends with a new cut in wages for the workers who tried to rebel. The situation escalates until the military has to step in at the end. Étienne ultimately has to learn the bitter lesson that his idealism got him nowhere and deeply harmed his fellow men.
This novel is not for the faint-hearted. Zola takes over 800 pages to portray the gripping fate of the miners of Le Voreux, whose lives keep getting worse. Consequently, the reader can do nothing else but keep reading in the vain hope that things will get better at some point.
But this is also the true strength of the novel. "Germinal" pulls us deeper and deeper into a dead-end story, a labyrinth of individual fates, where the reader's moral thinking is challenged time and again. Together with Étienne, we slowly realise that the world does not simply consist of good and bad people. Instead we are all entangled in a broken system, which cannot be escaped by a mere strike. In other words: It is not the mine-owners' fault - we need to change the entire social system.
Such a valuable, overarching realisation cannot be reached through short online articles and the likes. It is still novels like "Germinal" which make us understand that we do not have to work on isolated problems but that our entire social system is deeply flawed. After all, in the wake of globalisation, the gap between rich and poor only seems to be getting larger instead of smaller.
Consequently, novels like "Germinal" cannot be forgotten. In order to have a critical reflection on exploitation, we need to do more than share a shocking headline or a short video on social media.