The earlier Zola novels I read had a six or seven long chapters – in L’Assommoir’s case, quite long – allowing for long, complex scenes with all of the color and movement Zola can pack into them, like the tour of the produce market that opens The Belly of Paris or the splendid wedding chapter in L’Assommoir, where the festivities include a visit to the Louvre.
Germinal again has seven big parts, but Zola breaks them into many little chapters, making the novel more zippy and allowing easier changes in perspective, even, in occasional ironic chapters, to the rich mine operators and shareholders. Thus Étienne Rougon, the stranger who comes to town in the first chapter can act as a standard point-of-view character without limiting Zola at all. He can leap from Étienne’s make-it-strange bewilderment to a chapter of the Maheu family getting out of bed and preparing for their day in the coal mine, to a scene of routine and ordinary domesticity, however pinched.
Lights were going out now. A last door banged and everything relapsed in to slumber; women and children were settling down to have their sleep out in roomier beds. And all along the road from the silent village to the panting Le Voreux a line of shadows tramped slowly through the blast. The colliers were off to work with shambling gait and folded arms, for they did not know what else to do with them. Each one had his briquet [sandwich] on his back. Though they were shivering in their thin clothes, they did not quicken step, but plodded on, strung out along the road like a trampling herd. (Part 1, Ch. 2)
No need to explain what “the panting Le Voreux,” the mine pit, is, since the perplexed Étienne learned about it in the previous chapter. The coal miners in that line are about to meet Étienne. They include Maheu, the father, along with three of his children. Maheude, the mother, and four more children, are in the earlier sentence, getting a little more sleep. Maheu and Maheude are terrific characters, big characters, perfectly played by Gérard Depardieu and Miou-Miou in the 1993 Claude Berri film adaptation of the novel, if you can get over the fact that a fine French actress is named Miou-Miou. They are the heroes of the book, even if the outsider Étienne gets more space.
Anyway, to return to my point, what a shock it was to reach the end of Part 2 – 11 chapters and 118 pages from many points of view – and realize that less than twenty-four hours had passed in the novel. This is a full quarter of the novel! An amazing piece of showing off by Zola.
Darkness had submerged everything in the plain beyond, Montsou, Marchiennes, the forest of Vandame, the vast sea of beet and corn, unrelieved now except by far-off beacons – the blue flames of blast-furnaces and the red glare of coke-ovens. It was raining now and the darkness was thickening, as the steady continuous downpour engulfed everything in its monotonous stream. Only one voice could still be heard, the slow, heavy breathing of the drainage pump, ceaselessly panting day and night. (2.5)
The pit first pants on the second page; the instance up above is twenty pages later; now we’re about a hundred pages on. What is literary art but repeating words at intervals, with different words in between to distract the inattentive reader?