Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Your mad desire to be bourgeois yourselves - the surprising politics of Germinal

The politics of Germinal have been a puzzle to me since I started reading Zola, which was all of five years ago, to be clear about my ignorance.  I knew that Zola was the champion of the poor – I knew about Germinal – but Thérèse Raquin was about bourgeois shopkeepers , as was The Belly of Paris, as was, surprisingly, L’Assommoir, even if the central character starts poor and ends poor.  In The Belly of Paris, Zola makes good use of the metaphorical opposition between the Fat and the Thin, categories distinct from Rich and Poor.  L’Assommoir’s heroine grows fatter as she prospers, and fatter yet as she declines.  Zola himself is one of the fat.  He has great sympathy for the fat, or some of them, and also for the thin, but only some of them.

The Kill is about the super-rich, even less help.

Finally, I have made it to Germinal and can answer my question about the narrative’s politics.  I will write as if a novel can have its own political views.  The novel is outraged by the living and working conditions of the coal miners, their misery.  The novel thinks the mine owners are criminal conspirators.  The novel includes a number of political radicals, including the amazing Souvarine, a Russian terrorist who has intruded from some other novel:

“But why don’t you explain? What’s your object?”

“To destroy everything.  No more nations, no more governments, no more property, no more God or religion.” [this is Souvarine speaking]

“Yes, I gather that.  only where is it going to lead you?”

“To the primitive and formless community, to a new world, a fresh start.”

“And how are you going to carry it out?  How do you propose to set about it?”

“By fire, poison, and the dagger.  The real hero is the murderer, for he is the avenger of the people, the revolutionary in action, not someone just trotting out phrases out of books.  We must have a series of appalling cataclysms to horrify the rulers and awaken the people.”  (4.4)

The next paragraph describes Souvarine in his Raskolnikov-like mania, and is even more Dostoevskian.  The novel believes that Souvarine is a lunatic.  Less  violent radicals are sane, but con artists.  Étienne, the novel’s point of view character, gets something of a happy ending, in that we last see him going to Paris to join other labor organizers, where, in a couple of years, he will be killed in the suppression of the Paris Commune, assuming he survives the Siege of Paris.  The 1870 threshold is a source of great irony for Zola.

The novel is also horrified by – or means to horrify others by means of – the sexual promiscuity of the teenage girls in the mining village.  The boys, too, but let’s not kid ourselves.  Zola describes the sexual customs of the youth of the villages in great detail, in general and with specific instances.  One of the mine managers is even more obsessed with the coal mining girls than is the narrator:

His anger boiled up against these people who would not understand.  How gladly would he have made them a present of his fat salary if he could have had their tough hide and could have copulated like them, easy come, easy go!  Why couldn’t he sit at his table and stuff them with his pheasant, while he went off fornicating behind the hedges, laying girls without bothering who had done so before.  (5.5)

And on for a while longer.  That poor fellow is having marital problems, which has led him to abandon his proper bourgeois values, but not the narrator, no.  He wants not revolution but reform, higher wages, more calories, proper education, everything that will lead to the inculcation of standard French bourgeois values among the miners, that will cause them to behave better.

Bourgeois readers could safely marginalize the radicals; radical readers could sideline the lurid threat of teen promiscuity.  Either way, Zola is the champion of the poor in Germinal.  Everyone is happy.   Maybe if I reread the novel, it will look different.  That is how it looks now, like the most bourgeois radical literature I have ever read.

The title quotation is from 6.3, crazy Souvarine again.


  1. AR(Tom),

    You mentioned Raskolnikov at one point. I was thinking of Pyotr Verkhovensky, the son of Stepan, in _The Possessed_ as an example of an nihilist obsessed with violence and destruction.

  2. Yes, the nihilists in The Possessed are likely better examples of the type.

    Zola could have met such people, exiles, in France. I do wonder if he read Dostoevsky. Dostoevsky read Zola: "I can scarcely read it, it's such revolting stuff." That's from the Joseph Frank bio.

  3. AR(Tom),

    I have the Joseph Frank set on Dostoyevsky, but I've read only the first two volumes and that was long ago, but one of these days. . .

  4. I've only read essays and reviews by Frank, but they were always first rate. The biography must be one of the greats.

  5. AR(Tom),

    It's been so long that I remember little about what I have read (which means that when I do dig into the set I will have to begin again), but I did buy the books when they came out so I obviously was impressed sufficiently to invest some hard earned dollars on a biography. And one must also take into consideration that I don't read biographies, so the first two volumes must have been special.

  6. Me, too - I read biographies rarely. So they had better be good.

    Actually, I read biographies all the time, as parts of essays in magazines. But whole books, pretty rare.

  7. The portions of the novel you quote are enough to see how badly bowdlerized the public domain translation I read of Germinal was.

  8. There are some passage that would be bold for 1935, much less 1885.