Emile Zola tells the tale of poverty stricken miners in a small French town called Montsou. Germinal begins with Etienne, a mechanic without a job, as he stumbles through the night and comes across Le Voreux, a coalmine outside Montsou. Germinal is about people's lives and struggles. Throughout Germinal Zola describes the lives of the miners and touches upon a few main themes. Etienne along with the other main characters face the issues of socialism, social justice, human nature, and relationships. Throughout the book the miners change and evolve. Their ideals and values develop and progress. Etienne, Catherine, and Chaval exhibit the effects of these themes through their actions and lives. Their relationships evolve throughout the book and their lives are results of socialism and social justice. Their actions are an example of human nature being acted upon by another force, humans themselves. A person could write a thesis on Germinal; however, I will focus the next few paragraphs on three of the major themes and critique Zola's book and personal view. Human nature and human relationships go hand in hand, relationships are products of human nature. Socialism also relates to those ideas. Therefore, my focus will be their significance and how the three characters are examples.
Socialism is the attempt to equalize material wealth and production by the government or people. Simply put, socialism seeks to bring workers together with the upper class, making life fair and equal. Germinal is a book about inequality. Germinal is a book about extremes, mostly economic, but also mental extremes. Socialism comes into the picture as Etienne's ideas evolve towards a more equal society. In the beginning of the book, Etienne is only a wandering mechanic, looking for work. He meets Catherine and Chaval at Le Voreux mine, and there his ideas begin to form. At the end of the first day, Etienne thinks to himself, " perhaps it was a wind of rebellion he wanted to go back down into the mine to suffer and struggle he felt furious at the thought of this greedy, squatting god, who fed off the flesh of 10,000 hungry people " (p. 71). From the very beginning Etienne has thoughts brewing in his mind. He may not know what they mean, but they are the beginning of socialist ideas.
In his last job, Etienne worked for a man named Pluchart, a member of the Workers' International Association. The "International" was designed to bring social justice to the world, thus bringing about a socialist movement. Etienne's ideas progress, "his whole rebellious temperament tempted him to embrace the struggle of labour against capital " (p. 142). That ideology is essential socialism against capitalism, two extremes. His dreams were to "make sure that the worker kept the fruits of his labour" (p. 142). Etienne's ideas evolved due to changes at the mine. The Company cut wages and changed the way timbering was paid for in comparison to each tub of coal. His anger towards the Company and their actions pushes his ideas along and forces him to take the next step towards his ideal world. Etienne tells his fellow workers, "It's got to stop. We'll be the masters, one day!" (p. 147). His anger at the bosses and owners just drives him further. He brings up his thought of an imminent strike and the creation of a provident fund. Later on Etienne is sitting around a table with the family he lives with discussing the current situation. The wife, La Maheude, makes a powerful statement:
The worst of it, I think, is when you realize that nothing can change When you're young you think that you're going to be happy later on, there are things you look forward to; and then you keep finding you're as hard up as ever, you stay bogged down in poverty I don't blame anyone for it, but there are times when I feel sick at the injustice of it all. (p. 166)
Again the idea of social justice appears. It isn't fair, the workers slave...