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Germinal

From Academic Kids

Germinal was the seventh month in the French Republican Calendar. The month was named after the Latin word germen, which means seed, and started on March 20 or 21 in the Gregorian calendar.

Template:Revolutionary calendar months


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Germinal book cover

Germinal (1885) is the thirteenth novel in Emile Zola's twenty-volume series Les Rougon-Macquart. Usually considered Zola's undisputed masterpiece and one of the greatest novels ever written in the French language, the novel - an uncompromisingly harsh and realistic story of a coalminers' strike in northern France in the 1860s - has been published and translated in over one hundred countries as well as inspiring five film adaptations and two TV productions.

The novel's central character is Etienne Lantier, previously seen in Zola's other masterpiece, L'Assommoir (1877), a young migrant worker who arrives at the forbidding coalmining town of Montsou in the bleak far north of France to earn a living as a miner. Sacked from his previous job on the railways for assaulting a superior - Etienne was originally to have been the central character in Zola's "murder on the trains" thriller La Bête Humaine (1890), before the overwhelmingly positive reaction to Germinal persuaded him otherwise - he befriends the veteran miner Maheu, who finds him somewhere to stay and gets him a job pushing the carts down the pit.

Etienne is portrayed as a hard-working idealist but also a naïve youth; Zola's genetic theories come into play as Etienne is presumed to have inherited his Macquart ancestors' traits of hotheaded impulsiveness and an addictive personality capable of exploding into rage under the influence of drink or strong passions. Luckily, Zola keeps his theorising in the background and Etienne's motivations are much more natural as a result. He embraces socialist principles, reading large amounts of extremist left-wing literature and fraternising with Souvarine, a Russian anarchist and political emigré who has also come to Montsou to seek a living in the pits. Etienne's simplistic understanding of socialist politics and their rousing effect on him are very reminiscent of the rebel Silvère in the first novel in the cycle, La Fortune des Rougon (1871).

While this is going on, Etienne also falls for Maheu's daughter Catherine, also employed pushing carts in the mines, and he is drawn into the relationship between her and her brutish lover Chaval, a prototype for the character of Buteau in Zola's later novel La Terre (1887). The complex tangle of the miners' lives is played out against a backdrop of severe poverty and oppression, as their working and living conditions continue to worsen throughout the novel; eventually, pushed to breaking point, the miners decide to strike and Etienne, now a respected member of the community and recognised as a political idealist, becomes the leader of the movement. While the anarchist Souvarine preaches violent action, the miners and their families hold back, their poverty becoming ever more disastrous, until they are sparked into a ferocious riot, the violence of which is described in explicit terms by Zola, as well as providing some of the novelist's best and most evocative crowd scenes. The rioters are eventually confronted by police and the army, who repress the revolt in a violent and unforgettable episode. Disillusioned, the miners go back to work, blaming Etienne for the failure of the strike; then, in a fit of anarchist fervour, Souvarine launches a terrorist bomb attack on one of the Montsou pits, trapping Etienne, Catherine and Chaval at the bottom. The ensuing drama and the long wait for rescue are among some of Zola's best scenes, and the novel draws to a dramatic close.

The title, Germinal, is drawn from the springtime seventh month of the French Revolutionary Calendar, and is meant to evoke imagery of germination, new growth and fertility. Accordingly, Zola ends the novel on a note of hope, and one which has provided inspiration to socialist and reformist causes of all kinds throughout the years since its first publication:

"Beneath the blazing of the sun, in that morning of new growth, the countryside rang with song, as its belly swelled with a black and avenging army of men, germinating slowly in its furrows, growing upwards in readiness for harvests to come, until one day soon their ripening would burst open the earth itself."

By the time of his death, the novel had come to be recognised as his undisputed masterpiece. At his funeral crowds of workers gathered, cheering the cortège with shouts of "Germinal! Germinal!". Since then the book has come to symbolise working class causes and to this day retains a special place in French mining-town folklore.

Zola was always very proud of Germinal, and was always keen to defend its accuracy against accusations of hyperbole and exaggeration (from the conservatives) or of slander against the working classes (from the socialists). His research had been typically thorough, especially the parts involving lengthy observational visits to northern French mining towns in 1884, such as witnessing the after-effects of a crippling miners' strike first-hand at Anzin or actually going down a working coal pit at Denain. The mine scenes are especially vivid and haunting as a result.

A sensation upon original publication, it is now by far the best-selling of Zola's novels, both in France and internationally. A number of exceptional modern translations are currently in print and widely available.

Movies

The novel has been filmed a number of times, most recently in 1993 in a huge production directed by Claude Berri and starring Gérard Depardieu and Miou-Miou, at that time the most expensive feature film ever made in France. Much of Berri's film was shot on location in the Lens and Valenciennes regions of northern France, and the extensive unemployment and poverty the cast and crew still witnessed there led to the formation of a society, "Germinal l'association", headed by Depardieu, to alleviate the suffering caused by crippling unemployment in the départements comprising the region of Nord-Pas-de-Calais.

External link

fr:Germinal nl:Germinal pl:Germinal ru:Жерминаль

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