Strike Action and Workers
Germinal is a novel set in northern France, in the 1860’s. It is written by the French writer Emile Zola, who offers what he thinks is the best solution to the problems in the industrial revolution through Germinal. The plot of the book is centered on a strike that occurs in the mining community of Montsou. The strike takes place because of the constant deteriorating conditions of the miners. Etienne, a newcomer to Montsou, is leading the work stoppage, protesting for the better working conditions. Different workers in Montsou have different opinions on how better conditions for the miners should be achieved.
Based on what unfolds throughout the novel, it appears that Zola views Etienne’s solution as the best way to end the problems brought forth by the Industrial Revolution. The industrial revolution was the transformation of production from manufacture by hand for small markets to machine manufacture for large markets. This was a period of time in which many people started to move from rural areas to cities that were built around factories and mines, like in Germinal. Although the industrial revolution had lots of positives, it also brought about lots of problems.
Perhaps the biggest problem was the low wages, and the gap between the rich and poor. As seen in Germinal, everyone who could in a family worked, and this still hardly produced enough money to put food on the table. It would be very common just to have a slice of bread with some butter on it as a meal. As all these workers were struggling to survive, managers and especially the owners who started the company were very wealthy. However, it was not that the owners were not sympathetic towards the poor; it was more they were naive as to how bad their wages and living conditions actually were.
Another one of the major problems with the industrial revolution was the conditions in which the people worked. In Germinal, the workers would have long shifts in the mines, and the work was very difficult and often very dangerous as well. The people in the mines would never know when a rock fall would be coming, or when there would be an explosion due to firedamp. Even worse, was the fact that women and children also were also forced to work in these conditions in order to give the family as much money as possible.
Political figure, Karl Marx, was an important figure during this time period in the novel. Therefore, some of the characters in Germinal reflect some of his ideas, while others are opposed to them. Marx thinks that in order for the class struggle between the proletariat (miners) and bourgeoisie (owners) to end, revolution needs to be brought forth by the proletariat. After this revolution, there would be a classless society, with equal distribution of wealth and ownership. Of the main characters in the book, I think that Pluchart and Etienne most closely imitate Marx’s ideas in Germinal.
Pluchart is a leader of the International, which is trying to get the support of workers everywhere to bring about revolution. Etienne is deeply influenced by Pluchart and reflects many of these same ideas, which are similar to Marx. However, when he brings about the strike it is not very organized and it does not have enough support to succeed. Rasseneur also has views like Marx. However, Rasseneur’s ideas are much less radical. He wants better working conditions, but is not for a revolution or strike. Souvarine has views that are much different from the others.
He wants violence and everything to burn down with the hope that something better will arise. Etienne comes to Montsou looking for a job after he was fired from his last job. He was a mechanic, but was fired after hitting his boss when he was drunk. This was not unexpected because Etienne often becomes violent when he is drinking. Etienne quickly is hired, and works in the mine at Le Voreux. His close friend is Pluchart who shares with him the ideas of a revolution by the workers. Etienne understands this plan relatively well but continually tries to gain more knowledge by reading books and further educating himself.
Etienne thinks this revolution could improve the conditions and wages in the mines, and encourages the workers to go on strike. The miners are tired of the unfair conditions, and it does not take too much time to convince them to go on strike. They rally around Etienne, seeing him as their leader. Ultimately the strike fails and the people are forced to go back to work to avoid starvation. The miners put total blame on Etienne for the failure of the strike, and for the deaths of those who died during it. Although the strike failed, Etienne is optimistic about the future.
He thinks that with more preparedness, organization, and support the revolution will succeed. Rasseneur used to be a mechanic at Le Voreux, but was fired after he led a protest. He has a little bit of education and is currently an innkeeper. He thinks that the workers should negotiate for better wages, but does not agree with Plucharts’s ideas and thinks they should do it peacefully without striking. He demonstrates this view throughout the novel. “But Why? It’s not in the Company’s interest to have a strike, nor in the workers’. It would be better to come to some agreement (Zola, 177).
He has seen strikes before, and they have never worked. He urges the workers to not go on strike, but they are tired of the worsening conditions and will not listen. After the strike fails, he defends Etienne telling the workers they did not have to strike and that they should have listened to him. Following the strike, Rasseneur continues his view that peaceful negotiations are the best solution to bringing about changes in the conditions and wages of the workers. Pluchart is a friend of Etienne, who is one of the leaders of the International.
He is well educated, and it is his job to share the views of the international to all countries around the world. His goal is to unite all the workers in the world, and bring about a revolution. He spreads these views by traveling around the world and giving speeches urging the workers to unite and strike, promising financial aid from the International. “He delivered his set speech on how marvelous the International was and the benefits it could provide, for this was how he usually chose to present it at venues where he was speaking for the first time.
He explained how its aim was the emancipation of the workers, and he described its grandiose structure, with the commune at the bottom, then the province, above that the nation, and lastly, at the very summit, humanity in general (Zola 250). ” After he gave the speech to the miners in Montsou, he pushed them to the brink of striking, which would eventually happen. His speech encouraged the workers of the positive outcome that could come about from striking and joining the International. However, once the strike began the workers began to lose faith in the International when they receive little financial aid, and began to starve.
Following the strikes failure, Pluchart continues to make speeches and urge revolution, and convinces Etienne to join him. Souvarine is a Russian mechanic who works during the strike. He was not very well liked at first because there is a general distrust of foreigners. However, he is friendly enough to the people of Montsou that they grow to like him. Souvarine escaped from Russia after a failed effort of assassinating the Tsar. This failed assassination attempt resulted in his lover getting killed. Since then, he has had the attitude that violence is the answer to everything.
He does not think that gradual change will work, and has no hope of conditions improving. In his mind, all of society should be burnt down with the hope that something better will arise. “And as for his idea of gradual evolution, don’t make me laugh! No. Put every town and city to the torch, mow people down, raze everything to the ground, and when there’s absolutely nothing left of this rotten, stinking world, then maybe, just maybe, a better one will grow up in its place (Zola, 144). ” Souvarine is for the strike, but encourages the workers to act violently.
Etienne is against this approach, and as leader of the strike he does not promote this. However, as the strikers begin to get frustrated they begin acts of violence, though not directly a result from Souvarine. The workers destroys others mines, kill the shop owner Maigrat, and throw bricks at the soldiers guarding Le Voreux. When the workers go back to work, Souvarine takes matters into his own hands. He sabotages Le Voreux, causing the mine to collapse. This results in the destruction of the mine and the death of many workers.
Souvarine then leave Montsou with the same views; the old society needs to be destroyed before a new one can be built in its place. The title of the book, Germinal, is the name of one of the months on the Republican calendar. Germinal was the seventh month, lasting in today’s calendar from the middle of March to the middle of April. This also happens to be the same period in which Germinal starts and ends (March of one year to April of the next). Germinal literally means germination and renewal (Pearson, xiii-xiv).
These meanings are shown at the end of the novel when the characters remaining are starting a new life, renewed with new meaning. The approach that Zola seemed to favor was that of Etienne. The whole strike is brought upon by Etienne, and is what Germinal is centered around. Although the strike ends up failing, Etienne is renewed (germinal) with confidence at the end of the novel as he is on his way to join Pluchart. There is no doubt in his mind that the next time that they strike, they will be better prepared, more united, and will accomplish their goals.
Zola emphasizes this in his conclusion. New men were starting into life, a black army of vengeance slowly germinating in the furrows, growing for the harvests of the century to come; and soon this germination would tear the earth apart (Zola, 532)” When Zola leaves this as the conclusion of his novel, he is pointing out that the approach in which Etienne is facing the problems of the industrial revolution is the right one, and is the solution that will eventually put an end to their problems.