The Grotesque Brilliance of Emilé Zola’s ‘Germinal’

For my Literature degree I am currently reading Germinal (1885) by Emile Zola. Set in rural France, the novel depicts the utter horror and exploitation of the nineteenth-century, working class coal miners. it is based on Zola’s own experience of the miner’s strikes at Anzin in 1884 and his visit to a coal-pit at Denain. It is simultaneously the most horrific and beautiful thing I have read in a very long time; I urge everyone to pick it up and read it if they get the chance.

I won’t go in to plot details because I will spoil the novel for potential readers, but I will say this; just because something is emotionally testing and difficult to digest, it doesn’t mean we should avoid reading it. I have seen on my O.U. online forums that students are claiming the book is ‘lengthy’ and ‘depressing’ and therefore ‘boring’. Germinal may be over 500 pages long and full of tragic and unfair social circumstances, but it is never boring; it harbours some of the most vivid and emotive writing I have come across in my studies. Zola does not shy away from anything, be it domestic violence, street rioting or repressed sexuality. He knows it is wrong to hide these issues from his readers, something very brave for a man living in the rigid and socially repressive ninteenth-century.

I feel that if something upsets your sensibilities, you shouldn’t avoid it; you should ask why it has affected you so much and strive to find a way of dealing with it. I have applied this to most aspects of my life and I will apply to it Germinal too. It may be ‘only a novel’ and essentially a fiction, but it carries the spirit of the suffering and the revolution of an entire generation of people; and that is something that we should face no matter how much it ‘bores’ or ‘depresses’ us.

Read it, be fascinated; then be grateful that you are living in a time where this kind of tyranny would be unlikely to prevail.

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