Primary Source

Excerpts from Germinal

Published in 1885; translation from French into English by Havelock Ellis published in 1894

Coal was the first fuel that ran the Industrial Revolution, the period when machines and factories came into widespread use in manufacturing. The steam engine, which uses the expansive quality of steam to move machinery, requires fuel to heat water to the boiling point, and coal was the most common fuel used for this purpose in the nineteenth century; it continues to be widely used in the twenty-first century. After the first practicable steam engine was introduced in England, in 1772, by James Watt (1736–1819), the demand for coal soared, especially as steam engines were adapted to power trains and ships. For many decades it was also used to heat homes and buildings. Coal provided the basic energy that replaced human muscle power, making it essential to the Industrial Revolution.

Émile Zola (1840–1908) was a French novelist who wrote a series of twenty novels about everyday life in France. Germinal, first published in France in 1885, remains one of his best-known works for its representation of the life of the working class, specifically coal miners in northern France. Zola was also known as a social reformer. Working conditions for coal miners (and other workers) in France were not significantly different from those in any other industrialized country, including the United States. Miners were paid poorly and worked in dangerous conditions. Germinal conveys the hardships endured by these workers in a way that cold statistics about the working class cannot.

Coal is buried deep inside the Earth (in Zola's novel it is described as being more than two miles below the surface), often embedded in rock, the way the filling of a sandwich is wedged between slices of bread. Once these so-called seams of coal are found, miners dig narrow tunnels to follow them. Miners then use picks or drills to chip away at the coal, and send the coal via carts through the tunnels to vertical mineshafts, where it is hauled to the surface. The tunnels are often just big enough for a man to make his way on his hands and knees, and for the carts to travel back to the mineshaft. Thick boards, called timbers, are placed vertically to support the tunnels, which often are in danger of collapsing, crushing the miners or cutting them off from access to the mineshafts. Other dangers also lurk: a deadly odorless natural gas, called methane, can seep into mines and kill without warning, and underground streams of water can suddenly flood a mine. Miners sometimes took canaries in cages with them into the mines because canaries proved to be sensitive detectors of poisonous gas; if the canaries stopped singing and died, it was an early warning of the presence of methane gas.

Étienne Lantier is a character in Germinal who has lost his job working on a railroad and gotten another job working in a coal mine. In this passage, Étienne is descending into the coal mine for the first time. With him are an experienced miner, Maheu, and Maheu's teenage daughter Catherine. Other miners also appear in the story from time to time.

Things to remember while reading the excerpts from Germinal:

  • Although the story written by Zola is fiction, the conditions he describes were typical of coal mines. Often, entire families, including wives and daughters, worked in the mines. Children often pushed the cars loaded with coal, saving the adults from having to walk doubled over in the low tunnels.
  • In Zola's time, coal mine disasters were commonplace. Mining was a very dangerous profession. The disasters hinted at in this passage often did take place, with deadly results. Although safety measures were introduced in the twentieth century, coal mining remains a highly dangerous profession.
  • Zola vividly describes the work that took place in a deep coal mine. Some of the terms used in these excerpts, which are translations from the French, may not be clear. The miners enter the mine in "cages," a conveyance something like an elevator but with the sides enclosed by a kind of steel mesh. Cables haul them up and down; at the start of a work shift, the miners wait for empty cages to come up to the surface after delivering the previous load of passengers. Zola describes the mine as a kind of living monster, swallowing the workers and vomiting them later. Inside the mine, miners illuminate the pitch dark with lamps hung on their leather hats (a substitute for a helmet in the nineteenth century), or on buttonholes. At the bottom of the mine, horizontal tunnels go off from the main shaft, leading to other tunnels that are progressively smaller. Small horses, which live inside the mine all the time, are used to haul carts filled with coal to the vertical shaft, where it can be carried to the surface. The temperature inside the mine varies from cold to very hot. Underground water drips constantly, and sometimes seems like rain. For this reason, French miners usually worked barefoot in order to avoid having their shoes become waterlogged.

Excerpt from Germinal, Chapter 3

"Golly! It's not warm here," murmured Catherine, shivering.

Étienne contented himself with nodding his head. He was in front of the shaft, in the midst of a vast hall swept by currents of air. He certainly considered himself brave, but he felt a disagreeable emotion at his chest amid this thunder of trains, the hollow blows of the signals, the stifled howling of the trumpet, the continual flight of those cables, unrolled and rolled at full speed by the drums of the engine. The cages rose and sank with the gliding movement of a nocturnal beast, always engulfing men, whom the throat of the hole seemed to drink. It was his turn now. He felt very cold, and preserved a nervous silence which made Zacharie and Levaque [two experienced miners] grin; for both of them disapproved of the hiring of this unknown man [Étienne Lantier], especially Levaque, who was offended that he had not been consulted. So Catherine was glad to hear her father explain things to the young man.

"Look! above the cage there is a parachute with iron grapnelsto catch into the guides in case of breakage. Does it work? Oh, not always. Yes, the shaft is divided into three compartments, closed by plankingfrom top to bottom; in the middle the cages, on the left the passage for the ladders—"

But he interrupted himself to grumble, though taking care not to raise his voice much.

"What are we stuck here for, blast it? What right have they to freeze us in this way?"

The captain, Richomme, who was going down himself, with his naked lamp fixed by a nail into the leather of his cap, heard him.

"Careful! Look out for ears," he murmured paternally, as an old miner with an affectionate feeling for comrades. "Workmen must do what they can. Hold on! here we are; get in with your fellows."

The cage, provided with iron bands and a small-meshed lattice work, was in fact awaiting them on the bars. Maheu, Zacharie, and Catherine slid into a trambelow, and as all five had to enter, Étienne in his turn went in, but the good places were taken; he had to squeeze himself near the young girl, whose elbow pressed into his belly. His lamp embarrassed him; they advised him to fasten it to the button-hole of his jacket. Not hearing, he awkwardly kept it in his hand. The embarkation continued, above and below, a confused packing of cattle. They did not, however, set out. What, then, was happening? It seemed to him that his impatience lasted for many minutes. At last he felt a shock, and the light grew dim, everything around him seemed to fly, while he experienced the dizzy anxiety of a fall contracting his bowels. This lasted as long as he could see light, through the two reception stories, in the midst of the whirling by of the scaffolding. Then, having fallen into the blackness of the pit, he became stunned, no longer having any clear perception of his sensations.

"Now we are off," said Maheu quietly.

They were all at their ease. He asked himself at times if he was going up or down. Now and then, when the cage went straight without touching the guides, there seemed to be no motion, but rough shocks were afterwards produced, a sort of dancing amid the joists, which made him fear a catastrophe. For the rest he could not distinguish the walls of the shaft behind the lattice work, to which he pressed his face. The lamps feebly lighted the mass of bodies at his feet. Only the captain's naked light, in the neighboring tram, shone like a lighthouse.

"This is four meters [thirteen feet] in diameter," continued Maheu, to instruct him. "The tubbing wants doing over again, for the water comes in everywhere. Stop! we are reaching the bottom: do you hear?"

Étienne was, in fact, now asking himself the meaning of this noise of falling rain. A few large drops had at first sounded on the roof of the cage, like the beginning of a shower, and now the rain increased, streaming down, becoming at last a deluge. The roof must be full of holes, for a thread of water was flowing on to his shoulder and wetting him to the skin. The cold became icy, and they were buried in black humidity, when they passed through a sudden flash of light, the vision of a cavern in which men were moving. But already they had fallen back into darkness.

Maheu said:

"That is the first main level. We are at three hundred and twenty meters [one thousand forty feet]. See the speed."

Raising his lamp he lighted up a joist of the guides which fled by like a rail beneath a train going at full speed; and beyond, as before,

nothing could be seen. They passed three other levels in flashes of light. The deafening rain continued to strike through the darkness.

"How deep it is!" murmured Étienne.

This fall seemed to last for hours. He was suffering for the cramped position he had taken, not daring to move, and especially tortured by Catherine's elbow. She did not speak a word; he only felt her against him and it warmed him. When the cage at last stopped at the bottom, at five hundred and fifty-four meters [eighteen hundred feet], he was astonished to learn that the descent had lasted exactly one minute. But the noise of the bolts fixing themselves, the sensation of solidity beneath, suddenly cheered him; and he was joking when he said to Catherine:

"What have you got under your skin to be so warm? I've got your elbow in my belly, sure enough."

Then she also burst out laughing. Stupid of him, still to take her for a boy! Were his eyes out?

"It's in your eye that you've got my elbow!" she replied, in the midst of a storm of laughter which the astonished young man could not account for.

The cage voided its burden of workers, who crossed the pit-eye hall, a chamber cut in the rock, vaulted with masonry, and lighted up by three large lamps. Over the iron flooring the porters were violently rolling laden trams. A cavernous odor exhaled from the walls, a freshness of saltpetre in which mingled hot breaths from the neighboring stable. The openings of four galleriesyawned here.

"This way," said Maheu to Étienne. "You're not there yet. It is still two kilometers [one and a quarter miles]."

The workmen separated, and were lost in groups in the depths of these black holes. Some fifteen went off into that on the left, and Étienne walked last, behind Maheu, who was preceded by Catherine, Zacharie, and Levaque. It was a large gallery for wagons, through a bed of solid rock, which had only needed walling here and there. In single file they still went on without a word, by the tiny flame of the lamps. The young man stumbled at every step, and entangled his feet in the rails. For a moment a hollow sound disturbed him, the sound of a distant storm, the violence of which seemed to increase and to come from the bowels of the earth. Was it the thunder of a landslip bringing on to their heads the enormous mass which separated them from the light? A gleam pierced the night, he felt the rock tremble, and when he had placed himself close to the wall, like his comrades, he saw a large white horse close to his face, harnessed to a train of wagons. On the first, and holding the reins, was seated Bébert, while Jeanlin, with his hands leaning on the edge of the last, was running barefooted behind.

They again began their walk. Farther on they reached cross-ways, where two new galleries opened, and the band divided again, the workers gradually entering all the stalls of the mine.

Now the wagon-gallery was constructed of wood; props of timber supported the roof, and made for the crumbly rock a screen of scaffolding, behind which one could see the plates of schist glimmering with mica, and the coarse masses of dull, rough sandstone. Trains of tubs, full or empty, continually passed, crossing each other with their thunder, borne into the shadow by vague beasts trotting by like phantoms. On the double way of a shunting line a long, black serpent slept, a train at standstill, with a snorting horse, whose crupper looked like a block fallen from the roof. Doors for ventilation were slowly opening and shutting. And as they advanced the gallery became more narrow and lower, and the roof irregular, forcing them to bend their backs constantly.

Étienne struck his head hard; without his leather cap he would have broken his skull. However, he attentively followed the slightest gestures of Maheu, whose somber profile was seen against the glimmer of the lamps. None of the workmen knocked themselves; they evidently knew each boss, each knot of wood or swelling in the rock. The young man also suffered from the slippery soil, which became damper and damper. At times he went through actual puddles, only revealed by the muddy splash of his feet. But what especially astonished him were the sudden changes of temperature. At the bottom of the shaft it was very chilly, and in the wagon-gallery, through which all the air of the mine passed, an icy breeze was blowing, with the violence of a tempest, between the narrow walls. Afterwards, as they penetrated more deeply along other passages which only received a meager share of air, the wind fell and the heat increased, a suffocating heat as heavy as lead.

Maheu had not again opened his mouth. He turned down another gallery to the right, simply saying to Étienne, without looking round:

"The Guillaume seam."

It was the seam which contained their cutting. At the first step, Étienne hurt his head and elbows. The sloping roof descended so low that, for twenty or thirty meters [sixty-five to ninety-seven feet] at a time, he had to walk bent double. The water came up to his ankles. After two hundred meters [two hundred sixteen yards] of this, he saw Levaque, Zacharie, and Catherine disappear, as though they had flown through a narrow fissure which was open in front of him.

"We must climb," said Maheu. "Fasten your lamp to a buttonhole and hang on to the wood." He himself disappeared, and Étienne had to follow him. This chimney-passage left in the seam was reserved for miners, and led to all the secondary passages. It was about the thickness of the coal-bed, hardly sixty centimeters [two feet]. Fortunately the young man was thin, for, as he was still awkward, he hoisted himself up with a useless expense of muscle, flattening his shoulders and hips, advancing by the strength of his wrists, clinging to the planks. Fifteen meters [fifty feet] higher they came on the first secondary passage, but they had to continue, as the cutting of Maheu and his mates was in the sixth passage, in hell, as they said; every fifteen meters [fifty feet] the passages were placed over each other in never-ending succession through this cleft, which scraped back and chest. Étienne groaned as if the weight of the rocks had pounded his limbs; with torn hands and bruised legs, he also suffered from lack of air, so that he seemed to feel the blood bursting through his skin. He vaguely saw in one passage two squatting beasts, a big one and a little one, pushing trains: they were Lydie and Mouquette already at work. And he had still to climb the height of two cuttings! He was blinded by sweat, and he despaired of catching up the others, whose agilelimbs he heard brushing against the rock with a long gliding movement.

"Cheer up! here we are!" said Catherine's voice.

He had, in fact, arrived, and another voice cried from the bottom of the cutting:

"Well, is this the way to treat people? I have two kilometers [one and a quarter miles] to walk from Montsou and I am here first." It was Chaval, a tall, lean, bony fellow of twenty-five, with strongly marked features, who was in a bad humor at having to wait. When he saw Étienne he asked, with contemptuous surprise:

"What's that?"

And when Maheu had told him the story he added between his teeth:

"These men are eating the bread of girls."

The two men exchanged, a look, lighted up by one of those instinctive hatreds which suddenly flame up. Étienne had felt the insult without yet understanding it. There was silence, and they got to work. At last all the seams were gradually filled, and the cuttings were in movement at every level and at the end of every passage. The devouring shaft had swallowed its daily ration of men: nearly seven hundred hands, who were now at work in this giant ant-hill, everywhere making holes in the earth, drilling it like an old worm-eaten piece of wood. And in the middle of the heavy silence and crushing weight of the strata one could hear, by placing one's ear to the rock, the movement of these human insects at work, from the flight of the cable which moved the cage up and down, to the biting of the tools cutting out the coal at the end of the stalls. Étienne, on turning round, found himself again pressed close to Catherine. But this time he caught a glimpse of the developing curves of her breast: he suddenly understood the warmth which had penetrated him.

"You are a girl, then!" he exclaimed, stupefied.

She replied in her cheerful way, without blushing:

"Of course. You've taken your time to find out!"

Excerpt from Germinal, Chapter 4

The four pikemen had spread themselves one above the other over the whole face of the cutting. Separated by planks, hooked on to retain the fallen coal, they each occupied about four meters [thirteen feet] of the seam, and this seam was so thin, scarcely more than fifty centimeters [one and a half feet] thick at this spot, that they seemed to be flattened between the roof and the wall, dragging themselves along by their knees and elbows, and unable to turn without crushing their shoulders. In order to attack the coal, they had to lie on their sides with their necks twisted and arms raised, brandishing, in a sloping direction, their short-handled picks.

Below there was, first, Zacharie; Levaque and Chaval were on the stages above, and at the very top was Maheu. Each worked at the slaty bed, which he dug out with blows of the pick; then he made two vertical cuttings in the bed and detached the block by burying an iron wedge in its upper part. The coal was rich; the block broke and rolled in fragments along their bellies and thighs. When these fragments, retained by the plank, had collected round them, the pikemen disappeared, buried in the narrow cleft.

Maheu suffered most. At the top the temperature rose to thirty-five degrees [ninety-five degrees Fahrenheit], and the air was stagnant, so that in the long run it became lethal. In order to see, he had been obliged to fix his lamp to a nail near his head, and this lamp, close to his skull, still further heated his blood. But his torment was especially aggravated by the moisture. The rock above him, a few centimeters from his face, streamed with water, which fell in large continuous rapid drops with a sort of obstinate rhythm, always at the same spot. It was vain for him to twist his head or bend back his neck. They fell on his face, dropping unceasingly. In a quarter of an hour he was soaked, and at the same time covered with sweat, smoking as with the hot steam of a laundry. This morning a drop beating upon his eye made him swear. He would not leave his picking, he dealt great strokes which shook him violently between the two rocks, like a fly caught between two leaves of a book and in danger of being completely flattened.

Not a word was exchanged. They all hammered; one only heard these irregular blows, which seemed veiled and remote. The sounds had a sonorous hoarseness, without any echo in the dead air. And it seemed that the darkness was an unknown blackness, thickened by the floating coal dust, made heavy by the gas which weighed on the eyes. The wicks of the lamps beneath their caps of metallic tissue only showed as reddish points. One could distinguish nothing. The cutting opened out above like a large chimney, flat and oblique, in which the soot of ten years had amassed a profound night. Spectral figures were moving in it, the gleams of light enabled one to catch a glimpse of a rounded hip, a knotty arm, a vigorous head, besmeared as if for a crime. Sometimes, blocks of coal shone suddenly as they became detached, illuminated by a crystalline reflection. Then everything fell back into darkness, pickaxes struck great hollow blows; one only heard panting chests, the grunting of discomfort and weariness beneath the weight of the air and the rain of the springs.

What happened next …

Étienne's first trip into the coal mine suggested all sorts of possible disasters—a mine collapse, a flood, poisonous gas—and in Zola's novel, most of them came to pass. Germinal is a harrowing story of the difficulties faced by coal miners in the nineteenth century.

The reality of coal mining was not much different than the novel. In all countries, coal mining was—and still is—a highly dangerous profession. Gradually, though, improved technology and worker demands have resulted in safer conditions for workers.

Moreover, coal-mining techniques have changed significantly. Today, coal operators often scrape the surface of the earth off the top of whole mountains, exposing the coal below. Although this method is safer for miners, it is a technique that greatly concerns environmentalists, since hilltops are stripped of all soil and vegetation and left bare after the coal has been scraped away by gigantic earth-moving machinery.

Did you know …

In the United States, during the years from 1900 to 2000, there were 104,468 deaths resulting from coal mining accidents. The deadliest year was 1907, when 3,242 miners died. Over that period, the number of coal miners has declined from a high of 862,253 in 1923 to 108,898 in 2000.

For more information


Berg, William J., and Laurey K. Martin. Emile Zola Revisited. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1992.

Brown, Frederick. Zola: A Life. New York: Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, 1995.

Hemmings, F. W. J. The Life and Times of Emile Zola. New York: Scribner, 1977.

Nelson, Brian. Zola and the Bourgeoisie: A Study of Themes and Techniques in Les Rougon-Macquart. Totowa, NJ: Barnes and Noble, 1983.

Web Sites

Zola, Émile. Germinal. 1885. Translation from French into English by Havelock Ellis published as Germinal. New York: Everyman's Library, 1894. Eldritch Press. (accessed on April 11, 2003).