I read for you Germinal (Emile Zola)

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Germinal Claude Berri

GERMINAL is part of the Rougon-Macquart cycle, inaugurated by Zola in Assommoir. This cycle is an opportunity to paint a picture of the Second Empire (1851-1870) and the Third Republic, its successor since  1871.

Why GERMINAL? This is a reference, of course, to the revolutionary calendar, as we are here in full worker drama.

I read to you Germinal by Emile Zola

But GERMINAL is also a reference to the spring, the spring of peoples after the harshness of winter in the working condition.

The story in two words: Stephen LANTIER (from the branch of MACQUART ROUGON-MACQUART) happens to Montsou mines in the hope of a job after months of unemployment. Resourceful worker, he is hosted by the modest MAHEU. He falls secretly in love with the daughter Catherine. Unfortunately, Catherine will marry a brute of the mine: CHAVAL.

Etienne is imbued with the revolutionary culture, heir of the Jacobins of 1789, the Paris Commune of 1871 and the theories of Marx on Capital. He is unworthy of working conditions, low wages and decides to take the lead in the fight, organizing a broad strike movement, crushed by the bullets of the republican army.

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Germinal Claude Berri

The time

Montsou, one dies of hunger … The boss, also owner of the mine, organizes people’s lives, from birth to death. He houses (badly), he treats (barely), he pays (very bad), the working class becomes « his thing », a prisoner at his discretion. He give to the working class just enough ressources to regenerate its work force and its recurrence, in order to prepare the next generation of workers who will, in turn ,die in his mine.

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Germinal Claude Berri

Germinal by Emile Zola – reading sheet

Class struggle

Zola describes what Marx calls the class struggle: two worlds with very different objectives clash:

  • on one side, the Bourgeois , whose objective is to maintain inequalities to ensure their lifestyle by ever larger profits;
  • and on the other, the working class, who wants the collectivization of the means of production and sharing of pleasures.

The research of ever large benefits is the element that triggers the strike. The mechanism described by Zola had been seen in the Capital of Marx: in a competitive market the boss, to survive, must be the cheapest. The only adjustment variables are wages and productivity. The boss Montsou plays on both and cause a revolution.

Germinal by Emile Zola – reading sheet


He embodies the Communist Marxist tendency. He wants equality and solidarity, the collectivization of the means of production. He does not hesitate to resort to violence.


Heir of Proudhon and FOURRIER, he represents the anarchist. He refuses any organized authority. He wants to self-management in small communities. Note the anecdote that illustrates the famous aphorism of Marx:

It is not the consciousness of man that makes his social being, but, on the contrary, it is its social being which political consciousness. Marx.

Souvarine indeed opens the newspaper and finds that a worker who won the lottery, decided to put his money into an annuity and become … a bourgeois, forgetting the way its egalitarian principles.


The owners of the mine. Here’s a gratin skewer representatives of big capital. The extreme caricature is embodied by Madame, more concerned with its small cats that the working conditions. Her only worry is  the wedding of her daughter.


They are there to illustrate the living conditions of the miners. The drawing of this family confirms the privileges are still there and there, despite the night of August 4, 1792.


The head of the mine can show the hereditary privileges: He is the director’s nephew. The ruling class is reproduced, but only between it, as in the heyday of the Monarchy. He is unbearable: He presents wage reductions as elements necessary to the happiness of workers : « It is for your good … ». « It was to save the mine. « Meanwhile, at the castle, eating cake (as Marie Antoinette to the eve of the Revolution).

This theme is present in the Communist Manifesto (Marx 1808) : If the bourgeois cut wages, it is for the plant to survive; So this is for the good of the proletariat. If the bourgeois always takes more effort to the worker, more sacrifices, but also for its well …

Finally, in a sentence, if the bourgeois is a bourgeois, it is for the good of the proletariat.

GERMINAL therefore shows that, despite the repetitions revolutions (three since 1789), modest people are always exploited as much as under the old regime.

The Bourgeois, scoring in the declaration of human rights, the right to property, managed to replace the Aristocrats as dominant class. The serfs have become workers but remained slaves.

The republic became the political instrument of the ruling class as Marx had expected.

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GERMINAL Claude Berri


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