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b. 1840, Paris, France; d. 1902, Paris
The thirteenth in Émile Zola’s twenty-volume Rougon-Macquart series, Germinal grew out of the author’s desire to dedicate one of his novels to the revolutionary struggles of his day. A string of violent confrontations precipitated by coal miners’ strikes in northern France afforded Zola what he called “a superb landscape in which to set my book” (quoted in Lethbridge 1993:xii). In early 1884, as Zola was occupied with researching his novel, he had occasion to visit the mine in Anzin, where 12,000 miners were then striking. He spent a week talking with union officials and even descended into the pit at nearby Denain (ibid). This brief visit was an integral part of Zola’s naturalist program: “the novelist is equally an observer and an experimentalist. The observer in him gives him the facts as he has observed them [...]. Then the experimentalist appears and [...] sets his characters going in a certain story [...]” (quoted in Baguley 1990:262).
Zola’s method proved more effective than perhaps even he had anticipated, as critics at the time were so captivated by the novel’s depiction of the “appalling conditions in which the proletariat lived and worked” (Lethbridge 1993:xxi) that they were sceptical of the novel’s optimistic conclusion. Germinal closes with Étienne forecasting the consummation of his earlier presentiment that “Deep down in the mines an army was growing, a future crop of citizens, germinating like seeds that would burst through the earth’s crust one day into the bright sunshine” (Zola 1993:288.). CMF