He simply wanted to go down the mine again, to suffer and to struggle • Germinal, Émile Zola
Depicting real life • 1855–1900
1859 On the Origin of Species, by English naturalist Charles Darwin, has a profound impact on numerous literary works, encouraging a belief in physiological determinism.
1874 Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd, with its fatalistic portrayal of the inequitable condition of humankind, foreshadows French Naturalism.
1891 English novelist George Gissing’s New Grub Street looks at the damaging effect of poverty on creativity.
1895 Set during the American Civil War, Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage presents with psychological naturalism an inexperienced soldier’s reactions to the bloodshed.
Naturalism was a literary movement that evolved in mid-19th-century France, in reaction to the sentimental imagination of Romanticism. Rather than depicting an idealized world, Naturalism focused on the harsh lives of those in the lowest social strata. It had much in common with realism, which aimed to present an accurate evocation of ordinary life, as exemplified in Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. Naturalism had similar literary ambitions and used detailed realism, but was rooted in the theory that humans are unable to transcend the impact of their environment. Therefore, Naturalist authors applied quasi-scientific principles of objectivity and observation to examine how characters react when placed in adverse conditions. In effect, all Naturalist fiction is also realist, but the reverse is not always true.
"Blow the candle out. I don’t need to see what colour my thoughts are."
The leading figure of the Naturalist movement was the French writer Émile Zola. Germinal is Zola’s 13th novel in the 20-volume Rougon-Macquart series, subtitled “The natural and social history of a family under the Second Empire”, in which he studies the deterministic effects of heredity and environment on different characters within a single extended family. In the new French revolutionary calendar, “Germinal” was the name of the spring month, when plants begin to sprout: the title thus refers, optimistically, to the possibility of a better future.
Zola depicts the life of a mining community in northern France, portraying the struggle between capital and labour as well as the inexorable workings of the environment and heredity on his frequently ill-fated characters. He researched the background to his story minutely, inspired in part by miners strikes in 1869 and 1884.
Zola deploys a forensic realism to evoke the mine, which becomes almost a character in itself. The use of imagery and metaphors give it a heightened reality — it is an ogre, a voracious monster, sucking in and devouring the insect-like workers.
In Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series, the main characters are all descended from a single matriarch, Adelaïde Fouque. Through them, Zola explores his theories of heredity — the way in which inherited traits, such as alcoholism or madness, play themselves out differently but inexorably in generation after generation.
Hope for the future
The novel’s main protagonist is the educated but volatile Étienne Lantier, the son of an alcoholic, who loses his job after assaulting his boss. Étienne arrives in Montsou, where he finds work in the mine. Wary of an inherited propensity for violence, he tries to avoid alcohol. His position as an outsider allows him to evaluate the suffering and injustice he sees, and to pity the plight of the people. As the novel progresses, poverty and working conditions worsen, to such an extent that the workers go on strike, with the idealistic Étienne as their leader; when riots and violent repression ensue, the miners blame him. Despite the brutality and desolation, Étienne retains his belief in the potential germination of a better society.
Dominated by Zola, literary Naturalism was a relatively short-lived movement in Europe, but it went on to flourish in the USA, where authors such as Stephen Crane, Jack London, Theodore Dreiser, and Upton Sinclair explored in diverse ways the effects of environment on their characters.
Émile Zola was born in Paris in 1840; his father died in 1847, leaving the family to struggle financially. In 1862 Zola got a job at the publishing firm Hachette and supplemented his income by writing critical articles for periodicals. Three years later, his reputation established, he made the decision to support himself by literary work alone, and in 1865 published his first novel, Claude’s Confession.
In 1898 Zola famously intervened in the Dreyfus Affair, in which a Jewish army officer was wrongfully convicted of treason: Zola wrote an open letter critical of the general staff that became known as “J’Accuse”. This act led to his being found guilty of libel and he fled to England. He was allowed to return to France in 1899. Zola died in 1902, from carbon monoxide poisoning due to a blocked flue. Some believe that his death may not have been an accident, but instead the work of anti-Dreyfusards.
Other key works
1867 Thérèse Raquin
1890 La Bête humaine
See also: Tess of the D’Urbervilles • Far from the Madding Crowd • A Doll’s House • The Red Badge of Courage • Sister Carrie