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The Interface of Primal Instinct and Lofty Ideal in Zola’s Germinal Emile Zola’s Germinal is a unique combination of historical record and literary saga, which allows us to glean rich insights into the portrayed society and its idea and embodiment of sexuality…
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The Interface of Primal Instinct and Lofty Ideal in Zola’s Germinal Emile Zola’s Germinal is a unique combination of historical record and literary saga, which allows us to glean rich insights into the portrayed society and its idea and embodiment of sexuality. Zola’s portrayal of sexuality in Germinal serves as a grounding force for the story. The physicality of the characters, thus enunciated, is a counterpoint to the revolutionary socialist ideas that suffuse the political and philosophical vision of the novel, with the political and poetic facets of the writing fortifying each other. Germinal was published in 1885. The Communist Manifesto was published in 1848, and the Russian Revolution took place in 1917- placing the publication of Germinal right in the midst of the political intensification of such revolutionary ideals. Germinal, the novel’s title, is a spring month from the French revolutionary calendar that falls somewhere around April.1 Zola wrote the novel during a time of much public debate about the nature of large feudal mining companies in French society, and Reid claims that the social impact of the novel on French society had as much to do with a “subversion of coal companies' self- congratulatory paternalist language” as with the depictions of workers’ hardships.2 It is clear that the plot revolves around these lofty concepts, yet these are ideals that can only be espoused by the educated, whereas the miners are truly proletariats. They toil in misery and in ignorance without considering their plight and exploitation in any grand terms until they are forcefully convinced to do so. Otherwise, they probably would have worked, copulated, argued, and gossiped unceasingly until the end of their existence- the miners are very primal physical entities. They ground the story and eventually provide corporeal flooring for the abstract revolutionary notions. Moreover, I would suggest that the subversion of the dominant paternalistic, moralistic language of the mining companies is, on the level of the miners, being carried out through their overtly immoral, brazen, and yet apathetic sexuality. While the socialist principles that drive the miners to strike are elusive concepts that they have trouble holding on to, their brute primal energy and connection to the earth, crude as it may be, is what keeps them going and living from day to day. Goldberg presents an apt analogy in saying that in the world of the miners, Descartes’ “I think therefore I am” becomes “I eat therefore I am.”3 This is the usurpation of the rational by the primal. The most primal of all urges is the sex drive, and the raw energy of sexual desire and appetite permeates the story of Germinal. Zola was quite adamant about carefully observing the phenomena he wished to record and setting his observations down in writing as a scientist would, rather than as an “artist”.4 The art in his work came from his detailed encapsulation of real life characters and setting down of social conditions. More accurately, Zola once said that he “wanted to study temperaments and not characters” and that he “chose beings powerfully dominated by their nerves and their blood, devoid of freewill, carried away by the fatalities of their flesh.”5 Zola’s realist style comes to fruition through the society he depicts. Allowing himself to organize his collection of facts and temperaments, therefore, Zola composed and narrated the greater picture that came together from the pieces of his collection. This greater picture enabled him to universalize his philosophical narrative. Germinal is a story of a failed uprising of miners, yet it is paradoxically considered a work full of hope and revolutionary sentiment. Etienne, the protagonist comes to work in the Voreux, a mine, and live in the small adjacent mining town, Montsou. As appropriate in an epic storyline, he meets his love interest, Catherine, and his rival for her love, Chaval, almost in the very beginning of the story. He is inspired by socialist princip
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