Germinal is the thirteenth novel in Émile Zola’s twenty-volume series Les Rougon-Macquart. It is one of the most significant novels in the French tradition. The novel-an uncompromisingly harsh and realistic story of a coalminers’ strike in northern France in the 1860s-has been published and translated in over one hundred countries as well as inspiring five film adaptations and two TV productions. The title refers to the name of a month of the French Republican Calendar, a spring month. Germen is a Latin word which means “seed”; the novel describes the hope for a better future that seeds amongst the miners. 
Germinal is a resonant title, in every sense. Fifty thousand people followed Emile Zola’s funeral procession on 5th October, 1902 and among them was a delegation of miners from the Denain coalfield rhythmically chanting ‘Germinal! Germinal!’ through the streets of Paris. Even today, Germinal has a special place in the folklore of the mining communities of France. It also enjoys a critical reputation as Zola’s masterpiece.
Germinal tells the story of a young migrant worker Etienne Lantier, who is forced to take a menial job at the Le Voreux mine. He is soon horrified at the exploitation of the miners and the sufferings of his colleagues. Impassioned and articulate in his rage, Etienne rises through the ranks to lead the miners in their desperate strike against ever-deteriorating conditions.
Zola’s is a world on the brink of catastrophe. Human instinct–driven by hunger, cold, sexual desire–becomes the catalyst for violent action. The images are chilling and nightmarish, and yet a deep humanity shines through in Zola’s masterful storytelling and the finely drawn characters–the passionate Lantier; Catherine, the woman he loves, but who is tied to the brutal Chaval; Maheu, Catherine’s father and steadfast patriarch of the community; and the anarchist Souvarine, whose actions precipitate the tragic climax.
Zola exposed the dark side of human nature, but also held on to the belief that out of despair, change could come. ‘Germinal’ was the name given to the month of April by the 1789 revolutionaries, convinced it marked a new beginning.
Germinal was criticized by many saying it was a call for revolution, yet Zola’s overriding message is the human consequence of indifference, injustice and greed. A great read that will disturb and depress you at the same time will make you aware how fortunate you are.
- Author: Émile Zola
- Publisher: Oxford University Press
- Year: Reissue edition (2008)
- ISBN: 9780199536894
- Cover & Page Count: Paperback, 576 pages