Like Thomas Hardy and Dostoevsky, Emile Zola was a writer in the 19th Century looking to examine the individual in the midst of social change. Where Hardy and Dostoevsky concentrated on the individual, Zola centered on social change. Germinal is a book the Occupy Wall Street 99%ers would certainly find intriguing, blending the various reform movements of that period into a central thesis of the plight between the rich and the poor, the idea of revolution that was still then possible in the Western world, and the rights of individuals to control their own destinies.
Focusing on the mining industry in his native France, Zola introduces a complete stranger to a community that has for a hundred years been working at the same playbook, with one family in particular representing the need to sacrifice succeeding generations to the basic cost of surviving, breeding children for miserable profit and labor and ignoring the debilitating health concerns that have slowly ground each of them down to little better than savages, and being represented as the middle class, no less! Etienne Lantier is a member of a different clan entirely, Zola's pet family he writes about in a whole series of books, none of them as wretched as depicted in Germinal, each of them representing the different aspects of life at that time, all on a theme of inheritance. Published in 1885, Germinal is Zola's best shot at immortality, and the sad part is that it's not only obscure today, but relevant to the point of being moot, exploring everything but what it actually says, even though one character voices the reality that social justice is a concern that was struck down a generation before Etienne came to town, and many times before that, well before the current political regime, before the last revolution, before this epoch, and certainly well before Darwin stuck a label of "survival of the fittest" on all of humanity.
Selfish interests pervade every character of Germinal, as well as a refusal to believe anything but what they already believe. Etienne, for example, was ready to revolt before he ever entered the monstrous Voreux mine, and spends most of his time not thinking about it in one of the book's few glossed-over periods, only to emerge as exactly the radical looking for a strike that he already was. By the time he has helped decimate the family that readily took him in, he leaves it behind, admitting that he finds these people revolting, and that he has survived the experience looking simply to advocate the same principals that led to such needless disaster, believing as Zola apparently does that the revolution would ultimately be successful. In 2012, I can assure you, the revolution was certainly not televised.
Revolutions were such a common element of Zola's day that they had gradually lost all their effectiveness, a fact that he does not seem to have realized. That's why a book like Thomas Pynchon's Against the Day, written a century after the fact, can dance around the absurdity of it rather than simply wallow in its misery. Germinal is an epic that deserves a rightful place alongside the French literature of its day, but it lacks any real concern for any of its characters, even Etienne, who barely registers as human, and in fact disappears for long stretches at a time, provoking and then surviving by sheer force of will disasters of unimaginable magnitude, many things that on a human scale can be seen coming from a mile away, and with regular human obstinacy play out without much concern for the consequences. It's comically naturalistic, launching a literary method that is still championed to this day, to the detriment of anyone actually understanding anything.
Many of its readers, then as now, will probably not really relate to Germinal. They are reading a book. I grew up in a family that fought its hardest to avoid the kind of fate that unfolds for everyone in Zola's story, but the fact is, that world still exists, where people fight hard to ignore realities and most of the time are able to outrun them. I'm probably the one closest to these characters, and closest to Etienne, who deludes himself into thinking education is a way out of this mess, and even though the reader sees how wrong he is, he doesn't, and the book ends with the reader allowing themselves, as he does, that this isn't the case, even now, when all his plans have come to ruin. I am not advocating the abolishing of education, which would be silly, but so is Zola's message that knowledge is enough of a step in the right direction (the title is meant to convey this as much as the myth of dragon's teeth). Knowledge alone only makes one aware. If one does not know what to do with knowledge, they will come up with a lot of ridiculous notions, which they can do without knowing anything at all. It's the ability to reason, which several of Etienne's conspirators believe they're doing, that really proves the difference, the ability to think critically. Anyone will be able to see exactly where Germinal is headed, and like a horror movie want to scream and wake the characters up, but to no avail. That's what it's like in the real world, too.
Zola became a reluctant social advocate at the end of his life, famously penning the open letter "J'accuse" after the French government wrongfully convicted a man they called a traitor, and it's rumored he paid for it with his life. He might have left a bigger impact if works like Germinal had better understood what they were doing. He was a writer who was frequently controversial, and he helped break a lot of ground, but not with dragon's teeth. Germinal gestates in the popular imagination as a warning about futility, about the failure of the imagination to conceive of a world that plays by a new set of rules, rather than wallowing in revolutions that are no longer relevant. If all you do is challenge the establishment, if all you want to do is replace the establishment, then you're doomed to failure from the start. Most of the characters in this book blunder from faulty reasoning to faulty reasoning without making any attempts to correct it, and we're supposed to sympathize with those victims of injustice. Zola presents them as complicit in their own misery, and most of them completely uncomprehending of that fact, including Etienne.
Germinal is a terrific read, and Zola employs a fair number of interesting storytelling techniques, but as a philosophy and a lasting message, it comes up wanting, and so it's no surprise that readers have gradually left it behind. There are no characters truly worth rooting for, and that's the most damning thing about it. You'd think now if at any time it might have enjoyed a popular revival, but I guess I'm glad that didn't happen.