Coal miners lives were nasty, brutish and short – that was only in the good years. In his preface Zola tells his reader that all authors are liars, but there is something like the truth between these pages that still holds true.
Zola shows how the Company makes profit from wage slavery of men, women and children. The Maheu family, for example, live in Village 240, Block 2, house Number 16. The Company owns the houses they live in. It allows a franchise in the store in which they shop and owe credit. It owns their lives and tickets out the time they will work and how much they will be paid – and it is never enough to eat, but somehow workers do, 10 000 of them that work in the local pits. The key to survival is the family unit.
Maheu is a model worker, widely respected in the Montsou colliery. He works for the Company and mines coal at a rate set by the them. He is paid three francs and employs Zacharie his twenty-one year old son, who is also paid three francs (but he has a partner who lives next door and they are parents to two children). Catherine who is fifteen, when the story begins, works as a putter, pushing the underground trolleys full of coal along a line, much like a pit pony, only cheaper and more adaptible, is paid two francs. Maheu’s father, Bonnemort (named after the good death that has chased him all his working life) is an old man, who works above ground as a banksman. He’s fifty-eight and near retirement age, but the reader understand spitting up an ink-like soot and with dropsy and rheumatics he’ll never retire. Jenlin aged eleven makes one franc. Alzire aged nine has a hunchback and doesn’t make any money. Lenore and Elmore are too young to work. And La Maheu is nursing a baby when the novel open. She runs the family business, which is feeding her family and keeping a roof over their head. Her job is made more difficult because they start each week of their fortnightly pay with a negative. Maheu owes the shopkeeper sixty francs and lives on credit.
Maigrat, the shopkeeper, lives off the workers and expects full payment but he also expects payment in kind. He has his eye on Catherine Maheu.
Zola isn’t particularly good on sex. Mouquette aged 18, with huge breasts and buttocks is presented as an easygoing figure of fun. She has sex with it seems most of the colliers, but only at the Monsou pit. She doesn’t put out to other pit boys. She’s not easy, although she is. More than once Zola has Mouquette baring her huge buttocks as a sign of contempt. Later about half way through the book, when they are on strike, she takes in washing, because she doesn’t want to be lazy. I’m sure the other starving women and children didn’t want to be lazy either.
Catherine is raped on the spoil heap by Chaval. That’s romance for you. Chaval her lover explains: ‘She’s my woman. I can do what I bloody like with her.’ And he does. A similar thing happen in Zola’s La Terre. Rape followed by a sudden realization of love and female adoration.
Similarly, the pit boss, Hennbeau has a frigid relationship, but loves his wife despite being continually cuckolded by her. Hennebeau, on a salary thousands of times greater than his lowly workers, envies them their free love. Every time he takes his horse out he trips over lover’s trysts in the beet fields surrounding the mines. He settles for disappointment, his wife taking the engineer Negrel, his nephew, thankful she hadn’t taken up with one of the serving class.
Zola is best on juxtaposing the haves and have nots. The things they tell each other. Mme Hennbeau, for example, takes some of her Parisian friends to visit the pit village, much in the same way visitors are taken to the zoo. She explains, ‘ “a doctor visits them twice a week; and when they’re old, they’re paid a pension even though no deduction is ever made from their wages towards it.
“It’s Eldorado! A land of milk and honey,” the gentleman muttered.’
The non-working and youngest Maheu children are examined in their natural environment.
‘“What lovely children!’ the lady in the fur coat said while thinking them perfectly frightful with their excessively large heads and their mops of straw-coloured hair.’
Zola does not preach, he contrasts. Cecile Gregoire, for example is eighteen. Her father and mother crowd round her plump form as she sleeps and the servants are amazed that she can lie in bed until nine a.m. A full twelve hours sleep.
Catherine and the other Maheu workers routinely rise at three a.m. Etienne Lantier stumbles into a job and into their lives. At first he mistakes a pubescent Catherine for a boy.
The Gregoires have a share in the Company. It was once worth one million francs but the share price has fallen. Gregoire is almost the same age as Bonnemort, but the former is content for those scuttling below ground for him and his family. It takes 10 000 Bonnemorts to make one Gregoire. Gregoire is not a bad man. He lives a chaste life and gives responsibly to the deserving poor -those that want to work. He looks benevolently on his cousin Deneulin investment in refitting another colliery with the money he had inherited, in the hope of making a large fortune. But with the world-wide slump in coal prices Gregoire is keen not to offer Deneulin any hope that he will extend him or his two daughters any credit. Deneulin had taken a chance and it failed. Gregoire had taken no chances and was content. The Company and the status quo was the surer path.
Etienne’s growing awareness of the issues involved threatens that status quo. He adapts to life underground and decides ‘to go down the mine again and to suffer and to struggle… against a squat and satiated deity’. Etienne is a flawed hero. Zola makes clear to the reader -again and again in a rather didactic way – that it was something he was born with. After the pit cave-in, for example, when he confronts Chaval underground, he was ‘seized with the need to kill, an irresistible physical need like a tickle of phlegm…It rose up and burst forth, beyond his powers to control it, under the impulse of the hereditary flaw within him…with superhuman strength, he brought it [a rock] crashing down on Chaval’s skull’.
Etienne’s walk from darkness to light is never complete. Zola takes us part of the way, but he leaves it open what happens next. History tells its own stories, but many of the themes he touches on here remain in our modern new world. Ignorance is not bliss. Neither is knowledge power, but as Zola shows, money talks loudest of all and men still dance to the same old tune.