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With flawless construction and impeccable detail, Germinal chronicles the conflicts, lusts, and deprivation of life in the coal fields of nineteenth-century France. A father and three of seven children work brutal hours, facing such hazards as landslides, fire, and poisoned air, to scrape together enough money for food. When their lodger, Etienne, shares ideas of a workers’ revolt, the family gradually embraces his plans. Soon the settlement is aflame with resolve to strike for better wages and working conditions. Savage and horrifying events ensue, as miners clash with management and with each other.
712 pages, with a reading time of ~11.0 hours (178,070 words), and first published in 1885. This DRM-Free edition published by epubBooks, 2015.
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Over the open plain, beneath a starless sky as dark and thick as ink, a man walked alone along the highway from Marchiennes to Montsou, a straight paved road ten kilometres in length, intersecting the beetroot-fields. He could not even see the black soil before him, and only felt the immense flat horizon by the gusts of March wind, squalls as strong as on the sea, and frozen from sweeping leagues of marsh and naked earth. No tree could be seen against the sky, and the road unrolled as straight as a pier in the midst of the blinding spray of darkness.
The man had set out from Marchiennes about two o’clock. He walked with long strides, shivering beneath his worn cotton jacket and corduroy breeches. A small parcel tied in a check handkerchief troubled him much, and he pressed it against his side, sometimes with one elbow, sometimes with the other, so that he could slip to the bottom of his pockets both the benumbed hands that bled beneath the lashes of the wind. A single idea occupied his head–the empty head of a workman without work and without lodging–the hope that the cold would be less keen after sunrise. For an hour he went on thus, when on the left, two kilometres from Montsou, he saw red flames, three fires burning in the open air and apparently suspended. At first he hesitated, half afraid. Then he could not resist the painful need to warm his hands for a moment.
The steep road led downwards, and everything disappeared. The man saw on his right a paling, a wall of coarse planks shutting in a line of rails, while a grassy slope rose on the left surmounted by confused gables, a vision of a village with low uniform roofs. He went on some two hundred paces. Suddenly, at a bend in the road, the fires reappeared close to him, though he could not understand how they burnt so high in the dead sky, like smoky moons. But on the level soil another sight had struck him. It was a heavy mass, a low pile of buildings from which rose the silhouette of a factory chimney; occasional gleams appeared from dirty windows, five or six melancholy lanterns were hung outside to frames of blackened wood, which vaguely outlined the profiles of gigantic stages; and from this fantastic apparition, drowned in night and smoke, a single voice arose, the thick, long breathing of a steam escapement that could not be seen.
Then the man recognized a pit. His despair returned. What was the good? There would be no work. Instead of turning towards the buildings he decided at last to ascend the pit bank, on which burnt in iron baskets the three coal fires which gave light and warmth for work. The labourers in the cutting must have been working late; they were still throwing out the useless rubbish. Now he heard the landers push the wagons on the stages. He could distinguish living shadows tipping over the trains or tubs near each fire.
“Good day,” he said, approaching one of the baskets. Turning his back to the fire, the carman stood upright. He was an old man, dressed in knitted violet wool with a rabbit-skin cap on his head; while his horse, a great yellow horse, waited with the immobility of stone while they emptied the six trains he drew. The workman employed at the tipping-cradle, a red-haired lean fellow, did not hurry himself; he pressed on the lever with a sleepy hand. And above, the wind grew stronger–an icy north wind–and its great, regular breaths passed by like the strokes of a scythe.
“Good day,” replied the old man. There was silence. The man, who felt that he was being looked at suspiciously, at once told his name.
“I am called Étienne Lantier. I am an engine-man. Any work here?”
The flames lit him up. He might be about twenty-one years of age, a very dark, handsome man, who looked strong in spite of his thin limbs.
The carman, thus reassured, shook his head.
“Work for an engine-man? No, no! There were two came yesterday. There’s nothing.”
A gust cut short their speech. Then Étienne asked, pointing to the sombre pile of buildings at the foot of the platform:
“A pit, isn’t it?”
The old man this time could not reply: he was strangled by a violent cough. At last he expectorated, and his expectoration left a black patch on the purple soil.
“Yes, a pit. The Voreux. There! The settlement is quite near.”
In his turn, and with extended arm, he pointed out in the night the village of which the young man had vaguely seen the roofs. But the six trams were empty, and he followed them without cracking his whip, his legs stiffened by rheumatism; while the great yellow horse went on of itself, pulling heavily between the rails beneath a new gust which bristled its coat.