Digging for Justice: Germinal and Matewan

Miner’s Wives – Vincent Van Gogh

Germinal by Emile Zola

As the day wore on, the atmosphere became even more poisonous and the air became hotter and hotter with the fumes from their lamps, and the foulness of their breath, and the asphixiating firedamp, which clung to their eyes like cobwebs and which would clear only when the mine was ventilated during the night. But despite it all, buried like moles beneath the crushing weight of the earth, and without a breath of fresh air in their lungs, they simply went on tapping.


When Emile Zola’s Germinal was published in 1885, France had already seen a wave of strikes across the country, in a period of history in which the key themes of the novel – the relationship between labour and capital and the “socialist” question – were prominent concepts in the social and political landscape. Karl Marx’s Das Kapital had recently been published, revolutionary socialist Auguste Blanqui was elected President of the Commune in 1870 and the nihilist/anarchist Russian revolutionary Mikhail Bakunin had recently published Statehood and Anarchy. Thoroughly researched, the thirteenth novel in his Rougon-Macquart sequence is widely recognised as Zola’s finest novel, meticulously detailed in both the daily lives of the miners and their working and living conditions, and the rising tide of political thought and desire for justice in the face of exploitation by a largely faceless corporate structure concerned only with the margin of profit for their shareholders. It is frequently stark and uncompromising as it charts the arrival of young migrant Étienne to the fictional location of Montsou, his integration into the local mining community and the strike triggered by further stealth cuts in the workers’ wages.

Zola’s vision of political awakening against a background of social upheaval is anything but black and white. From naive idealism and cautious moderation to vague indifference and violent anarchistic leanings, Germinal covers a wide spectrum of responses to the problems the miners find themselves facing, and Zola portrays it all without the polemical zeal often found in literature of this type. Is reform or revolution inevitable or impossible? Can a burgeoning political awakening among the workers lead to a new world in which the old injustices are abolished, or would such an upheaval of the old social order lead simply to a new hierarchy of masters and slaves, bosses and workers? Is the life of penury and starvation the miners lead self-perpetuating in an endlessly turbulent world? There are no easy answers – as Zola once said, “we are still beginners when it comes to improving our lot.”

Beyond this – and crucially – his characters are distinctly human: moralistic and self-righteous, crude and degenerate, abusive, caring, vain and egotistical and contradictory, by turns committed to the strike and demonstrating intense solidarity in the face of their collective empty stomachs and duplicitious and self-serving as the prolonged strike takes its toll. In one harrowing scene in which desperation leads to a savage riot, they prove themselves capable of intense and bloodthirsty barbarism. In short, they represent all that is noble and, conversely, fallible in humanity. For Zola, there were no easy political resolutions, and only through a conscious and meditative understanding of the human condition can mankind hope to create for itself a better place. His novels – and Germinal in particular – are concerted efforts to shed some light on this dynamic between the human spirit and the political and social forces which derive from this, “to tell the truth about humanity, to take the machine apart and show the hidden workings of heredity and the ways in which people are influenced by their surroundings. The law-makers and the moralists will then be free to draw whatever conclusions they wish from my work and to patch the wounds which I shall have revealed.”

Matewan by John Sayles

Emile Zola appeared to be under no illusion that the struggle between capital and labour was about to be resolved any time soon, and John Sayles’s Matewan (1987) is an excellent film dramatising how this conflict played out in the US. Set in the town of Matewan in the early 1920s, it centres around another miners’ dispute with the Company (Germinal also refers to the corporation which owns the mines simply as “the Company”) and the arrival of Joe Kenehan (Chris Cooper), an organizer for the United Mine Workers and his efforts to set up a union in the face of opposition from the mine owners, who send in thugs, killers and agent provocateurs to sow discord among the ranks of the workers in their efforts to smash the union. Based loosely on the events leading up to the Battle of Matewan, Sayles tells an engaging and intricate story with compassion, evoking the period effectively through evocative costume design and cinematography. Sayles is also under no illusions that this seemingly eternal struggle between the forces of labour and capital will be resolved any time soon, but amidst the hardship and violence there is an underlying sense of hope that justice will one day prevail, and the faith in the spirit of humanity recalls the best work of John Steinbeck.

While Sayles the director is widely perceived as one of America’s greatest auteurs, he secured much of his funding for his more personal projects writing such genre screenplays as Piranha, Alligator and The Howling and is rumoured to be currently working on the screenplay for Jurassic Park IV.

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