• The



    has captivated generations of readers and brought minors the dignity they aspired to, according to our partner The Conversation.

  • Zola was not however a precursor since between 1866 and 1885, no less than ten novels and short stories on the mine and the miners had been published.

  • The analysis of this phenomenon was carried out by Diana Cooper-Richet, researcher at the Center for the Cultural History of Contemporary Societies at the University of Versailles Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines - University of Paris-Saclay.

As Zola's novel Germinal is presented to the French public for the first time in the form of a six-episode television miniseries (Franco-Italian co-production soon on France 2), it must be remembered that even before d be published in book version by Charpentier in 1885, it was in serial format that it appeared between November 26, 1884 and February 25, 1885 in the daily Gil Blas.

This is where readers became acquainted with the adventures of Catherine and Lantier.


“Germinal”, trailer for the television series (2021)

The coal miners of Polignies

"Century of the newspaper", the nineteenth century saw flourish on the ground floor of the first pages of dailies, as well as in the inside pages of weeklies and reviews, soap operas which are raging among amateurs, more and more numerous, of popular literature. The first of them -

La Comtesse de Salisbury

, by Alexandre Dumas - began to appear in 1836 in the daily La Presse by Émile de Girardin.

It is thanks to this type of reading that the French gradually discover the world of mining, especially since they can hardly ignore the economic importance of the mining industry which, in the 1870s, employed some 110,000 people. people. Perhaps some have read the very first "novel of the mine",

Les Houilleurs de Polignies

by Élie Berthet - author of a hundred novels and the first to have dared to situate his story in a mine -, published in the "Varied library" at Hachette in 1866.

Zola, since 1862, has been employed by this large publishing house where he is attached to the newly created advertising department. In this context, he is responsible for writing, for the

Bulletin of the bookseller and the lover of books

, the notices of the books to be published. In January 1866, the note he wrote on

Les Houilleurs de Poliginies

was laudatory:

Mr. Elie Berthet knows how to dramatize his stories admirably […], he takes us down into a coal mine and he treats […] with great talent these scenes of despair and anguish which take place in the bowels of the soil […] the book is full of very curious details on the life and customs of the coal miners.

It is a peculiar and strange world which the novelist has taken advantage of as a picturesque and interesting storyteller […].

The dramatic part is skilfully mixed with the technical details and nothing is more endearing than the loves of Amélie and Léonard, taking place in the middle of the adventures of the coal miners led by a rascal who ends up expiating his crimes.

At the origins of


Belgian minors in 1892 © Bibliothèque Ulysse Capitaine (Liège, Belgium)

Nearly twenty later, the Rougon-Macquart's father went to Denain (North) from February 23 to March 2, 1884, to the Renard pit of the Compagnie des Mines d'Anzin, where a strike was declared. There, in the company of the Socialist deputy of Valenciennes Alfred Giard, who passes him off as his secretary, he "goes down to the bottom". As can be seen in his


, published in the Terre humaine collection at Plon, Émile Zola “put on the shirt, the breeches, or cule, the jacket, the petticoat, he wore the blue crush and the hat. of hard leather, or bar, he went to get the individual lamp and he entered the "sedan" of descent ", thus becoming for a day, a miner among the miners, risking his life at their side!

With this experience and his abundant reading, especially technical and medical, he undoubtedly remembered Berthet's novel which already contained all the stereotypes of what would become a literary quasi-genre: the "novel of the mine" .

As in


, and as in almost all other stories of this type, we find there: a crowd of exploited workers, an underground catastrophe, a difficult rescue, a ducasse (regional festival), a social movement.

But also a group of characters, often quite Manichean, including a young engineer, a rebellious worker, a boss in difficulty, a young girl - worker or daughter of the boss of the mine, depending on whether the series is pink, or black like


who immediately places itself on the ground of the struggle between Capital and Labor.


"Germinal", the novel summarized and explained (E. Lanier / Mediaclasse)

Zola is far from being a precursor since between 1866 and 1885 no less than ten novels and short stories, bearing in part or in whole on the mine and the miners, were published.

But, none of them will cause an editorial bomb, a literary earthquake, comparable to that caused by the most famous part of Rougon-Macquart.


, the novel of the miners of the twentieth century

In less than two decades the corporation of miners has appropriated


, making this naturalist novel its own. Evidenced by the presence at the funeral of the writer of a delegation of "black gueules" (minors from Denain dressed in their work clothes and with their fanfare). They will accompany the convoy to the cemetery of Montmartre. As a journalist from



in the October 6, 1902 edition: "They carry a white wooden box, in which is a crown that they come to place on the tomb of the one who sang their miseries"; and, from the crowd gathered in the cemetery, cries rise: "Germinal, Germinal"!

At the other end of the century, in 1992-1993, during the shooting of Claude Berri's feature film, a number of former miners - the last well in the region having closed in Oignies (Pas-de-Calais) on the 21st December 1990 - are invited by the director to play their own role.

Many of them seem to have been particularly motivated by the scenes of collective protest, demonstrations and strikes!

A small group of participants even composed a text in verse offered to the actor Renaud, admired in the role of Lantier.

The singer Renaud in the role of Lantier by Germinal © C. Berri / Renn Production

We should also note the creation, during the filming, of an “Association of friends of Germinal and former miners”, as well as the increase in the number of copies of the novel sold in bookstores in the north of France.

But the enthusiasm for


is not limited to the former members of the “People of the night”.

Many political figures of all stripes come to the filming location.

The cult of


will even reach the heights of the state.

President François Mitterrand, reputed to be a connoisseur of literature, is even presented by Claude Berri with the script for his film!

The miniseries produced by David Hourrègue and Julien Lilti, who have allowed themselves some freedom with the original story - adding a few characters - in turn revives the general public's interest in this work.



, an unequaled masterpiece, does it still have the same place in the mental universe of many French people?

From mine to writing

For the men of coal, this novel, signed by one of the greatest French writers, who entered the Pantheon in 1908, gave their corporation the dignity to which they aspired.

Some of them - around 70 French-speaking minors - who claim to be


, have been led on the path of writing, almost always autobiographical.

But for the most part, as for the Belgian writer-miner Constant Malva (1903-1969): "Zola said everything, he masterfully used all the elements that mine can provide for a novel"!

Coal mines in the Liège region © ComputerHotline / Wikimedia CC BY-SA

According to Henri Mitterand, a great connoisseur of Zola's work, this “cult novel of the depths” has crystallized “all the tragic, epic and symbolic potentialities” of the mining world.

If Zola did not know how to anticipate a disaster as terrible as that which occurred in Courrières (Pas-de-Calais) on March 10, 1906, during which 1099 minors died, he felt all the violence contained in the mining basins, in his time.

His description of the savage emasculation of Maigrat the grocer who refuses to give credit to the families of starving and revolted minors seems unthinkable.

However in reality, in 1886 in Decazeville, the coalmen of this mining town defenestrated, in a scene of incredible barbarism, the engineer Watrin, thus giving birth to the expression “watrinade”.

Our "MINES" file

This naturalist novel, which gave letters of nobility to the “black faces”, occupies a special place in French literature.

Its heroes of flesh and blood fully recognized themselves in the portrait of their lives, appropriating the work before the death of its author to claim it, then, for more than a century.

Known and recognized around the world,


inspired many writers, like Baldomero Lillo (1867-1923), to name only him, who wanted to be the Chilean Zola, but also filmmakers like Capellani in 1903 and Yves Allégret (in 1963) who, in his film also entitled


, played Claude Brasseur and Jean Sorel.


Reading: What avenues to encourage children to immerse themselves (regularly) in books?


Education: Why are La Fontaine's Fables (always) read so much in school?

This analysis was written by Diana Cooper-Richet, researcher at the Center for Cultural History of Contemporary Societies at the University of Versailles Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines - Université Paris-Saclay.

The original article was published on The Conversation website.

Declaration of interests

Diana Cooper-Richet does not work, advise, own shares, receive funds from any organization that might benefit from this article, and has not declared any affiliation other than her research organization.

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