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Friday, 5 December 2014

Life down’t pit

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In his novel Germinal, Émile Zola creates a revealing contrast between nineteenth century French coal miners and their comparatively wealthy manager who is acutely envious of one of the miners’ few freedoms - casual sex.

The manager's material situation is extremely comfortable but he is trapped in a loveless, non-physical marriage. As he walks around the grim industrial wasteland that is the local mining village he sees casual sexual encounters. They have become the norm, sometimes pursued in the open air. To him the mining community is a sexual paradise and his life of comfort is nothing in comparison.

His desolate household, his whole wounded life, choked him at the throat like a death agony. Things were not all for the best because one had bread. Who was the fool who placed earthly happiness in the partition of wealth? These revolutionary dreamers might demolish society and rebuilt another society; they would not add one joy to humanity, they would not take away one pain, by cutting bread-and-butter for everybody. They would even enlarge the unhappiness of the earth; they would one day make the very dogs howl with despair when they had taken them out of the tranquil satisfaction of instinct, to raise them to the unappeasable suffering of passion.
Émile Zola - Germinal

Initially I found the comparison unlikely. It seemed to strike a false note in an otherwise excellent novel. Surely casual sex would not have offset the appalling conditions the miners had to endure?

A moment's reflection suggested Zola would not make such a mistake - that wasn't the point. He did a great deal of research for Germinal and quite possibly heard someone in a similar position to the manager expressing such views.

The manager’s overwhelming sexual frustration highlights his dismal failure to reach across the social divide. He doesn’t even see that casual sex is the miners’ only freedom, doesn't even see how appallingly ludicrous it is to view it as the tranquil satisfaction of instinct.

Neither does he see the animal nature of it, how this ultimate degradation is caused by the mine owners he works for, how the dreadful conditions have stripped miners and their families of even their right to human dignity.

Powerful stuff. I’ve lived in ex-coalmining areas for decades and never detected the slightest whiff of nostalgia for life down’t pit. 

4 comments:

Roger said...

An interesting take on the characterisation. I saw it slightly differently, as Zola playing to his middle class audience with the familiar idea that the middle classes were often lumbered with dull respectable wives (and husbands) with unimaginative and constrained ideas about sex. Whilst on the other hand the coarser working classes were alleged to have more fun and pleasures considered taboo in polite circles even if the work was horrible.

This idea can be (and has been) extended to include the aristocracy who were assumed to engage in much the same as the working classes thus adding to the sexual jealousy. Even now among the horsey set aristos and gypsies rub along well, both knowing a good rump when they see one.

Demetrius said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Demetrius said...

Another day, another error, apols again for the deletion, I doubled the Peak one. Agree that mine workers did not have nostalgia for the work. Interestingly there was a powerful nostalgia for the community and camaraderie of the villages and small town ships.

A K Haart said...

Roger - I think you are right about the dull respectability but I also think Zola wanted to bring out the absurdity of the manager's frustrated envy. He would never have swapped his comfort for a roll in the coal.

Also his feebleness, his inability to assuage his frustration elsewhere.

Demetrius - I have caught some of that, but a world with more money seems to make up for it.