Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 17, 2011

Sensational Snippets: Germinal (1885), by Emile Zola, translated by L.W. Tancock

Germinal, (1885) by Emile Zola, is the thirteenth novel in his twenty-volume series Les Rougon-Macquart, but it’s the first that I have read by this great French writer.  The realism of this story of a miners’ strike in the 1860s in northern France is stunning.

In this Sensational Snippet, the strike has got out of control.  A small contingent of soldiers are guarding Belgian scabs in the pit and the strikers are attacking them with stones and bricks.  Zola – whose sympathies throughout this novel are with the miners and their cause – shows that things are never as simple as they seem afterwards in the cold light of day:

The little squad was nearly lost to sight under the hail of stones.  Fortunately they landed too high and merely pitted the wall above.  What was to be done?  For a moment the captain considered retreating into the buildings, but the very thought of showing his back to the mob made his pale face flush – and in any case it was no longer practicable, for if they made the slightest movement they would be lynched.  A brick had just broken the peak of his cap and blood was trickling down his forehead.  Several of his men were wounded, and he realized that they were at the end of their tether and had reached the stage of instinctive self-defence when they would no longer obey their superiors.  The sergeant had let out an oath when his shoulder had nearly been put out and his skin bruised by a heavy thud that sounded like a dolly banging the washing.  The recruit had been grazed in two places, his thumb was smashed and his right knee was smarting: how much longer were they going to put up with this?  One brick had bounced up and hit the veteran in the groin, and he had turned green and was raising his rifle with his thin arms.  Three times the captain was on the point of ordering them to fire.  He was torn with perplexity, and for some seconds an apparently endless struggle within him shook all his ideas, his sense of duty and his beliefs as a man and as a soldier.  The bricks rained thicker still, and just as he was opening his mouth to shout ‘Fire!’  the rifles went off of their own accord; first three shots, then five, then the whole volley of a platoon and then, long afterwards, a single shot in the midst of silence.

There was a moment of stupefaction.  They had really fired, and the crowd stood motionless, unable to believe it.  Then piercing shrieks arose, while the bugle sounded the cease fire.  And then a wild panic like the stampede of cattle before machine-guns, a frantic rush through the mud.

(Germinal, by Emile Zola, Penguin Classics, 1954 translation by L.W. Tancock, p 410-1)


  1. Thank you for reminding me that I want to read this book. I read my first Zola about a year ago and want to continue on. I recommend The Belly of Paris, about the great food market and the people who work in it.


  2. Oh, I’m glad you’re liking “Germinal”! I read it a few years ago, and thought it was fascinating and brilliant. I’ve been meaning to read another Zola ever since, but time seems to have gotten away from me again. (As usual.)


  3. I’ve yet to read one of his books; I love the idea of long series, but I’m afraid I can’t quite get my head around starting his and nor can I bear the thought of beginning in the middle: stuck!


    • From what I understand, it’s not the sort of series that needs to be read to completion or even in order. (Although I understand the “completist” compulsion, I tend that way myself!) May as well just pick up one of the better known ones and see if you like it before committing to a 20 book series (“Germinal”, “Nana”, “La Bete Humain”, apologies for the spelling on the last one, my French is non-existant).


  4. It makes me so happy when people stumble upon, or catch up with, 19c. European classics that were a marvellous and essential part of my own literary formation. And they are never-ending! (Both the people who and do it and the supply of classics.)


  5. Nancy, I hadn’t heard of The Belly of Paris – I only know of the ones mentioned by Tania – but with my love of food and cooking, I’ll have to add it to my TBR. I think have L’Assommoir on my Kindle, but I’m starting to think I might ‘do’ Zola when I’ve finished Balzac’s La Comedie Humaine which I’m reading with a Yahoo group though I’m always behind the rest of the group. (I don’t blog that here, I contribute to a collaborate blog at
    Judith is right, the great European C19th classics are full of wonderful stories and interesting contrasts in style with the British C19th authors that most of us know better.


  6. I ve only read one zola years ago recentliy picked another to read ,I ve limited knowledge of 19th century french lit .Admire your balzac efforts lisa ,all the best stu


    • Thanks for dropping by, Stu:)


  7. […] Selected by Lisa Hill, 17/11/11 and cross-posted at ANZ LitLovers. […]


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