“The new dawn of truth and justice”: pragmatism and solidarity in “Germinal”

In his 1885 novel Germinal, French author Émile Zola depicts a struggle between rich bourgeoisie and poor workers in Montsou, a French mining town. The bourgeoisie institute policies that force the workers and their families to the brink of starvation, and eventually the workers revolt. Though the principal subject of Germinal is this revolt, Zola’s narrative also shows us a great deal about larger issues that transcend those of class struggle. This can be seen in the development of one of the bourgeois, the mine manager M. Hennebeau. Excessive discipline leads M. Hennebeau to profound unhappiness, and his failed attempts to deal with this profound unhappiness through a private, imaginary revolution lead him to adopt a pragmatic worldview. And M. Hennebeau’s development—from disciplined to revolutionary to pragmatic—echoes the developmental arc of the worker revolt. In juxtaposing these similar arcs, Zola demonstrates that the bourgeoisie and the workers have much in common, and that in recognizing this, humans have the potential to overcome class differences and usher in a new age of justice rooted in human solidarity.

Early on in Germinal, M. Hennebeau is in all things excessively disciplined. His personal development, his relations with others, his attitude toward authority, and even his dress are marked by a strict sensitivity to order. This discipline enables him to endure “several years of arduous study” and eventually work his way up in life from a poor orphan abandoned on the streets of Paris to a manager of a mine (202-203). His dealings in his work are characterized by an almost military discipline. M. Hennebeau is, we are told, a “brusque but not unfriendly” “senior administrator [who takes] care not to become involved in the issues and [deploys] the soulless courtesy of a simple instrument of authority” (221; 224). He does not question his superiors, deliberately refraining from “deciding [matters]” on his own and considering it his “sole function” to see that the instructions he is given “are properly carried out” (223). M. Hennebeau’s responsibility, as he sees it, is not to make decisions, but to “keep the peace” (361). This disciplined adherence to the wishes of his superiors is echoed in the discipline of his dress and demeanor—“his frock-coat [is] buttoned up in the military manner,” “like a uniform,” and when on horseback, he rides “ramrod straight” (218; 268). M. Hennebeau’s militaristic discipline even bleeds over into his relationship with his wife. When dealing with his wife, he “merely [does] his job, sticking to his post like a soldier” (203). He prepares for discussions with her by composing “a few brief, military sentences” (202). And when we are told of his marriage, it is listed as a career accomplishment—as though taking a wife were simply another step on his disciplined climb to a higher rung on the social ladder (203). From his work to his wear to his wife, discipline permeates M. Hennebeau’s life.

Though M. Hennebeau is extraordinarily disciplined, his excessive sense of discipline leads him to stasis and, in the end, to unhappiness; his discipline proves ineffective in dealing with both his workers and his wife. When M. Hennebeau meets with the representatives of the striking workers for the first time, he begins the exchange by telling them that “[he likes] nothing better than to talk”—and indeed, throughout the exchange, talk is all he does (219). Disciplined, order-following man that he is, he cannot bring himself to take any action in support of or against the workers’ effort. Instead, he attempts to guilt them into backing down—chastising Maheu for ceasing to be a “good” and “reasonable” worker and becoming “the head of [a group of] troublemakers”—and accusing them of “[telling] people things that are [untrue]” (219; 222). M. Hennebeau maintains that he is merely “a paid employee [with] no more say in what is decided than the youngest pit-boy,” telling the workers that the most he can do is “pass on [their] demands [to the Company’s] Board of Directors” (223-224). M. Hennebeau is similarly static in his second negotiation with the workers. He assumes an “unbending and authoritarian attitude,” and continues to insist that as “he [has] received no new instructions [from the Board of Directors,] there [can] be no change in the position” (258). But this is a lie: the Board of Directors has, we later learn, given him “the power to negotiate directly” (258). Despite being fully empowered to act, M. Hennebeau refuses to do so, instead falling back upon established authorities. In dealing with his workers, M. Hennebeau’s adherence to discipline prevents him from acting and renders him static.

M. Hennebeau’s discipline with respect to his wife fosters a similar sort of stasis. Like the Board of Directors, Mme. Hennebeau provides him with an opportunity to be disciplined. Mme. Hennebeau is horribly demanding and capricious, and she exacts discipline from her husband through this caprice. For instance, she both “[looks] down on him” for failing to come from money and needing to “[work] hard to earn a…salary” and demeans him for not being socially ambitious enough—for not “[demanding] a partnership, or [acquiring] shares in the company [or otherwise making] something of himself” (203; 204). He fails to please his wife, but not for lack of trying; indeed much of his existence is devoted to pleasing her. Against his better judgment, he does not cancel a luncheon with the Grégoire family despite a risk of disruption by the strike because Mme. Hennebeau wishes for it to happen (202). And all M. Hennebeau’s geographic relocations in his adult life are undertaken in the hopes of making Mme. Hennebeau happy—“he [leaves his job as a divisional engineer in] the Pas-de-Calais for a desk job in Paris, hoping this would make her grateful to him”; and he later “[accepts] the job as manager of the Montsou mines” “when he [sees] how ill her unhappiness [in Paris is] making her” (203-204; 346). But whatever he does, wherever he takes her, he cannot please her; she is permanently and inexplicably “exasperated” (204). In following Mme. Hennebeau’s every whim, M. Hennebeau demonstrates the extent to which his wife, like the Board of Directors, has disciplined him. And much as M. Hennebeau is static in dealing with the workers, he is here mired in a sort of disciplined stasis—a never-ending, impossible struggle to please his wife.

M. Hennebeau’s static discipline in dealing with his workers and his wife breeds disappointment and despair in him. In his exchanges with the workers, the end result of his approach is “[uneasiness]” and anger, with “[meetings ending] abruptly [and] doors [slamming]” (225; 259). His relations with his wife are similarly disheartening. In all their years of marriage, “he [has] never possessed her as a lover,” and he recognizes that for all his trying, he will never please her or be close to her:

He looked at her, trembling slightly, and the hard, closed face of this man of discipline registered the secret pain of a heart that was used to being bruised. She had continued to sit there with her shoulders bare, a woman already past her prime and yet still dazzling and desirable, and with the bust of an earth goddess turned golden brown by autumn. For a moment, no doubt, he felt the animal urge to take her, to roll his head from side to side between those two breasts thus presented for display, here in this warm room with its luxurious, intimate aura of female sensuality and its provocative scent of musk; but he drew back. For ten years now they had slept apart. (204; 202)

His estrangement from his wife is “a sickness without cure, disguised by his stiff manner, the sickness off a tender nature in secret agony at failing to find happiness in marriage” (204-205). But M. Hennebeau’s tendency toward discipline prevents him from acting—instead of exercising his power in his negotiations with the workers or acting on his animal urges to take his wife, he resorts to “[his] personal version of military discipline [, from which] he [derives] the one small share of happiness he [enjoys]” (367). M. Hennebeau does what he has done “[each] time he [has] met with catastrophe during his life”—“he [falls] back on the resort of carrying out his orders to the letter” (367). Faced with profound unhappiness, M. Hennebeau falls back on the very discipline that engenders it.

M. Hennebeau’s solution to his unhappiness is nothing short of revolutionary—he rebels in his imagination, completely shoving off the conventions of bourgeois society. In his mind, he creates a revolutionary fantasy world in which he solves his problems with his workers and his wife through violent revolt—through wild, raucous sex; and a world in which bourgeoisie notions of filth are turned on their heads. Though M. Hennebeau succeeds in creating a new world for himself, this imaginary approach is simply an extension of his characteristic disciplined inaction, and thus fails to make him happy.

When M. Hennebeau discovers that his wife has been having an affair in Montsou, he directs his sexual frustration and violent reactions toward the workers who are laying siege to his house in search of food. He becomes “[filled] with anger at [them]” for not understanding happiness, thinking them “[idiots for supposing] that happiness in this world comes from having a share of its wealth” (356; 357). On the contrary, for M. Hennebeau, happiness is predicated on sexual fulfillment:

He would gladly have swapped his fat salary just to have their thick skin and their unproblematic sex. If only he could sit them down at his table and let them gorge himself on pheasant while he went off to fornicate behind the hedges…. He would have given everything, his education, his security, his life of luxury, his managerial powers, if he could just, for one single day, be the lowliest among his own employees, master of his own flesh…. Oh to live like an animal, to have no possessions, to roam the cornfields with the ugliest, dirtiest putter, and to wish for nothing else! (356)

Here, M. Hennebeau imagines dominating the workers through sex, conquering their women—“screwing girls and not giving a damn who had screwed them before him”—and becoming the most powerful and virile of their men, becoming “enough of a boor to beat his wife and pleasure himself with the woman next door” (356). His greatest desire is a “woman who [will] give herself to him on the bare ground, unreservedly” (281). In his revolutionary fantasy world, he changes from a profoundly inactive man governed by discipline to a wild beast, solving his problems with his workers and his wife by dominating both, by taking from his workers’ what he can never have from his wife.

In addition to giving him a fantasy outlet for his frustrations with his workers and his wife, M. Hennebeau’s imaginary conquests also reverse established definitions of filth. Actions that would seem to be horribly “filthy”—such as “[fornicating] behind the hedges” or “roaming the fields with the ugliest, dirtiest putter”—are embraced as elements of human happiness (356). What, then, is filth? For M. Hennebeau, filth lies in the betrayal of his bourgeois wife. When he discovers this betrayal, he terms her a “slut, and [searches] for other crude words with which to defile her image” (346). The site of her infidelity—her lover’s bedroom—is similarly filthy: “clothes lay scattered about, wet towels [are] tossed over the backs of chairs, the bed [is] unmade, one sheet [is] pulled half off on to the floor,” the “furniture [is untidy, and] every inch of [the] room [reeks] of vice” (344; 347). For M. Hennebeau, It is not the poor, dirt-covered workers who are dirty; it is his betraying, bourgeois wife.

Though this reversal of definitions is in a sense revolutionary—in that it turns an existing hierarchy on its head—through it we can see that M. Hennebeau’s proclivity for inaction is only exacerbated by his fantasy world. He is disgusted and depressed by the filth of his wife’s actions, but his fantasy world proves useless to him as a means of subverting his sadness. His wife’s actions lead him to conjecture that “everything” is “[terribly] pointless” and that “living” is nothing but “endless pain and suffering”; and to feel “shame at himself for still adoring and wanting the woman in the midst of this filth, which he was doing nothing to prevent” (355). Life may be pointless, but by M. Hennebeau’s reckoning, he his powerless to do anything about it. He is rendered similarly depressed with respect to the workers laying siege to him home. “In his…unhappiness he [is] not to be consoled, and he [envies] these poor wretched people” (281). He sees their quest for food as useless in the pursuit of happiness, and determining that happiness is ultimately illusory, he concludes that the best form of being is inactivity:

These starry-eyed revolutionaries could destroy society and build another one if they liked, but it wouldn’t add one jot to the total sum of human joy. They could hand out a slice of bread to every man, woman and child, but not one of them would be the slightest bit less miserable. Indeed they would be spreading yet more unhappiness across the face of the earth, for the fact was that one day even the dogs would howl in despair when they had finally stirred from the tranquility of sated instinct and raised them to the higher suffering of unfulfilled desire. No, the only good lay in not being—or, if one had to be, then in being a tree, a stone, or even less than that, the grain of sand that cannot bleed beneath the grinding heel of a passer-by. (357)

M. Hennebeau’s preference for discipline and stasis is here embodied in a supremely inactive, docile, disciplined thing: a stone. M. Hennebeau would rather be an inanimate object that cannot act than face the prospect of having to act. In coming to this conclusion, he is again overtaken by sadness. His anger toward the workers disappears, “[and] in his frustration and torment tears [fill his] eyes and [begin] to course in burning drops down the length of his cheeks… [and] maddened only by the running sore of his heart, he [mutters] through his tears” (357). M. Hennebeau’s revolution may be fantastic, but it is helpless to change his life or make him happy. He is still inactive, disciplined, and depressed.

The excessively disciplined M. Hennebeau fails to commune with workers and his wife, fails to find happiness in his ordered existence, and fails to break free of this existence through fantasy. A contrast to M. Hennebeau’s failure is presented in the man with whom Mme. Hennebeau commits adultery: M. Hennebeau’s nephew, Paul Négrel. Unlike M. Hennebeau, Négrel is not excessively disciplined. Where M. Hennebeau is reserved, Négrel acts without inhibition, and is thus able to establish connections with both the workers and Mme. Hennebeau. M. Hennebeau eventually realizes Négrel’s ability to establish these connections, and imitates Négrel both in action and in thought—becoming, like Négrel, a pragmatist.

Négrel has no special tendency toward discipline. He is “pragmatic, with an intelligence unfettered by scruple” (205). Where M. Hennebeau derives what small pleasure he gets in life from following orders, Négrel undertakes even the most weighty, consequential, and forbidden acts like affairs for nothing more than “amusing recreation” (367; 205). Where M. Hennebeau is talkative and indecisive, Négrel is assertive and gallant (218; 349). M. Hennebeau recognizes that Négrel is more active than he; and in keeping with his proclivity toward stasis, declines to act when he can send Négrel in his stead. When the workers strike initially, M. Hennebeau “[sends] Négrel off on a tour of the neighboring pits to gather accurate information” (202). When the Le Voreux, the principal mine, explodes due to sabotage, a “very pale” M. Hennebeau sends Négrel down to determine what happened, “[helplessly]” and “anxiously waiting” for Négrel “on the surface” with “his…face twitching nervously” (477). And when the striking workers lay siege to Le Voreux, “[a] rumour [goes] around that M. Hennebeau [is] at the pit…but the rumour [is] false…Négrel [, and not M. Hennebeau, is] there” (428). Unlike M. Hennebeau—and often in place of M. Hennebeau—Négrel is constantly acting.

Négrel’s lack of excessive discipline and tendency toward action allow him to succeed where M. Hennebeau fails—in establishing connections with the workers and Mme. Hennebeau. Where “the miners [look] at [M. Hennebeau] with suspicion” and think him “devious,” they “respect” Négrel, who “[dresses] like them and [is], as they [are], smeared with coal” (53). Négrel “[demonstrates] an almost foolhardy courage” to win the confidence of the workers, “negotiating the most awkward spots in the mine, always the first on the scene when there [is] a rock-fall or firedamp explosion” (53). We are even told that Négrel has “republican leanings” and supports the “common man”—even if he sometimes mocks the common man to impress “the ladies” (351). Négrel is as adept with the ladies as he is with the workers—especially Mme. Hennebeau. Superficially, Négrel possesses Mme. Hennebeau sexually, while M. Hennebeau never has and never shall (345-357; 204). But Mme. Hennebeau specifically admires Négrel’s activeness: while both M. Hennebeau and Négrel are pessimistic, Négrel is urgently pessimistic, and Mme. Hennebeau “[likes] the urgency of his pessimism” (205). Given his connections to the workers and M. Hennebeau’s wife, Négrel could seemingly enjoy the “unproblematic sex” M. Hennebeau longs for so desperately; he could easily “[go] off to fornicate behind the hedges” “with the ugliest, dirtiest putter” (356). Indeed, Mme. Hennebeau “[teases Négrel] about the [his relations with] putters he [claims] to find repellent” (205). Négrel, through action, enjoys communion with the workers and the wife M. Hennebeau fails so spectacularly to connect to connect with.

M. Hennebeau recognizes that Négrel is able to connect with others, and ultimately emulates Négrel—both in behavior and by adopting his pragmatic outlook. Just before the workers’ strike turns violent, M. Hennebeau elects to attempt to commune with the workers. Like Négrel, who is frequently mounting and dismounting, M. Hennebeau mounts his mare and goes “riding along through…villages [,] displaying quiet courage in coming to ascertain in person how things stood” (349; 354; 268). This outreach to the workers does not exactly succeed, but it does not exactly fail, either—M. Hennebeau does not receive a warm welcome, but “[no] stone ever [whistles] past his ears [and] the men he [passes are] simply silent and slow to return his greeting” (268). In the spirit of Négrel, M. Hennebeau makes an attempt to connect to the workers.

In addition to attempting to connect with the workers in Négrel’s mold, M. Hennebeau adopts Négrel’s pragmatism in dealing with the affair between Négrel and Mme. Hennebeau. Though Négrel is certainly a willing partner in the affair, M. Hennebeau, rather than alienate himself from his nephew, elects to “lay all the blame on [Mme. Hennebeau],” who, as M. Hennebeau figures it, “attached herself” to “the young man…like someone reaching out to plunder the first unripe fruit encountered on a country walk” (347). M. Hennebeau chooses to play down the fact that the “young man” in question is his nephew, reasoning that “it [is] better that [Mme. Hennebeau] had [chosen a lover from within the family because] it [preserves] appearances” (355). M. Hennebeau already despises his wife, so far from making him angry with Négrel, the affair “only [means] that he [despises Mme. Hennebeau] a little bit more” (355). M. Hennebeau, indeed, all but “[exonerates] the young man,” whose only crime is being “sufficiently pragmatic to accept [a] household regime of free board, free lodging and a free wife” (347). And with the surprise death of Négrel’s fiancé—who would have taken Négrel off M. Hennebeau’s hands, at least officially—M. Hennebeau’s pragmatism is cemented: “[The] tragedy,” we are told, “[solves] everything, for [M. Hennebeau] would rather keep his nephew than fear that the coachman might be next” (499). In excusing Négrel for his role in the affair with Mme. Hennebeau, M. Hennebeau becomes, like Négrel, a pragmatist.

For M. Hennebeau, revolutionary fantasy proves bankrupt in his effort to break free of excessive discipline, to change his life and make himself a happier person. The closest he comes to happiness is adopting a pragmatic worldview, dealing sensibly and realistically with the conditions of his life, accepting that certain things will not change, and working from that point to make himself as content as possible—preferring, for instance, to keep his nephew close to him rather than alienate him in favor of the coachman. M. Hennebeau opts to accept and negotiate his pitiable conditions rather than create more turmoil in his already chaotic personal world.

M. Hennebeau’s move toward pragmatism in the face of failing discipline and revolution finds a corollary in the larger narrative of Germinal—the workers’ revolt. Like M. Hennebeau’s private mental revolution, the workers’ revolt is a product of excessive discipline—of the oppressive regulations, policies, and conditions instituted by the Board of Directors and their bourgeoisie civilians, managers, and engineers (219-225). And, like M. Hennebeau’s private revolution, the workers’ revolt fails: the workers return to work with no significant benefits and many traumatic casualties; and like M. Hennebeau, they are no happier after the revolt than before it. The mental arc of Étienne, the instigator of the revolt, even mirrors M. Hennebeau’s mental arc: from disciplined to revolutionary to pragmatic. Étienne begins a disciplined man, obeying regulations and “[doing] whatever’s required” (29). When conditions become unbearable for him, he moves to incite a revolt, murmuring, “The time has come!” (197). And when the revolt fails, Étienne becomes a pragmatist:

[He begins] to wonder whether all the violence had really helped their cause. The smashed lamps and the severed cables and the torn-up rails, how pointless it had all been! What good had it done to go rushing around in a mod of three thousand people destroying everything in sight? Dimly he foresaw that one day the law might provide a more terrible and powerful weapon. (531)

Like M. Hennebeau, Étienne recognizes that revolution is untenable as a means of changing the world, and that dealing sensibly and realistically with the world’s conditions—working within the law—is more useful than revolution for rectifying social injustice. For the workers, as for Négrel and M. Hennebeau, pragmatism is the “[mature]” endpoint in a process that leads through and leaves behind discipline and revolution (531).

In presenting us with M. Hennebeau and the workers’ similar developmental arcs, Zola does three interrelated things. First, he demonstrates that pragmatism is a more effective philosophy to take than either resignation or revolution when approaching problems in our private lives and in social crises like the one faced by the workers. Second, in paralleling M. Hennebeau’s personal trauma with the public, mass trauma of the workers, he does much to dismantle distinctions between public and private trauma, and thus between the public and the private in general. M. Hennebeau’s troubles with his wife echo his relations with the workers; and the workers’ struggle, though endured as a group, manifests itself in countless forms of personal pain. Finally, in fusing the private plight of a bourgeois with the societal plight of the workers, Zola suggests that beyond class distinctions, we are bound together through a common endurance of trauma. Though we are often locked in struggle, we all experience trauma, regardless of class; and this bond has the potential to supercede Marxist categories like “bourgeois” and “worker” and unite all people in shared negotiation of a traumatic world. While recognizing that there is much that divides his society, Zola shows us that as humans, members of disparate social groups have the power to overcome their differences and move forward to a world in which all people can genuinely share in a “new dawn of truth and justice” (532). This lesson is valuable not just for Zola’s society, but, undoubtedly, for all.


Marx, Karl and Frederick Engels. The Communist Manifesto. New York: Verso, 1998.

Zola, Émile. Germinal. Trans. Roger Pearson. London: Penguin Books, 2004.

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