The Effects and Reflection of Space in Émile Zola’s Germinal

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The Effects and Reflection of Space in Émile Zola’s Germinal

By Bianca Chui

June 2017
(UBC Arts One LB3, Dr. Brianne Orr- Álvarez)


In Émile Zola’s novel Germinal, the distinction between characters from differing social classes can be seen in their outward appearances. However, a subtler distinction can be seen through the use of space. Zola uses contrasting physical surroundings, from the larger perspective of a neighbourhood to the smaller perspective of living quarters, to showcase the differences in social class. The bourgeois inhabits a spacious mansion with a lush green garden while the miners live in cramped quarters covered in the mine dust.  Such imagery contributes to the description of the characters and shows their differences in habits and temperance.

Zola displays two different social classes in the novel: the bourgeois and the working class. The Grégoires belong to the bourgeois class as they own the mine, while the Maheux belong to the working class as they are the miners that work for the Grégoires. In both families, a notable daughter is present and the mothers stay home with the children (or child in the case of Madame Grégoire). The neighbourhoods and the homes these two families reside in determine the different habits and temperance of characters from differing social classes that have a similar role in the family. The Maheu’s and Grégoire’s neighbourhoods show the status of each family while their living spaces show their financial situation and habits. Their living spaces also impact the mother’s action in taking care of her children and their temperance.  In Catherine’s shared bed space and Cécile’s private bedroom, Zola uses space to show differences between the two girls in both habits and temperance.

Focusing on the physical surroundings, the Maheux inhabit a company-owned house in mining village number Two Hundred and Forty (15). Zola describes the village near the Pit as “four massive blocks of small back-to-back houses” that are dark and cramped (15). These uniform houses are filled with the miners and their families, and create a sense of community for the working class. Although the Maheux are a family of ten, they inhabit a small two-floor house with a single bedroom (15-17). The conditions of the neighbourhood echo the appearance of its inhabitants – filthy and clogged with mud and dirt (88).

In an area far away from the pit and close to the working class dwellings, the Grégoires live in a spacious, clean estate (75).  Filled with lime trees, the stark green imagery couldn’t be more different than the dark, dusty colouring of the miners’ village up north (75). With a family of three, two servants, and a coachman, the Grégoires occupy a large square house with a separate kitchen, dining room, and multiple bedrooms upstairs. This spacious house differs greatly from the Maheu’s in terms of space and cleanliness, with the Grégoire’s being able to afford a chambermaid (75-76). These two homes further display the difference in class and financial position of the two families.

Zooming in from the neighbourhoods the characters reside in, Zola pays great attention to the garden and surrounding greenery in both families’ residence. Although both own a garden, the usage and maintenance of such a space are very different due to their social status. The Maheu’s garden is more of a patch for them to grow different vegetables.  Zola describes Maheu as “busy in the garden” after his bath with his wife (117). To the Maheux, this patch of garden is cultivated for the need to survive as it provides them with the necessary vegetables for survival throughout the week, such as potatoes, beans, peas, cabbages, and lettuce. With their lower economic status, La Maheude is seen to scrap every franc and food scrap in order to feed all ten mouths in the house. To her, the garden is a source of food and provides the family with occasional meals like salads from the dandelion leaves (118).

However, the Grégoires manage their garden for a different reason – they cultivate the garden as a symbol of their social status and pride. Zola shows this by stating that “people spoke admiringly of […] their vegetable garden, produce the finest fruit and vegetables” (75). Being in a position of wealth, the Grégoires do not need to dirty their hands in gardening work, but instead, hire a gardener and his wife to look over the fruit and vegetables (76). Not only do they own a vegetable garden, they also own an orchard. Along with edible products, their garden also produces flowers, as they do not require extra space to produce vegetables to feed mouths in the family. As an orchard needs constant maintenance, being able to afford the garden as decoration on their estate show the Grégoire’s wealth and prestige.

This difference in the function of space and the appearance and maintenance of the space shows the different habits and needs of the Maheu’s and Grégoire’s. The former depends on the garden produce for survival, while the latter use the garden as decoration and as a symbol of social status. The produce in the Maheu’s garden, therefore, does not represent abundance but rather survival in the state of poverty.  In contrast, the Grégoire’s garden shows that the bourgeois live an idle life and produce excess beyond their necessaries. The gardens, in a larger context, show the differing social classes’ approach and way of life through necessity and surplus.

In the Maheu’s household, Le Maheude and the children wake up at seven after the miners leave the house for work at six o’clock (85). The slits of daylight filter into the room and wake up the non-working part of the family – La Maheude and the children: Lénore, Henri, Alzire, and Estelle. La Maheude’s daily schedule revolves around taking care of the children and making the bare means earned by Maheu, Zacherie, Catherine, and Bonnemort spread to feed all ten mouths. After she wakes up, she heads downstairs to prepare food from the bare cupboards and dresses the children and lets them eat a handful of vermicelli at the table before heading to the Grégoire’s at La Piolaine for donations of goods. Zola describes the room downstairs as “fairly large,” and which  “took up the whole of the ground floor” (22). He continues by detailing the room, highlighting its cleanliness and apple green wall colour (22). In the room, there is a cast-iron hearth with “a griddle in the centre and a stove on each side,” which is used to prepare the Maheu’s meals (22). Although La Maheude does her best to keep the room clean and takes great pride in doing so, there is still an overlaying of coal dust in the household. Compared to La Maheude, Madame Grégoire, a member of the bourgeoisie, has a much easier life. She usually wakes up around nine o’clock and has the cook prepare breakfast for her family. In the Grégoire’s estate, there is an actual kitchen with “pots and pans, and utensils” as well as overflowing provisions in cupboards and shelves (76). The family gathers around the table in the dining room to eat the brioche prepared by the cook, along with hot chocolate. The difference in habits, in food preparations and consumption, shows the difference in social class between the Maheux and the Grégoires. The Maheux are barely scraping by but the Grégoires, yet again, showcase an overabundance of food in the cupboards and a luxurious breakfast meal. The dining spaces re-emphasize the class difference of both families: the Maheux have a cramped multi-use space while the Grégoires own a separate kitchen and dining area.

Other than their roles as mother, La Maheude and Madame Grégoire are very different in their morning routine and temperance. La Maheude has a busy morning scrambling around the lower floor to feed all the children, while Madame Grégoire has a relaxed morning ordering the cook to prepare brioche for her only daughter Cécile. La Maheude has a difficult temperament and looks beyond her age to “a life of poverty and the seven children she had borne” (20). Living permanently in a house covered with coal dust, she constantly snaps at her children and gets mad and annoyed at their behaviour (86). It appears that the coal dust casts a shadow not just on the Maheu’s house, but over La Maheude’s temperament as well. The ever-present coal dust in the miners’ quarters appears to be a metaphor for the working class’s inability to escape their social standings.

On the contrary, Madame Grégoire looks younger than her age and seems kind in her interaction with the servants. She casually wakes up in the later hours of the morning and calmly walks down to the kitchen in her slippers and dressing gown. Zola describes her kitchen as clean and filled with the “smell of fine food” (76). When asking the cook to prepare Cécile’s brioche, she asks in a nice, polite tone instead of raising her voice (75). In contrast to La Maheude’s dark temperament, Madame Grégoire appears to have a lighter and warmer one, similar to her kitchen. This shows that the spaces in which characters reside not only reflect their circumstances, but also impact their temperament in both positive and negative ways.

Both families have a notable daughter in the novel: The Maheux have Catherine, while the Grégoires have Cécile. Although both are young girls in Montsou, their fate couldn’t be more different due to their family’s social status. In the Maheu’s sleeping arrangement, Catherine shares a bed with her siblings and later with Étienne as well (161). Zola describes the sleeping area as “[a] square room [with] two windows [and] three beds […] crammed into it” (16). With no other furniture, this sleeping area also serves as changing room and bathroom. The room is described as “cloaked in thick shadows” with a warm stuffiness due to the lack of ventilation (15). However, Cécile has her own bedroom, which is “luxuriously furnished” and characterized by light imagery, with “white lacquered furniture”, “white bed-liner” and “light [that] slipped between the slightly parted curtains” (77). This contrast in colour of sleeping space, one dark, and the other light, separates the two girls further.

Furthermore, each of the households’ living spaces show different morning routines of the two girls. As Catherine needs to head to work, she wakes up early at four o’clock and dresses in her work clothing (18). She then prepares scraps for her family’s breakfast and packs all the working members’ lunches for the day in the cramped lower living space level (23). On the other hand, due to her family’s economic situation, Cécile does not need to worry about work and can idly sleep for twelve hours and wake up in the later part of the morning (81). As she is remaining at home, she only needs to slip into a dressing gown and pin up her hair.  Then, her maid serves her brioche and hot chocolate for breakfast in a well-heated dining room (81).

Separated by social class and circumstances, the girls’ living quarters and morning rituals differ markedly. Catherine resides in a shared quarter that is cramped and filled with dark shadows, while Cécile has her own bedroom filled with light imagery (as noted above). The living spaces show the differences between these two girls – one bound to work, as it is necessary, while the other does not due to being born into better circumstances. Their habits also differ due to their family’s socio-economic status and the ways in which it shapes their daily routine.

In Germinal, Zola uses vivid descriptions of the space characters reside in to help us determine the different habits and temperance of characters from differing social classes. In the example of the Maheux and the Grégoires, their neighbourhoods show the family’s socio-economic situation while their houses reflect their financial situation and habits. The living spaces show the mothers’ action in taking care of their children and the colouring echoes their temperament. Due to their social classes, the two notable daughters from the two families, Catherine and Cécile, differ in routine and living space. Their spaces determine the different habits of the characters and distinguish the two girls similar in age. However subtle, the space characters reside in, such as neighbourhood, individual houses, and living area, affects and reflects the different habits and temperament of the characters from bourgeois and working class.



Work Cited

Zola, Émile. Germinal. Translated by Peter Collier, Oxford University Press, 2008.