- Reviewed by
For most readers Germinal represents the quintessential Zola. The exhaustive documentation, Etienne's hereditary susceptibility to alcohol, the overwhelming influence of environment, and the clash of social forces seem to illustrate in exemplary fashion Zola's most frequently anthologized theoretical pronouncements. Thus it seems most fitting for Philip Walker to center his discussion of Zola's philosophical and religious thought on this novel and to begin by passing in review its factualistic and positivistic foundations.
Yet had he concentrated solely on the "scientific" elements of the novel, which have been so assiduously studied heretofore, he would have missed much of critical and biographical interest in this and other of Zola's works. Consequently, in keeping with much of the Zola criticism of the last thirty years, Professor Walker goes on to study the more personal and visionary aspects of Zola's ideas, which clash so strongly with the precepts of the Roman Experimental and which transform what might have been a bland, objective study of working-class life into a highly symbolic epic. [End Page 331]
In his thorough examination of Zola's writing Professor Walker has identified several conflicting attitudes or themes, all of them exemplified in Germinal. Among these are Zola's tormented pessimism and self-doubt, as well as his well-known pantheism, exemplified in particular in his celebration of life and fecundity, in his cult of love and solidarity, and in his exaltation of work. Mixed with his pantheism are reflections of his earlier romantic humanitarianism and a quasireligious vision of man, nature, and history derived from his interest in geology. Much taken with the views of Cuvier and his disciples, Zola visualized history as a long sequence of cataclysms separating periods of progress. This undying ameliorism provided a necessary counterbalance to Zola's periodic bouts of pessimism and clarifies the hopeful ending of Germinal after the cataclysmic destruction of Le Voreux and the failure of the miners to attain their goals.
In his final chapter Professor Walker concludes that it is impossible to find in Zola's writing any coherent collection of philosophical or religious ideas. Zola vainly sought all his life for a universal truth that could satisfy him. But in this respect he, and the novel that embodies so many of his disparate attitudes—his pessimism, his optimism, his positivism, his pantheism, his faith in human solidarity—are typical of the late nineteenth century. It is the reflection in the novel of this personal struggle that Professor Walker finds so moving.
Those critics who expect to find in Zola's writing a fully developed system of philosophy expect oranges from apple trees. Zola was neither a scientist nor a philosopher. Indeed it can be argued that he had little understanding or even knowledge of the latest developments in physics, chemistry, and mathematics and that his reactions to the positivism of Comte, Taine, and others lack the critical eye of a John Stuart Mill. Little wonder then that Zola's conception of science and technology was naive and that the overwhelming inspiration for his novels reflected his inner turmoil and desires. He rather resembles Huysmans' character Des Esseintes, who exclaims: "Seigneur, prenez pitié du chrétien qui doute, de l'incrédule qui voudrait croire, du forçat de la vie qui s'embarque seul, dans la nuit, sous un firmament que n'éclairent plus les consolants fanaux du vieil espoir!"