Labor, Capitalists, and Émile Zola

GerminalGerminal is the story of the poor coal miners who unite to strike against the privileged capitalists who oppress them. A strike has been called and the mines are not being worked; a contingent of miners is expected at the home of the mine manager to make their demands. But in the meantime, Zola provides this scene; First, look how skilled Émile Zola is as a writer. This would make a wonderful scene in a stage play. Then stop and consider what is being related and compare it to the current situation in the world,  especially in the United States, with the destruction of represented labor and the obscene difference between the corporate leaders and the workers who actually make the good life possible for the greedy capitalists.

“You must excuse me; I wanted to give you oysters. On Monday, you know, there was an arrival of Ostend oysters at Marchiennes, and I meant to send the cook with the carriage. But she was afraid of being stoned—”

They all interrupted her with a great burst of gaiety. They thought the story funny.

“Hush!” said M. Hennebeau, vexed, looking at the window, through which the road could be seem. “We need not tell the whole country that we have company this morning.”

“Well, here is a slice of sausage which they shan’t have,” M. Grégoire declared.

The laughter began again, but with greater restraint. Each guest made himself comfortable, in this room upholstered with Flemish tapestry and furnished with old oak chests. The silver shone behind the panes of the sideboards; and there was a large hanging lamp of red copper, whose polished rotundities reflected a palm and an aspidistra growing in majolica pots. Outside, the December day was frozen by a keen north-east wind. But not a breath of it entered; a greenhouse warmth developed the delicate odor of the pineapple, sliced in a crystal bowl.

“Suppose we were to draw the curtains,” proposed Négrel, who was amused at the idea of frightening the Grégoires.

The housemaid, who was helping the footman, treated this as an order and went and closed one of the curtains. This led to interminable jokes: not a glass or a plate could be put down without precaution; every dis was hailed as a waif escaped from the pillage in a conquered town; and behind this forced gaiety there was a certain fear which betrayed itself in involuntary glances towards the road, as though a band of starveling were watching the table from outside.

After the scrambled eggs with truffles, trout came on. The conversation then turned to the industrial crisis, which had become aggravated during the last eighteen months.

“It was inevitable,” said Deneulin, “the excessive prosperity of recent years was bound to bring us to it. Think of the enormous capital which has been sunk, the railways, harbors, and canals, all the money buried in the maddest speculations. Among us alone sugar works have been set up as if the department could furnish three beetroot harvests. Good heavens! and to-day money is scarce, and we have to wait to catch up the interest of the expended millions; so there is a mortal congestion and a final stagnation of business.”

M. Hennebeau disputed this theory, but he agreed that the fortunate years had spoilt the men.

“When I think,” he exclaimed, “that these chaps in our pits used to gain six francs a day, double what they gain now! And they lived well, took, and acquired luxurious tastes. To-day, naturally, it seems hard to them to go back to their old frugality.”

“Monsieur Grégoire,” interrupted Madame Hennebeau, “let me persuade you, a little more trout. They are delicious, are they not?”

The manager went on”

“But, as a matter of fact, is it our fault? We, too, are cruelly struck. Since the factories have closed, one by one, we have had a deuce of a difficulty in getting rid of our stock; and in face of the growing reduction in demand we have been forced to lower our net prices. It is just this that men won’t understand.”

There was silence. The footman presented roast partridge, while the housemaid began to pour out Chambertin for the guests.

“There has been a famine in India,” said Deneulin in a low voice, as though he were speaking to himself. “America, by ceasing to order iron, has struck a heavy blow at our furnaces. Everything holds together; a distant shock is enough to disturb the world. And the empire, which was so proud of this hot fever of industry!”

He attacked his partridge wing. Then, raising his voice:

“The worst is that to lower the net prices we ought logically to produce more; otherwise the reduction bears on wages, and the worker is right in saying that he has to pay the damage.”

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