Zola’s work was set during the Industrial Revolution which was a period of heightened economic and technical changes that occurred in Europe between the years 1760 and 1850. During this time the steam engine was introduced on a wide scale as well as the innovation of machines designed to perform tasks that had previously employed human hands. Due to the increase in machines there was an increase in knowledge in the field of metallurgy. This increase in knowledge resulted in major technological breakthroughs but also required large amounts of raw materials such as coal and iron ore. These materials were mined throughout France by individuals living in near poverty in virtual slavery.
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The purpose of the work was to illustrate and protest the working conditions that the miners faced daily landslip in the late 19th century European mines. These conditions often resulted in either serious injury or the death of their employees. In order to create the most realistic work possible Zola performed detailed research on the working conditions that were prevalent at these mines. He even visited a mine shaft descending into the open shaft to experience the working conditions first hand. His work was then able to depict the miners as a group of individuals that were attempting to make the best of a situation that they could only minimally control. Through the use of foreshadowing Zola can hint of potential disasters that will occur in the mines and while they were occasionally avoided these events eventually occur at some point throughout the book. These disasters caused the deaths of almost every character that was introduced throughout the novel.
The working conditions in the mines during this time were a horrific experience. Zola established the hardships that the minors faced in the first chapter of his work when he began to introduce the reader to some of his characters.
The lives of the two classes rarely intersected with each other and had many differences. Those that worked in the mines had little or no formal education and lived a hand-to-mouth existence. Those individuals that were members of the upper class could send their children to school and always had enough food to eat. Their lives had a lower amount of hardship, especially when compared to the lower-class individuals. The hero of the story is Etienne Lantier who while out of work is willing to take any form of work that he could find. When he is confronted with the mine the description Zola uses describes it more as an enormous beast rather than a coal pit.
Étienne, who forgot himself before the stove, warming his poor bleeding hands, looked around and could see each part of the pit: the shed tarred with siftings, the pit-frame, the vast chamber of the winding machine, the square turret of the exhaustion pump. This pit, piled up in the bottom of a hollow, with its squat brick buildings, raising its chimney like a threatening horn, seemed to him to have the evil air of a gluttonous beast crouching there to devour the earth (Zola, 3).
The description was done to indicate to the reader that the mine was not just a geographical area in which coal was produced. It was a living organism that demanded to be fed in the sweat and blood of the poor individuals that were forced to extract the coal from the mine. An additional representation that Zola used to indicate to the readers that the mine was alive was to name it Le Voreux or the beast.
The individuals that are working in the mine have been there for many generations. The town is owned by the company and all goods and services that are provided to the miners and their families cost more there than in other parts of the country. Due to this, the miners were forced to put their children and women to work as soon as they were physically able to perform various tasks around the mine. Due to this, the young were sacrificed to the mine to help provide enough food for the family to survive.
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But what could one do? One must work; one worked here from father to son, as one would work at anything else. His son, Toussaint Maheu, was being worked to death there now, and his grandsons, and all his people, who lived opposite in the settlement. A hundred and six years of mining, the youngsters after the old ones, for the same master. Eh? there was much bourgeois that could not give their history so well! (Zola, 8).
The mine had been an integral part of the community for many years and as he is learning more about the mine one of the men shared his family’s history as it followed the growth of the mine.
The reader can see how working in the mines has caused the lifespan of the workers to decrease.
He had not known him–a big fellow, it was said, very strong, who died of old age at sixty. Then his father, Nicolas Maheu, called Le Rouge when hardly forty years of age had died in the pit, which was being excavated at that time: a land slip, a complete slide, and the rock drank his blood and swallowed his bones. Two of his uncles and his three brothers, later on, also left their skins there. He, Vincent Maheu, who had come out almost whole, except that his legs were rather shaky, was looked upon as a knowing fellow (Zola, 8).
As the old man is telling Etienne the story of his family the reader is forced to acknowledge that the mine is killing the miners at an accelerated rate. As the age of the miners’ decreases due to death or serious injury, it became even more imperative that the workers find ways to increase the effectiveness of the children. By being able to put the children to work in various positions throughout the processing of the coal it provided the miners with an economic reason to have more children even when they were unable to fully provide for the children that they already had.
This area in France was known for producing coal miners full-time feed that was used to feed the steam engines. While the mine was producing enough coal and the owners had several mines that belonged to their family was not willing to improve the working conditions of their employees. As the mine was the main source of employment in the town his family had many people who had worked in the mine. Regretfully the conditions in the mine were so poor that most of them were killed or injured during the terms of their employment.
Etienne was only looking for enough work so that he could continue his journey, he was not looking for a full-time commitment as a coal miner. He was able to secure work for the day because one of the work gangs was one individual short due to a death, because of this he was immediately put to work in the mine with a group of experienced workers. While he had watched the miners descend into the mine through a cable car system he was unable to get a look at the situation in which he would be working before he descended into the mine.
THE four pikemen had spread themselves one above the other over the whole face of the cutting. Separated by planks, hooked on to retain the fallen coal, they each occupied about four meters of the seam, and this seam was so thin, scarcely more than fifty centimeters thick at this spot, that they seemed to be flattened between the roof and the wall, dragging themselves along by their knees and elbows, and unable to turn without crushing their shoulders. To attack the coal, they had to lie on their sides with their necks twisted and arms raised, brandishing, in a sloping direction, their short-handled picks (Zola, Chapter 4).
This was his first experience navigating in the mine to get to the site to which he had been assigned. The pay system set up by the owners of the mines put seams of coal up for bid by the gang leaders and the gang was only paid for the amount of coal that was produced from that seam. With this payment system, there was little incentive for the miners to spend the time necessary to widen the passageways or to put more supports in the shaft that they were working. By doing this the owners of the mines were able to have the workers produce as much coal as possible during their time in the mines. During this time where many people were out of work, payment was easier to replace workers who died in the mines than to change the pay structure to provide the necessary incentives that would have changed the behaviors of the workers.
In an attempt to increase the dependence of the workers on the mine was to introduce the concept of a company-owned town. In this town, the miners were allowed to live in housing, and money was subtracted from their wages each month. The only stores that were allowed in the town were also run by the company and would sell the miners necessary goods for exorbitant prices but offered the ability to buy on credit. The owners were able to set fines against the miners for the poor quality of the coal as well as other infractions. The workers never had enough money for food resulting in poor nutrition and feelings of constant hunger. They were also consistently working to pay down their debts to the company that they worked for attempting to do so before becoming ill or disabled from the conditions in the mine. Every day lived in the town using the provided services increased their debt to the company causing their enslavement to deepen.
As the miners were paid by the amount of coal that was produced from each seam of coal and each day fees for food housing and the occasional fine were subtracted from the total wages.
But Chaval, after glancing at the table of counters in the receiver’s little glass office, came back furious. He had discovered that two of their trains had been rejected, one because it did not contain the regulation amount, the other because the coal was not clean. “This finishes the day,” he cried. “Twenty sous less again! This is because we take on lazy rascals who use their arms as a pig does his tail (Zola, Chapter 6).
This practice often left the miners with very little cash for their work. These practices kept the miners in a constant state of poverty and virtual enslavement.
When the owners of the mine began to fear that the mine would collapse due to the inadequate safety measures they introduced a new pay system that offered to pay the miners separately for the coal that was produced by each gang and the amount of timbering work that was done to ensure the safety of the workers.
When the owners of the mine began to experience financial difficulties due to constraints in the market and began looking for ways to decrease the pay of the miners to protect their investment. This had the effect of reducing the already small wages of the miners.
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The Company, suffering from the crisis, had been forced to reduce their expenses if they were not to succumb, and it was naturally the workers who would have to tighten their bellies; under some pretext or another, the Company would nibble at their wages. For two months the coal had been remaining at the surface of their pits, and nearly all the workshops were resting. As the Company did not dare to rest in this way, terrified at the ruinous inaction, they were meditating a middle course, perhaps a strike, from which the miners would come out crushed and worse paid (Zola, Part 3 Chapter 4).
As the miners’ salaries became even smaller both the company and the miners began to consider drastic actions to continue to survive. The company by shutting down the production at the mines until the glut of coal on the market had been utilized and the miners by refusing the owner’s access to the coal that had been brought to the service.
Zola used Etienne as an instigator for social change, while he was living in the town and working in the mines he was still an outsider since he had not grown up in the town he was still not a part of the town. With this unique perspective, he was able to become a leader in the community and an advocate for reform in the mines.
First, he affirmed that freedom could only be obtained by the destruction of the State. Then, when the people had obtained possession of the government, reforms would begin: return to the primitive commune, the substitution of an equal and free family for the moral and oppressive family; absolute equality, civil, political, and economic; individual independence guaranteed, thanks to the possession of the integral product of the instruments of work; finally, free vocational education, paid for by the collectivity (Zola, Part 4 Chapter 7).
In this quote, Etienne was advocating for a total reform of the system that would have replaced the functions of the state with a collective that would assist its members with not only the necessities but also with a form of education. This would provide the working class with the necessary skills to take advantage of the industrial revolution. Children would not have to be put to work in the mines with little or no skills; they would be able to learn a trade. They would have the skills needed to assist their survival as they embarked on their careers.
Zola’s work was intended to persuade readers that the working conditions that these individuals were forced to endure to provide the fuel that was necessary to power the industrial revolution were not an equal trade. The lives of the miners were a more valuable commodity than the coal that was produced and should be treated with more respect. Advocating for social reforms including limiting the age that children could be put to work in the mine as well as the number of hours that could be worked allowed the children to learn more about how to mine coal safely and make fewer childish mistakes. As the industrial revolution continued working conditions gradually improved through various social reforms. Works such as this were instrumentally in providing the force that drove those reforms.