by Alison Ross
In recent years, I have become enamored of classic novels with a social conscience. You could argue that any novel worth its weight has a social conscience, and perhaps you'd have a point. But the novels I'm talking about are the ones that are so blatantly aware socially that they have subverted deeply entrenched popular prejudices. The social message is the explicit axis on which the novel spins, and not just an implicit or marginal part of it.
Luminous literary works that fall under such a category include the overtly obvious: George Orwell's 1984 and Animal Farm, Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, F Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby; the lesser known titles: Sinclair Lewis' Babbit and It Can't Happen Here; and more recent novels like Margaret Atwood's Handmaid's Tale. Of course, there are many more tomes that populate this category; these are just some that swiftly lept to mind and that I am most familiar with.
Germinal, by Emile Zola, should be considered the model of social conscience novels. In fact, it is frequently regarded as just that, but the book is not a household name like some of the others I listed. This must be at least partially due to the fact that its original language is French, while the others were written in the more universal parlance of English. Granted, at one time French was the Lingua Franca, but that's changed, and it seems novels written in English get more recognition these days. I am baffled as to any other reasons why Germinal is not quivering on the tip of every tongue during literary discussions.
Germinal, in fact, can be considered the he paradigm for ANY type of novel, because of its peculiar pathos, meticulous attention to detail, fully fleshed out characters, immersive plot, and verisimiltude. The novel has a documentary-like fidelity to truth, perhaps because Zola was once a reporter, and famous for conducting extensive research for his novels.
The plot of Germinal can be succintly summarized. The story invovles the plight of miners in the 1800s and their quixotic, valiant, yet myopic and ultimately doomed attempts to vanquish an oppressive oligarchy.
What sets Germinal apart, however, from similar novels like The Jungle, is that it is not unremittingly, slash-your-wrists depressing. Don't get me wrong - it's no sunny frolic in the park, and you'd have to be a sociopath to fail to feel deep despair at the events that take place in the novel. But, mercifully, Zola's straightforward style rescues the story from spiralling into the abyss of the nihilistic. Zola, in other words, never loses hope in humanity's potential. At the same time, the author's righteous indignation blazes throughout the story.
The Jungle, by contrast, makes Germinal look like a giddy fairy tale. Instead of displaying such plush emotions as moral indignation, The Jungle holds nothing back and spews bitter bile toward humanity. Sinclair's narration is relentlessly, even ruthlessly dark.
Of course, my persona tends to be a bewildering blend of acrid pessimism and bouyant optimism. So, part of me revels in the The Jungle's dank suffocating atmosphere - after all, humans have a high suckability factor that merits much scorn - but another part of me rigorously rebels against this rather lazy tendency to sink into a devouring misanthropic mindset. Yes, humans can be evil creatures, but we all have the seeds of compassion and empathy. So in the end, Germinal appeals to me more, even as I admire The Jungle for its brutal condemnation of human malevolence.
Of course, like Sinclair, Zola does not let his story's bourgeois oppressors off the hook. He does not cower from presenting their grotesque ignorance in the starkest light. In fact, the most frustrating part of the story is that the more well-meaning bourgeois - the ones who indulge in small acts of charity toward the miners - never transcend their fatalistic approach to life. They entertain a certain pious pity toward the underprivilged, but they fail to reach beyond this haughty complacency to see that it is their actions, even the charitable ones, that stand in the way of building a more just society. They acquiesce to the narrow caste system philosophy.
The protagonist in Germinal, Etienne, symbolizes fractured hope. He rouses the others to strike, but his is a cursed cause. Chiefly, Etienne is impeded by his limited education. Intuitively he ascertains the grave injustices the miners are subjected to, and works diligently to assemble the protest, but he does not yet fully apprehend how to stage a successful strike. Furthermore, he never receives the help promised from the international organization of workers.
Germinal does an impeccable job of evincing the catastrophic consequences of suppressing worker’s rights. Zola proffers a very detailed pyshcological depiction of how such suffocation primitivizes the workers, and even sows dastardly doubt into the souls of the bourgeois. The novel is also remarkable for its sympathetic treatment of women’s and animal rights.
Zola's story is ethically and emotionally tormenting. It has an unfortunate resonance in today's society, with workers' continual struggle against a tyrannical hierarchy. The book may end on a hopeful note - Etienne has matured intellectually and will expand his efforts to achieve justice for the workers - but it's hard to entertain too much optimism in the face of so much persistent suffering.
Perhaps, in light of this raw reality, Upton Sinclair was not so off-base with his acrimony toward humanity after all.
Wednesday, January 9, 2008