In the middle of the night he arrives outside the village of Montsou, where he first confronts the pit, Le Voreux:
“…it was the solid mass of a block of low buildings, surmounted by the silhouette of a factory chimney. Here and there a light showed through a grimy window…lanterns were hanging on blackened timber-work which stood like a row of gigantic trestles. Out of this weird, smoke-black vision there came a single sound: the heavy labored panting of an unseen exhaust pipe…Le Voreux began to emerge as from a dream. He could now pick out each part of the works: the tarpaulin-covered screening shed, the headgear, the huge winding-house, the square tower of the drainage pipe. With its squat brick buildings…and the chimney sticking up like a menacing horn, the pit was…a voracious beast crouching ready to devour the world (p. 20, 21)…”
This vision is that of Etienne Lantier, a mechanic, age twenty-one. Homeless, unemployed, cold and hungry, he has just arrived following his long treck from Marchiennes. Now he meets the very soul of the mine, old Bonnemort, age fifty-eight. Eight when he first “went down”, Bonnemort has labored as a pit-boy, haulage man, and a collier for eighteen years. When his legs finally gave way, they moved him to ripping, packing and repairs. As the mine devours men, so he has ingested its dust into his lungs. He has constant fits of coughing: spitting up thick gobs of black. His family, the Maheus, has been hacking away at this seam for a hundred and six years, working the mine continuously from grandfather to grandchild. Etienne asks Bonnemort about the company that owns the mine, and is told they control:
“Nineteen pits and thirteen of them in production…Ten thousand employees, concessions stretching over sixty-seven parishes, five thousand tons lifted every day, all the pits linked by rail, and workshops, and factories (p. 26, 27)…”
While he waits to speak to the overman about a job, Etienne tours the works. There is the deafening rumble of the tubs of coal over the sheet-iron floors. He can just make out the bent backs of the miners in the darkness and glare of the lights. Then his attention is caught by the shining steel and copper of the engine:
“…so securely built into its brick cradle that, even when going at full speed and exerting all its four hundred horse-power, the huge, perfectly oiled crank rose and fell without a sound…each time the engine started, the drums – two immense wheels of five metres radius, by means of which the two steel cables were wound and unwound…turned so fast that they looked like clouds of grey dust (p. 38)…”
Next, he returns to the pithead, where he watches the loading of the cages. The pit swallows groups of laborers amidst the crash of hammer-blows, the ringing of a bell, and the bellowing of orders through a megaphone. Asking one of the colliers about the depth of the mine, Etienne is told it is five hundred and fifty-four meters. Then the man enters the cage and disappears into the void. From the pithead, Etienne steps outside to view the boiler-house:
“…Through the open door he could see seven boilers with double furnaces, and the white-hot fire could be felt...he ran into a fresh group of miners just arriving. It was the Maheus (p.40)…”
Etienne is offered a job with this family, who works on contract for the mine. He is outfitted with a leather cap and tools by father Maheu, and follows them through a maze of stairs and dark passageways to the lamp-room, where he gets a lamp. Finally they arrive and enter the cage:
“…he felt a jerk, everything turned over, the things round him flew away and a sickening sensation of falling tugged at his bowels…the cage dropped sheer…Then there would be sudden tremors as it bobbed about…he was terrified of disaster…(p. 45, 46)…”
The plunge of the cage downward seems to last forever. When they finally hit bottom, Etienne sees a huge hall hewn out of rock, its roof reinforced and lit by large open-flame lamps. Four great galleries yawn before him. The miners break up into crews and disappear into these huge black holes. He follows his crew single-file by the light of their small lamps. The gallery becomes narrower, lower, and they are forced to keep their backs bent. The slippery ground grows wetter, forming shallow pools; he trips over the rails – nearly splits his head open against the wall! And there are the sudden changes of temperature, from icy winds to suffocating, malodorous heat. They finally arrive at the Guillaume seam, the face the crew is to work:
“The sloping roof came so low that he had to walk bent double…always ankle-deep in water…The galleries…seemed to go on forever, and the climb up this narrow fissure was scraping the skin off his back…He was gasping for breath…his legs were black and blue, while the lack of air made his blood seem ready to burst…Blinded with sweat, he despaired of keeping up with the others…Gradually all the seams had filled with workers…nearly seven hundred of them were now toiling in this immense ant-hill (p. 48, 49)…”
Etienne’s crew spreads themselves out over the coal-face. They are squeezed within the seam, flattened between roof and wall, dragging themselves along by knees and elbows, unable to turn without grazing their shoulders. In order to reach the coal, they must lie on one side with twisted necks, arms above their heads, and wield their short-handled picks slantways:
“…he lay between the two rocks like a fly caught between the pages of a book (p. 50)…”
Etienne – exhausted, beaten black and blue – barely manages to get through his first day in the pit:
“In this desperate fight…They no longer noticed the water running down them…the cramps…the stifling darkness…the air became more and more foul…Like moles burrowing under the weight of the earth (p. 60)…”
From the mine we move to the Maheus’ home in the village of Montsou. It is number sixteen of the second of four great blocks of back-to-back houses. A single first-floor room, it is filled with the stuffy heat and odors of their family. There is Bonnemort, the grandfather, Maheu and his wife, and their seven children packed into this crowded space. Later in the novel one of the owners of the mine views their family when they come to him for charity:
“Monsieur Gregoire gazed reflectively at the mother and her pitiful children, at their wax-like flesh, colourless hair, their look of stunted degeneration, wasted by anaemia (p. 99)…”
The grandfather, who works nights, returns home each morning to bed. One of the family rises from the bed, so it never gets cold. Through the flimsy walls they can easily hear the occupants of the house next door. Catherine, fifteen, rises first each morning. Her feet are tattoed blue by the coal; her muddy complexion, ruined by constant washings with soft soap. Her teeth are set in pale, chlorotic gums. The claustrophobic single room prevents any privacy for bathing: Catherine dresses and performs her ablutions within full view of the family. When they return from work, they are so famished that they eat in wet clothes without washing. The table is laid from morning till night, for there is always someone gulping down a meal, according to their round-the-clock shifts. Gradually the family rises, dresses and eats. Then they leave the stuffy warmth for the dark chill of dawn:
“Lights were going out…A last door banged…all along the road from the silent village to the panting Le Voreux a line of shadows tramped slowly through the blast. The colliers were off to work with shambling gait and folded arms…shivering in their thin clothes, they…plodded on, strung out along the road like a trampling herd (p. 37)…”
Etienne is shocked by the working conditions. He is used to hard work, long hours – but this is the labor of galley slaves:
“Since he had climbed up that slag-heap, buffeted by the gale, he seemed to have lived long years underground, crawling on his belly along those black passages. He dreaded beginning it all over again…the thought of being a beast of burden…outraged his pride as a man (p. 78)…”
But, as the weeks go by, he becomes accustomed to the work and his new way of life. “…the crushing mold of habit pressed him a little more each day into the likeness of an automaton (p. 138)…” Although the miners become accustomed to much of this way of life, its injustice sometimes rises to the surface. There is the question of timbering, for example – propping up the roof to prevent it from caving in. The owners pay them a pittance to do this extra work, which prevents them from earning their keep collecting coal. Maheu responds to the owners’ accusation of inadequate timbering with “If they were properly paid we should do the propping better (p. 63)…” But the rest of the miners are afraid to speak up, afraid of losing their jobs during this time of economic hardship. And they are intimidated by the hierarchical system of authority that put each under the power of the one above. Nevertheless, the injustice of being blamed for safety when they could barely make a living did not escape the miners:
“You worked like a beast of burden…more often than not you died in harness…you did eat, but so little that it was just enough to keep you suffering without dying outright, weighed down by debt…When Sunday came round you were only fit to sleep. The only pleasures in life were to get drunk or get your wife with a baby (p. 166)…”
And this issue of the timbering occurs within the larger context of a growing crisis of over-production. Too many factories are being built, too many railways constructed. Too much capital was tied up for all to make a profit:
“The Company had been hit by the crisis and had to cut expenses or go under; and of course it was the workers who would have to tighten their belts...Since most of the factories were idle, coal had been piling up in the yards…and as the Company had not shut down as well for fear of the terrible effect on the plant, it was thinking of a middle course – a strike, perhaps – from which its miners would emerge beaten and lower paid (p. 174)…”
Etienne has been influenced by Pluchart, an organizer for the Workers’ International, involved in the socialist movement. He corresponds regularly with him, and is being trained as a propagandist among the miners. Now he meets another politico, Souvarine, an anarchist. The dialogue between these two schools of thought provides the theoretical framework for the novel. Souvarine is a political refugee from Tsarist Russia, where, as a medical student in St. Petersburg, he had joined the populist attempts to assassinate the tsar. He believes in the politics of “enlightened” conspirators who substitute themselves for “the masses”, rather than Pluchart’s painstaking organization of the working class into an organization to fight for itself.
As it is, the miners barely make a living. They are constantly in debt, begging the village merchants for credit:
“You paid up regularly for fortnights on end, but one day you got late and…you never caught up again. The gap got wider and the men couldn’t see the point of working if they couldn’t ever pay their way…a miner needed a half-pint to wash the dust out of his tubes. That’s how it began, and then when things got difficult, he sat in the pub all day long (p. 100)…”
And along with an abundance of taverns to tempt the married men, there are the sloping roofs of the sheds where the unmarried youngsters mingle:
“As soon as it was dark, the boys and girls began their dirty tricks – up-ending themselves, they called it…That was where every haulage girl picked up her first baby…they got married in due course…all these girls, broken by fatigue, were silly enough to come here at night and make babies, more flesh to toil and suffer! (p. 107, 130)…”
From generation to generation this cycle is repeated. Then one day disaster strikes. A distant roar shakes the entire pit. Moved by a common impulse to help their mates, the miners rush through the narrow passagways, backs bent double toward the scene of the cave-in. There is an appalling crash, and a miner and a young boy are buried. Hearing groaning beneath the fallen rocks, the miners attack with picks and shovels. They finally discover the dead man, whose spine is broken. The little boy – Maheu’s son, Jeanlin – is found next. Both his legs are broken. Maheu picks him up and carries him in his arms, as a funeral procession forms and winds through the shadow-darkened galleries. They bring the victims up in the cage, and finally arrive at an office above ground. Here, a doctor meets them. He takes one look at the miner, saying:
“He’s done for! You can wash him.”
Two chargehands stripped and sponged down this coal-black corpse, filthy with the sweat of toil…
He undressed the child himself…a pathetic little body came into view, as thin as an insect’s, soiled with black dust and yellow earth and mottled with bloody stains…his flesh was so…transparent that the bones showed through…this mere wisp of suffering, half crushed by the rocks (p. 189)…”
After three weeks convalescence, they avoid amputation, but Jeanlin will always be lame. The Company resigns itself to pay him an award of fifty francs, and promises to find him a surface job when he was fit again. Then – using the pretext of poor timbering – it gives notice that it is introducing a new system of payment. This barely-disguised wage-cut is not lost on the miners: that night they decide to strike. And, as the strike drags on and the Company refuses to budge, they meet once more to vote on whether to continue the strike. Nearly three thousand miners and their families gather in the Plan-des-Dames, a moonlit clearing in the forest. Etienne, who has been organizing among them since his appearance at Le Voreux, now addresses his mates and their families:
“The wage system is a new form of slavery…The mine should belong to the miner, like the sea to the fisherman and the earth to the peasant…The mine is yours – yours, for you have all paid for it with a hundred years of blood and misery! (p. 274)…”
Old Bonnemort now rises to speak. There is silence as they listen to this revered old man in the moonlight. He speaks of the past: of his two uncles who were crushed in a cave-in; of the pneumonia that carried off his wife; and of the all previous strikes that ended with the army mowing them down. “We put our hands up like this, and swore to never go back (p. 278)...” Then Etienne rises beside him, saying:
“Comrades…here is one of our old friends and that’s what he has suffered, and what our children will suffer if we don’t have it out once and for all… Do you vote for going on with the strike?
“Yes, yes,” roared the voices.
“Then what steps are you going to take? If any blacklegs go down the pit tomorrow we are bound to be beaten.”
The voices rose again like a hurricane:
“Death to all blacklegs!”
“…go to the pits, our presence will stop the blacklegs, and we could show the Company that we are all in agreement and will die rather than surrender.”
“Right-oh! To the pits, to the pits! (p. 279, 80)...”
Early the next morning a large group of strikers converge at the nearby pit of Jean-Bart. With Etienne their head, they confront the boss and their fellow workers, insisting that work stop immediately. Within minutes the entire pit is theirs. Now they rush to the boilers to put out the furnaces. Then a cry of “Cut the cables!” emerges from the crowd. Jeanlin – recovered, but limping on spindly legs – shouts:
“I’m going to put the fire out...”…And now it occurred to him to open the steam-cocks and let out the steam. The jets went off like gunshots and the five boilers blew off like a hurricane…Everything was hidden in the steam…Only the boy could be seen…looking delighted, grinning from ear to ear with satisfaction at having unleashed this tornado (p. 310, 11)…”
The severed cables, extinguished fires and empty boilers bring all work to a halt. Then the Jean-Bart miners slowly emerge to the cries of “Down with the blacklegs!” They are made to run the gauntlet of the Montsou men. Then the strikers move off to stop work at the other pits.
For nearly two months the strike drags on during the long hard winter. Then the army arrives and occupies Montsou. The pits have rows of armed guards; soldiers standing by every engine. Not only has work not been resumed, but the strike spreads far and wide. The display of force by the state is countered by mute resistance by the miners: resulting in a stalemate between miners, shut up in their homes, and dead pits guarded by troops. The wrath of the Directors fell on Etienne, who went into hiding with Jeanlin, in his secret burrow beneath the ground.
The strike – a result of the industrial crisis – now intensified that very crisis. The Company reduces output and attempts to starve the miners. The mines deteriorate, and neglect of the galleries causes subsidence of the land above them. Huge sums are lost by the Company, shrinking their angry shareholders’ dividends. Then the pits themselves begin to collapse.
One chilly night Etienne emerges from his hideout to pay a visit to Le Voreux. He approaches a soldier, one of a detachment of sixty men guarding the mine. Probing his loyalties, he learns that – if ordered to shoot, he will – in order not to be punished. This deepens his understanding of how the workers have been divided: their fellow workers are their own executioners.
Meanwhile, in the village, the miners’ families slowly starve. Then coal runs out, so they freeze as well. Idleness accentuates conflicts between families: arguments break out between women; fights between men. Then the Maheu’s frail daughter starves to death. Now the Company threatens to open Le Voreux with the aid of Belgian scabs. Sixty armed soldiers stand guarding the mine, as a crowd of miners and their families approach the entrance to the pit:
“Death to the Belgians! No foreigners here!”…
They all surged forward, and Etienne had to check them. He went up to the captain…trying to win him over…
“Stand back! Don’t force me to do my duty!”…
He gave up trying to hold his mates back and the crowd rushed the little detachment of troups…the sixty were back to the wall and facing the mob with loaded rifles…the stoning began..the bricks rained thicker…the rifles went off of their own accord (p. 402-12)…”
Twenty-five are wounded; fourteen killed – including father Maheu – shot through the heart. But the pit is finally cleared. In the distance Old Bonnemort witnesses the slaughter of his son; while Souvarine, standing beside him, plots his own revenge.
The following week the Company discharges the Belgians: ending the military occupation. Yellow notices go up in neighborhood streets, announcing the mines’ reopening. That night Souvarine appears at Le Voreux, with his tools rolled up in a coat beneath his arm. He makes his way down the escape shaft in the dark to a cage he knows is damaged. With his insider’s knowledge of the mine’s construction, he saws through the timber and removes the screws, so as to cripple the wooden lining. One last push and the timbered structure would collapse: flooding the pits with an avalanche of soil and water!
The following morning Souvarine watches the miners returning to work. When he sees Etienne – who he did not expect would go back – he tries to warn him, but fails.