Kamis, 13 September 2012

Maheude: A Character Study from Germinal

Among many female characters on Germinal, the most interesting one is Maheude. Maheude is a wife of a mine worker named Maheu. Actually Maheude was only in her beginning of forty years old, however poverty, child laboring and hard-working has made her body loose and looked like she was fifty. Maheude represented women on the lower social class in 19th century (in France in this case). Like other women, Maheude went to work at the pit since she was very young. Then after having seven children, her strength was decreasing and became not too productive for the Company so that she was forced to stay at home. Being the household manager was not an easy thing. Maheude should manage to feed ten mouths (the father, the mother, the grandfather and seven children) from whatever they earned from the mine, and it was sooo very little that they often must ask for credit from the groceries store.

In the early chapters, I have asked myself why the Maheus kept ‘producing’ children if they could hardly feed them all? I realized then that part of the purpose of having children was to bring home as much money as they can get by sending the children to pit when they grown up enough to do it. I know it sounds weird and unfair, but that’s how they survived against the extreme poverty at that time.

Maheude in 'Germinal' movie

Maheude was a woman with a strong character and a better moral compared to other women around the pit. Despite of her poverty, she still had a pride not to beg for anything, a principle that she persistently hold to; for Maheude, hoping for other’s generosity by telling them how hard your life was, was not begging. When Maheude received a bag of fine clothes from a rich family, while what she needed most was food, she could not ask for money to buy food, because it would be begging. The shopkeeper of a grocery store near the settlements was a playboy, he used the women’s poverty for his own benefit. When a woman asked for credit, he would grant it if she or her daughter agreed to sleep with him. When Maheude came with no money to have groceries, she was forced to give the man a false promise of sending for her daughter Catherine to him sometime, a promise that she never kept and resulted to no more credits from the store afterwards, even when the families left in hunger.

In short, it was Maheude that protected and supported the family in the whole story. Unfortunately, it was also Maheude who suffered the most from the miners’ strike. **spoiler alert** Maheude lost, one after another, her husband and three children, while another son got limped from an accident, which meant he brought home less money. Here you would see Maheude’s extremely strong personality; instead of breaking down, she managed to keep living her life. **spoiler ends** She knew how to put first things first. Although at first Maheude—in her rage towards the Company who put them all into extreme poverty—detested the idea of going back to work until the Company has fulfilled their requisition, in the end she obliged to act the opposite. Not only letting the children back to work, Maheude herself must get to work, even if it was the lightest job with the lowest wage in order to survive.

© Bridgeman Art Library / Bibliotheque
Nationale, Paris, France /
Archives Charmet [source]

What I like most of her was despite the great suffers she must endured because of the strike, Maheude never hated Étienne who had transplanted the idea of striking in the miners' minds at first place. She did not treat him badly after the event, like others did, she kept the friendship with him. Other than that, it’s only Maheude—a woman who suffered the most—who still hold a vague hope of a better future, who rejected to surrender just like that. It is Maheude who could see that it was just the beginning of something bigger than that, the germination!

I would always see Maheude as a very brave woman, who never lost hopes for the better, and hold to her principle to the last. She was poor in life but not poor in soul.

Kamis, 06 September 2012

Étienne Lantier: A Character Study from Germinal

Étienne was the protagonist in this book about mine workers in their struggle under the bourgeoisie’s power. Étienne was the son of Gervaise and Lantier in L’Assommoir, born from the drunkard parents. Without any money he came to the settlement after having thumped his former boss. Étienne, despite of his poverty and unlike any other miners, was quite an educated man. He liked to discuss politics with his comrade and read a lot of books, especially books about socialism. And not only reading, he was thirsty of all the new knowledge and absorbed them all in his leisure time.

Although not described in detail in this book, I choose to imagine Étienne as a quite handsome young man with a polite manner. He had a shyness towards a woman, that when it’s obvious that Catherine (one of the female protagonist) also liked him, Étienne still wordlessly in front of her. In short, Étienne was an outsider. Not only that he came from other town, but he had a manner of self respect and of ‘higher level’. Maybe if his parents did not that poor, he could have been educated and being one of the bourgeoisies. It was he who first felt the need to do something against the unfair treatment towards the mine workers, while the workers themselves had been accustomed to submission and passive obedience.

So with the combination of his concerns and his knowledge, he started to share his ideas about demanding their rights against the bosses. Then suddenly Étienne became a leader (and I imagine that he seemed to fit that position, with his handsome face, educated mind and he learned fast the skill of effectively talking to a crowd). Little leader at first, then the snow ball rolled, and there he was, ready to lead a strike, a big strike of thousands of men and women! Here I then saw his weakness. He became proud of himself, he enjoyed the sense of being a leader, of overpowering his comrades, when everybody listened to what he said, and did what he told them. He overestimated his own capability though, with his only short self-education, he just thrown the theories into practices, never having thoroughly calculated and planned his movement.

I don’t know whether alcoholism was hereditary, but Étienne noticed himself that when his body has contaminated from certain numbers of alcohol, he would lose control, and brutality would came to him out of nowhere. That was why he thumped his former boss, and that’s why he lost his temper during the strike. Was that because he inherited some bad cells from his drunkard parents? I don’t know…. Through the entire story I have been hoping that Étienne won’t fall at the temptation of drinking. Let him always be in his consciousness that had prevented many killing attempt from his comrades.

One thing I like from him was how he loved and treated Catherine. Unlike his comrades, Étienne treated women tenderly, he had a respect for them. Especially with Catherine, although he knew that men often bumped at their women just like that, and although he knew that Catherine had a crush on him and would be submissive enough to him, he never forced her. It might partly because of his shyness, but I prefer to believe that somehow Étienne had a respect to Catherine because he really loved her. Étienne  never blamed Catherine for choosing Chaval, and on the day of the disaster on the pit, Étienne—despite of his decision not to go down again and calling them who did that a coward—decided finally to go working only to protect Catherine from the angry Chaval.

And when the disaster came, Étienne always protected Catherine, covering her with life as best as he could. How sweet those scenes were….

What I love the most of him was that he always found new hope from the bitter falls. People do make mistakes, but at the end it’s how they do out of it that’s important. When he knew that the comrades turned away from him with hatred, he did not give himself long time to regret, he knew what he must do, going from there to renew his knowledge and to make himself useful at other place.