Maheu home (mah-HEW). Instead of the loving, domestic picture often presented in literature, the homes in Germinal, most clearly represented by that of the Maheu family, show how the most positive of symbols can be altered. The life presented depicts the economic deprivation and moral depravity created by the totalitarian world in which the miners live. In contrast, the Grégoire home shows the luxury in which the mine owners live, marking the sharp contrast between the owners and the workers, a situation which eventually results in the climactic labor strike to which all earlier actions lead. The reader sees this contrast most clearly when Maheude Maheu takes her small children to beg sustenance from a rich family, a clear indication of the economic determinism controlling the workers’ lives.
Company stores. Similar to the homes, the company stores are also physical manifestations of the economic sway the companies have over their workers. The scenes occurring in the store allow the reader to witness the control the store owner holds over the workers, from drawing the customers into further debt to demanding sexual favors from the female customers in exchange for food. Here Zola has found another symbolic means of condemning the treatment of the workers.
Mines. The mines themselves prove to be the central metaphor for the lifestyle which Zola intends to address. Because of the economic ramifications of mining coal as cheaply as possible, this setting more than adequately depicts the wider scope of workers’ lives. From the moment miners enter the “cage” to be lowered into the earth’s interior, their lives, whether they be young or old, male or female, are revealed as hellish. At every turn, the workers are tested. By visualizing this situation, the reader gains more perspective on these workers’ lives than mere verbal arguments could provide.
Through his choice of settings, Zola permits his readers to witness the types of lives the workers of this period lived. This witnessing creates reader empathy, resulting in acceptance of the workers’ eventual violent strike.