Set in the 1860s in northern France, Zola's masterpiece of naturalistic fiction portrays the hardships of a mining community in which backbreaking physical exertion is undertaken for starvation wages. Étienne Lantier, an unemployed mechanic with a fiery temper, finds lodgings with the Maheu family and works alongside them in the voracious pit that devours the youth, health, and spirit of its workers. Lantier's idealism and growing enthusiasm for socialism politics contrast with the violence espoused by his Russian anarchist coworker Souvarine. As the miners' conditions become increasingly desperate, Lantier organizes a strike that degenerates into a brutal clash between labor and capital.
Zola witnessed firsthand the poverty and injustice suffered by generations of miners and their families. His vivid, haunting accounts of his characters' suffering are rendered even more powerful by his depictions of their will to live and faith in a better world. Strikingly frank in its depictions of sex and violence, this 1885 novel is a cri de coeur for the working class.