Germinal portrays with stunning realism the struggle of the poor miners in France, the hardships and cruelties of poverty, and brutality towards animals and mankind. Ex-machinist Etienne Laniter lands in one of the mines when he is unable to find other work during the industrial crisis. He brings the struggles of the miners to a head with a combination of the situation, his social activism, and higher education, which will either raise the miners to a new, uplifted level, or will ultimately break them.