“He wouldn’t listen to her, and he clasped her desperately, his heart drowning in an immense sadness. A need for peace and an uncontrollable need for happiness invaded him; and he pictured himself married, in a nice clean little house, with no other ambition than for the two of them to live and die together inside it. They would only need a little bread to eat; and even if there was only enough for one of them, he would give her the whole piece. What was the point of wanting anything else? Was there anything in life worth more than that?”
Etienne and Catherine, from Zola’s Germinal, are sitting on the edge of the bed in icy darkness, preparing to go back down the pit. After a winter of sickness and strife, starvation and deprivation, after months of physical and emotional abuse from her cruel lover, after ages of liking and loving and longing for each other, all unspoken, they’re at a crossroads. “Don’t do it!” You want to yell at them. “Don’t go down the mine. Run away!!”
When I was younger, naive to the realities of life and the unforgiving expectations of literary genre, I didn’t understand why people in stories in seemingly hopeless situations didn’t just leave. I used to imagine an island people could go to when things weren’t going well for them in plays or books or movies. An island for star-crossed lovers, where everything aligned a little more benevolently, and all of the outside forces that kept them apart were nowhere to be found. It would be a place they could go despite their obstacles–money troubles couldn’t keep them away, and neither could overbearing relatives, jealous lovers, narrative convention, or fickle fortune. And once they got there they’d be free to live out their days with their lover, just as they choose.
And of course they would grow old together. And maybe this would be hard for some of the couples that wind up on the island, because they hadn’t known each other very long in the old world, but I think they’d be glad to have the chance. After all, we each have to grow old (if we’re lucky), and it’s nice to have somebody to do it with. Romeo and Juliet were so young when they died. Juliet was thirteen. So maybe on this island they would grow up together, they would become adults together and be good friends, but I imagine it would be stressful at times. Catherine and Heathcliff, on the other hand, might be beyond hope. They started as friends, they did grow up together, but weren’t they disappointingly cruel to each other and themselves and everyone around them? I don’t think even a magical island could provide them with a cheery future.
Catherine and Etienne, though, I think they’d be okay. They’ve both suffered so much and worked so hard that they’d be glad of the peace and freedom to be kind to one another, to really love each other. They’d delight in any small warmth that they could find, and they’d kindle such a bonfire of pent-up affection they’d be able to light up a whole wintery mining village, let alone a balmy and beautiful island (because of course it would be both those things).
And they wouldn’t be ignorant-but-happy, either. I think about Catherine a lot, about how bright and interested she is, and about how her only hope in life is to earn enough money to survive, and that her cruel man won’t be too cruel to her. I like to think about her writing stories in her head, down in the pit. Etienne has taken such pleasure in learning and in educating himself, and you know he’d love to teach her, too, and that he’d delight in doing it and be proud of all she learned. I like to think about what Catherine might accomplish if she had some knowledge and time and hope, some freedom from want and hunger and ignorance. I like to imagine them happy. They don’t expect much, and they deserve the world, or at least an island of their own.