Émile Zola - The Flood
Émile Zola's The Flood is a story of hubris, of farmer Louis Roubien's savage and tragic fall from grace as the head of a household made rich after years of hard work tilling the soil. Roubien is old and satisfied, content to be at the end of his life with a large home, an impressive fortune, and his family living with him and sharing in his prosperity. The Flood, which acts as a confessional of sorts for Roubien, has this passage near the start:
We often joked among ourselves of our past poverty...I must have gained the friendship of some saint or of God himself, for all the luck in the country was for us. When it hailed the hail ceased on the border of our field. If the vines of our neighbours fell sicks, ours seemed to have a wall of protection around them.
From joking comes arrogance, and with it hubris. Roubien notes that, “And in the end I grew to consider it only just.” Roubien is not, however, particularly malicious in his good fortune, and indeed seems willing to share it both with his extended family, all of whom either live with him or on property that functions as an extension to the main farm, as well as to handsomely reward those who marry into the family. Soon, though, the short story (I hesitate to call it a novella) takes a dire turn, as the Garonne River's banks begin to swell and spill over.
Now the waves arrived in a single line, rolling, tumbling with the thunder of a charging battalion. With their first shock they had broken three poplars; the tall foliage sank and disappeared. A wooden cabin was swallowed up, a wall was demolished; heavy carts were carried away like straws.
And the story proper begins. Zola is content to strip Roubien of everything he holds dear, destroying his livelihood through the implacable, impersonal device of a flood. As a work of literature, there are two primary forces within The Flood - the person of Roubien, successful, accomplished, content, generous, arrogant, bourgeoisie – and that of the flood, impersonal, unrelenting, unwilling to be bargained with and unable to be turned aside by bribery, pleading, cajoling or seduction. What we have, then, is an unstoppable force and a very movable object.
Émile Zola had a very scientific approach to literature. He all but invented the Naturalism literary movement, which sought to replicate life with all its mathematical, scientific and psychological components. A person's character could be, and was, reduced to the parts of its whole, each of which could be analysed and described sufficiently to determine the makeup of the whole. A primary example of this technique is in his early novel, Thérèse Raquin, which reduces the trio of Camille, Thérèse and Laurent to a few stark personality traits, and then plays with them like piano keys, to see what music is produced. Zola is very good at this method of providing both a motive for his characters, and the seeds of their destruction (or elevation – whatever is necessary and possible to be determined scientifically and psychologically).
Louis Roubien, though, is not a good example of this, and neither is the flood. To begin with, Roubien is a proud and satisfied patriarch, and while it could be argued that his nature is hubristic, he is hardly developed enough in this area to justify the catastrophe of events that transpires. As the story progresses, Roubien loses everything, but unlike Job, he has no higher entity to rage against, and indeed he does not. Instead he is crushed by the sweeping rage of the flood, and can only watch as, one by one, his family members are taken from him, and the buildings, servants, and livestock he has worked so hard to acquire, are destroyed.
The sheep were tossed about like dead leaves, whirling in bands in the eddies. The cows and the horses struggled, tried to walk, and lost their footing. Our big gray horse fought long for life.
As the house crumbled we could distinguish nothing but a tempest, a swirling of waves beneath the debris of the roof. Then calm was restored, the surface became smooth; and out of the black hole of the engulfed house projected the skeleton of its framework. There was a mass of entangled beams, and, amongst them, I seemed to see a body moving, something living making superhuman efforts.
At no time does Zola offer a reason as to why Roubien was chosen for such punishment. Naturalism, with its penchant for realism, explanation in all things, and rigorous scientific adherence, and its distaste for romantic and gothic literature's tendencies toward coincidence, symbolism, and supernatural themes, all but requires a reason for all things. Further to this, Roubien himself provides no explanation, his thoughts understandably focused upon the tragedy occurring in front of his eyes. He never cries out in anger against a vengeful god, but nor does he possess a capacity for self-analysis would suggest that in some way his capitalistic, bourgeoisie lifestyle deserved this punishment. Why, then, did it occur?
So much for Roubien. The flood, as mentioned above, is the other primary force. Zola personalises the water, writing that, “the water seemed, above all, to pursue the fugitives.” granted, the word 'seemed' gives Zola room to manoeuvre, but it's hard to align such personalisation with his philosophy of the naturalist novel. Later, the water “invaded” the yard. Given that plot and character are the gears and cogs of the machine of the naturalist novel, why have a flood with a personality (ie, a desire for specific destruction), without providing a reason? Why is Roubien singled out?
That said, Zola's grasp of the tragedy and the excitement of the flood as the waters engulf the farm is superb. The relentless penetration of the water as it rises and rises is really quite thrilling. Zola methodically increases the intensity of the text as the flood continues, and the culmination of the story is really quite heart-breaking. Roubien, his family all dead, travels to a nearby town where he has heard bodies were disposed of in mass graves. Veronique, Roubien's grand-daughter, was found with Gaspard, her betrothed.
They had been clasped passionately in each other's arms, exchanging in death their bridal kiss. It had been necessary to break their arms in order to separate them.
Which provides a tremendous affect in its understated tragedy. Moments such as these are hardly rare, but the downfall of the novel is its refusal to adhere to the tenets of Zola's chosen genre, which results in a muddled mess. The strengths of Naturalism are forgotten while the weaknesses are replicated. It's a short story, and minor in Zola's oeuvre to be sure, but there is enough of interest here to wish he had done more with it. Effective in places, but ultimately unsatisfying.
Other works by Émile Zola under review:
Links kindly provided by The Dalkey Archive Press' anthology, Best European Fiction 2010
Boojum, L'animal Littéraire
Cairn (electronic journal archive)
Chroniques de la Luxiotte
Evene (Book section)
French Book News (English)
French Cultural Agency (English)
Gallica (Bibliotheque nationale de France digital library)
L'Express (Book section)
Lire: le magazine littéraire
La Femelle du Requin
La Vie des idées
Le Centre National du Livre
Le Magazine Littéraire
Le Matricule des anges
Le Monde (Book section
La République des Livres
Le Monde Diplomatique (Book section)
Le Nouvel Observateur (Book section)
Le Tiers Livre, littérature et Internet
English translation of François Bon's blog
Libération (Book section)
Palimpsestes (French and English)
Transfuge, literature et cinéma
About the author
Émile Zola was born in Paris in 1840. He helped found the Naturalism literary movement, and among many other works, published the Les Rougon-Macquart cycle, which was comprised of 20 novels. Zola died in 1902, under suspicious circumstances following the publication of his famous "J'Accuse...!" newspaper article concerning the Dreyfus affair.