From the perspective of the family's patriarch, 70-year-old Louis Roubien, Zola provides the reader with emotionally charged and detailed descriptions of a large family's desperate struggle against the rising flood waters and of the destruction of their farm.
The Flood nearly brought me to tears. I hadn’t heard of Emile Zola until I came across this short work, and now I’m glad did. Despite the depressing devastation, the heart-wrenching loss, and the unhappy ending, this novella is a gem.
First published in 1880, The Flood by Emile Zola is a short story about the realization that man is helpless against the forces of nature. The narrator is Louis Roubien, a 70-year-old patriarch of a little empire. Life is going well for Louis. He has a beautiful family and owns a prosperous farm near the Garonne River.
The landscape and the imagery Zola paints in his book are lovely, such as this little excerpt:
The sky was blue, an immense blue sheet of profound purity, in which the rays of the setting sun were like a golden dust. Never had I seen the village drowsing in so sweet a peace. Upon the tiled roofs a rosy tint was fading. I heard a neighbor’s laugh, then the voices of children at the turn in the road in front of our place. Farther away and softened by the distance, rose the sounds of flocks entering their sheds. The great voice of the Garonne roared continually; but it was to me as the voice of the silence, so accustomed to it was I.
The story begins with Louis at home among his large family, 10 hungry mouths as he calls them. There’s talk of his granddaughter and her fiance’s approaching wedding date. Everyone’s happy until a cry of distress is heard over the countryside. The Garonne has flooded and is sweeping across the farmland.
Louis and his family stay in the house, hoping the waves will recede like in past years. But the water keeps rising. Once the river reaches the second story windows, panic breaks out.
They all ran to the windows. There they remained, mute, their hair rising with fear. A dim light floated above the yellow sheet of water. The pale sky looked like a white cloth thrown over the earth. In the distance trailed some smoke. Everything was misty. It was the terrified end of a day melting into a night of death. And not a human sound, nothing but the roaring of that sea stretching to infinity; nothing but the bellowings and the neighings of the animals.
Later, the family takes shelter on the roof only to have the river meet them there. But I won’t spoil the story for you. I’ll just say it’s a tragic tale. One aspect I especially admired about the book was its portrayal of a strong family. And the characters are convincing and believable people.
Louis is strong, proud, and slightly foolish. His brother’s a bit of a basket case. And the fate of the sweet couple, who were going to marry, is simply heart breaking.
I still have one scene lingering in my mind about Louis’s granddaughter, Aimee, as she stands on the roof with her two children. They’re all watching her husband drown and no one can help him.
Death was slow in coming. The water barely covered his hair, and it rose very gradually. He must have felt its coolness on his brain. A wave wet his brow; others closed his eyes. Slowly we saw his head disappear.
One of the last quotes from Louis is one that I won’t forget anytime soon.
There is no consolation. I do not want help. I will give my fields to the village people who still have their children. They will find the courage to clear the land of the flotsam and cultivate it anew. When one has no children, a corner is large enough to die in.
Like I said, this book is depressing. Still, I would recommend it. It’s certainly a sobering read. In the end, The Flood could be considered a horror story. It may haunt you for a while.