Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Flood by Emile Zola

A tragic admonition of nature’s indifference to man
The Flood, originally published in 1880, is a riveting novella by Emile Zola. It tells the story of Louis Roubien, a prosperous farmer who lives a blissful existence with his siblings, son, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren on a fruitful patch of land near Toulouse. The family is enjoying a typically pleasant evening, sharing a hearty meal and singing songs, when a scream from outside the house shatters their peace. The men rush out to meet some neighbors fleeing to higher ground, rushing to escape the Garonne River, which has overflowed its banks and is rising steadily. While only moments before Louis’s life was the epitome of happiness, now his home, farm, and family are threatened by the relentlessly advancing waters.

Zola manages to pack all the excitement and suspense of a 21st-century action film into this 19th-century novella. As is characteristic of Zola, his description of the natural disaster is incredibly vivid. The reader is totally consumed by the harsh reality of the catastrophe. The story is told in the first person, which is unusual for Zola. There are moments when Louis, the narrator, questions if this flood is a punishment from God or a retribution for the prosperity he has enjoyed. In Romantic literature, that would certainly be the case. The hero’s tragic downfall would come about as the result of some flaw in his character, such as pride, greed, or sloth. In The Flood, however, Louis and his family are guilty of no such sin. As far as the reader is aware, they are nothing but innocent victims of nature’s indiscriminate wrath. This is emblematic of the Naturalist school of literature, of which Zola was the leader. He takes a less sentimental and more scientific view of the universe than his literary predecessors by asserting that nature is going to act according to its own laws, regardless of human desires, thoughts, or feelings. Just as death is inevitable, nothing created by man is indestructible when confronted with the raw power of nature. Though Louis Roubien, a good Christian, is telling the story, the world he inhabits is the creation of Zola, the stoic Atheist.

The Flood delivers intense moments of edge-of-your-seat thrills interspersed with scenes of heartbreaking tragedy. Whether you are a fan of Zola or not, you can’t help but be deeply moved by the plight of the Roubien family. In fact, if you have never read Zola’s writing before, this would be a good introduction to his work. It is a relatively brief piece, yet it is very similar in style to some of his best novels. In about an hour’s worth of reading, The Flood generates much of the same emotional power one finds in Zola’s masterpieces like Germinal and La Terre. Despite its brevity, this is no minor work in the Zola canon. It deserves to be read by all.

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