The Flood, by Émile Zola.

In June 1875 following rapidly melting snow and heavy rainfall, the valley of Garonne in Toulouse, France,  was flooded. The Spectator, who reported that near 3 000 lives were lost, wrote - 
Within six hours of the first alarm of an unusual rise in the water, the Garonne had swept away every bridge of Toulouse except one, the old stone bridge of St. John, and flowing in an unbroken rush into St. Cyprien, rose above the streets so rapidly that the terrified inhabitants were compelled to take refuge in the upper stories. Scores of persons appear to have been strangled by the flood—all the slaughterers in the great abattoir, for example, being killed at once —but the great loss of life arose from another cause, which recalled the idea of earthquake to the wretched people. The rushing water felled the weaker houses as giant shells would have done, and under- mined the foundations of the stronger, till through one entire night, houses were toppling as in an earthquake, and the awful scenes at and around Cucuta, in New Granada, on May 18, when 16,000 persons perished at once by earthquake, were repeated in Languedoc. Escape, if the houses once shook, was, of course, hopeless. There were the walls above and the water below, and a stream outside in which a boat could scarcely live. Nearly 1,000 persons are known to have been killed in St. Cyprien alone by the falling houses, trees, and monuments, or to have been drowned in escaping from upper stories, or capsized in boats which put out into the streets to rescue the sufferers,—sometimes, to the credit of human nature be it spoken, if not of human reason, with a priest on board to give absolution to the dying as they swept past. The flood seems, in fact, like war, to have brought out the strongest feelings of those attacked, and French papers are full of stories of acts of heroism performed by individuals, and of explosions of class dislike—the workmen stoning the gentry who went to see the scene—and of instances of mania produced by fear.
The front page of The Spectator concerning 
the flood in Garonne, 3rd July, 1875.
It is this event that inspired Émile Zola's 1880 novella L'Inondation (The Flood), set in the village of Saint-Jory. Zola tells the story of Louis Roubien, a seventy year old farmer who lives with his family: his children, grandchildren, and his brother and sister. After a long period of struggling, the Roubiens finally are prosperous, and Louis Roubien is the richest farmer in the parish. May, when the story begins, is their best year so far, and Roubien says, "Our house seemed blessed, happiness reigned there. The sun was our brother, and I cannot recall a bad crop." But this is not to last:
Little by little the sky paled; the village became more drowsy. It was the evening of a beautiful day; and I thought that all our good fortune—the big harvests, the happy house, the betrothal of Veronique—came to us from above in the purity of the dying light. A benediction spread over us with the farewell of the evening.
Meanwhile I had returned to the center of the room. The girls were chattering. We listened to them, smiling. Suddenly, across the serenity of the country, a terrible cry sounded, a cry of distress and death:
"The Garonne! The Garonne!"
What follows is a disturbing account of flooding of the valley of Garonne. We see Zola the journalist and Zola the novelist at once in a tale almost reminiscent of both Germinal (1885) and The Earth (1887): Zola gives names and faces to those who died in June 1875; he gives them a story, and he portrays the senselessness of this act of God, this natural disaster.

To read The Flood with Zola's Rougon Macquart novels in mind makes it all the more pessimistic. With most of his Rougon Macquart novels, an anti-Imperial satire which, at the heart of them describe the laws of man and the poison of the Second Empire where humanity is at the mercy not only of themselves (the idea of heredity) but also those who govern the society, there is indeed a sense of hopelessness, that destiny is much stronger than will. However, at least in theory, one can hope that with the shackles thrown off, liberty and equality may be possible, and humankind may perhaps be happier. There is not this hope in The Flood. Farmers may prosper (as Roubien did within the Second Empire) and happiness may be attained, however the world remains fragile, humanity remains at the mercy of nature. For this, it is one of the grimmest of Zola's tales. Free Will, it seems, is but a myth.

All that said, there was an interesting point in The Spectator that perhaps suggest otherwise. The writer claims, "We abuse our climate habitually" - could this have been one of the early warnings of climate change? This is a debate that has raged for two hundred years now, for example Joseph Fourier is credited with discovering the greenhouse effect in the 1820s, and he suspected that this may be affected by human activities. I don't know if Zola was familiar with the debate and if it is feasible to suggest that The Flood is another attack on the destructive Second Empire. It's hard to say: I really don't know the answer to it. It could be. It may not be.

Either way, this is a disturbing read, but then Zola is not an author to while away the gentle hours. The Flood is very short: I class it as a novella, but it may correctly be classed as a short story. It is truly Zola, whatever it is! The cry of "The Garonne! The Garonne!" shatters the peace, and Zola builds a portrait of desperation and fear. It is bleak, yet it shows, to quote The Spectator once more, the "acts of heroism performed by individuals". There is hope for mankind in that respect, yet ultimately, what does it matter?

The Flood is a must for Zola fans, and perhaps a good introduction to those who want to familiarise themselves with him. It's also an interesting read for those, like me, who know Zola as the author of the Rougon Macquart novels but little else. After all, Zola is much much more than these and Thérèse Raquin. For a while I've been meaning to re-read the RM novels and write about them for my (still not published) Zola website, but The Flood has made me decide to put this on hold for a while. I have a fair collection of short stories, and I am ready to read the Three Cities trilogy and the Four Gospels novels. I want to move forward with Zola and explore these other works. There is much to be read, far more than I ever realised. 


  1. I was in Toulouse a couple of years ago. You had me going to Google maps, tracing the Garonne.

    This is such a rewarding project you have picked.

    1. It is rather! :) Love doing the research so much. Hoping now I'll have some time to pick up my project - been so busy of late I had to stop doing it.

  2. I had read somewhere that Zola's work out side the RM series was not as good...but your review has given me cause to discount that idea!
    This sounds wonderful - in a distressing, bittersweet kind of way.

    1. Yes, that's a good summary!

      I need to read more before I could say what Zola's writing is like outside the RM series. Starting Fruitfulness very soon, so I shall let you know! :)


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