The Man Who Saw the Flood

Topics: White, Debt Pages: 5 (2008 words) Published: September 17, 2013
"When the flood waters recede,
the poor folk along the river
start from scratch."
In Richard Wright's "The Man Who Saw the Flood," the catastrophic flood-losses facing a poor family of sharecroppers reveal the circumstances that force the emancipated but still ignorant and debased blacks to become indebted to and thus re-enslaved by the same whites from whom they received freedom. Wright's resigned yet resolute protagonists show that even hollow hopes can drive people to noble perseverance in the face of a bleak fate. This theme is reinforced and developed through the dynamic and symbolic setting of the story. The most prominent relation of setting to theme in this story is the bleakness of the flood-devastated land itself. The "stark fields" surrounding the family's "mudcaked cabin" are completely devastated. "Every tree, blade of grass, and stray stick had its flood mark: caky, yellow mud ... cracking thinly here and there in spider-web fashion." The mud, a motif repeated time after time in this story, is an entrapping and suffocating force- similar to the suffocating debt suffered by the poor sharecroppers. "'Ef we keeps on like this tha white man'll own us body n soul,'" laments Tom, the hardworking father of the family. The white man- an almost devilish figure who is alluded to have power over his debtors' very souls, is as stifling as the mud that has destroyed nearly everything the family owned. Images of death and burial also abound- further emphasis of the wretched fate of this family. Their cabin looks "as though its ghost was standing beside it," and inside, the drawers of the dresser "[bulge] like a bloated corpse" while the mattress of the bed is "like a giant casket forged of mud." In such a ravaged environment there can be no hope or reason for continuing- yet somehow the family finds the motivation and strength to bend themselves to the monumental task of rebuilding. Their strength, springing from natural reservoirs of human resiliency and adaptability, emphasizes the nobility of man's struggle against nature, as opposed to the exploitation of fellow human beings emphasized by the antagonistic character of Burgess, the white landowner. The setting of "The Man Who Saw the Flood" also continually alludes to the notion of fate. Although the story begins on an upbeat and hopeful note: "At last the flood waters had receded," mud covers the ground "as far as they could see-" the asphyxiating chokehold of sharecropping servitude stretches into the interminable future. "'There was a road erlong here somewheres,'" Tom comments, yet "there was no road now." Whatever vision of the future he held before the flood has been washed away like the road. The future is not just uncertain now- it is nonexistent. All that exists is the backbreaking work of reconstruction. Like the road, the steps leading up to the cabin have disappeared completely. Gradual lifting is impossible, so Tom physically lifts his wife and daughter up to the porch, just as he must use his strength to rebuild their lives. As Burgess arrives to take Tom to town to talk over his plight, the mystical image of "a cluster of stars [hanging] in the east" further reveals the role of fate in this story. The astrological implications of the stars hanging in the direction from which the new day arrives emphasize Burgess' role in the fate of the family. It is he who carves a new path for the family as Tom and Burgess "disappear over the crest of the muddy hill-" a path that likely leads only further into debt and servitude. There are several ironic reversals of archetypal themes in this story that also contribute to its meaning. A flood, like the Deluge of Noah, is often used symbolically as a cleansing force- yet the flood in this story brings only mud and devastation, sinking the family, like their cabin, into a "depression" surrounded by still "slimy" mud. Despite this reversal, echoes of the Noah archetype still appear: "Over all hung a first-day...
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