“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 strangeness,” like a world created anew- only this is not a world of cleanliness and innocence, it is a world of death and toil. The story also takes place in spring, with the “gusty spring wind” and “high, blue [sky], full of white clouds” seeming reassuring and symbolic of rebirth, yet distant. The wind abruptly disappears as night falls and the white man approaches, however. The ancient archetype of black versus white is also reversed-it is the poor downtrodden blacks who are the protagonists in this story, and their blackness is emphasized- they are not ‘a black family,’ they are “a black father, a black mother, and a black child.” It is the white Burgess who is the antagonist in the story. While displaying an outward facade of sympathy, he heartlessly refuses to lower the family’s debt, and takes advantage of the helpless Tom by bringing him further into economic slavery. Yet white water and white lime are indispensable tools for the family’s survival. While these
white objects bring hope and help to the family, ironically, it is the white man who oppresses them and drags them deeper into servitude. This irony reveals a paradox inherent in the sharecropping system: while it is the whites who are now dependent on the black’s paid labor, the blacks are still oppressed by and in debt to the white landowners.
The family’s reliance on the white tools emphasizes their servitude to the whites. Despite the seemingly insurmountable obstacles facing the family, they continue to hold some hope for the future. Since the setting of the story emphasizes the destruction of everything the family owns and knows, it is even more remarkable that they continue to hold out some hope. “‘It coulda been worse,'” says Tom’s wife May, with almost forced optimism- just as a shelf is discovered that holds a vestige of civilization: a pack of matches which will allow the family to create fire, one of the most important inventions of mankind. Similarly, tools such as an axe and plow are found buried in the mud- perhaps the very tools that they can use to pull themselves out of their abysmal fate. Additional small triumphs such as clean (albeit white) water are won through Tom’s hard work. “The pump was stiff, Tom threw his weight on the candle and carried it up and down…” Tom’s physical exertion is emphasized, implying the immense amount of work that will be required to improve their situation- yet his small successes seem to hint of larger ones to come. The family also retains one essential possession: their cow Pat. At the start of the story, this is their only asset, and its lowing and the tinkle of its cowbell become motifs that seem symbolic of hope. While initially simply reassuring, Pat’s presence becomes lonelier and more dismal as night falls- instead of the usual tinkling of her cowbell, “Pat lowed longingly into the thickening gloam.” As night falls, the symbols of the family’s hope evaporate: the wind stops, the clear sky becomes dark, and Burgess comes to take Tom away to “talk over how you can pay [your debt] back-” in reality, to bring Tom further into debt. The family’s true lack of any basis for hope is what makes their perseverance so powerful. Although they areoppressed, enslaved by debt, poverty-stricken, and nearly helpless, they maintain an accepting attitude toward their plight. Perhaps Wright is suggesting that it is the perseverance of mankind that will allow it to raise itself from its current state of racism, conflict, and debasement. The setting of “The Man Who Saw the Flood” emphasizes the bleak fate of the family while contrasting this to their hope. It may seem that the story’s conclusion implies an even further descent into servitude, but the feeble yet recurrent echoes of hope elevate the family. Although the conclusion may seem to signify a dashing of hopes, the family’s perseverance seems to dilute the pain of their plight.
Starting from nothing in life is not easy. But in “The Man Who Saw the Flood,” Tom, May, and Sal support and prod each other to succeed through their relationships. Now everybody, rich or poor, black or white, is in the same predicament after a devastating flood. The community is reduced to its lowest and most basic terms; survival is now the priority. But even when starting from scratch after a disaster, community and family bonds will help in eventually returning one’s life to its previous condition. Tom is the strong father and husband of the family. He leads his wife and daughter, but does not force either of them too much. In this manner, Tom takes more of an equal position with his wife, May, and daughter, Sal. Tom is also the main provider, working at Burgess’ store to pay for food and other needs. But in this relationship, May must prod him at times, talking to him as an equal. May realizes that they “got to go on…ain’t got nothin”. Tom is reluctant to begin again, after having lost everything, and especially since they had very little to begin with. They are all “worse off now than befo.” But Burgess is continuing on his life as before, and encourages Tom and everyone else to do the same. Tom may be the head of his household, but he knows that in society’s eyes, he is inferior to Mister Burgess.
Although Burgess says they “can talk over how Tom can pay…” back his debts, Burgess’ tone shows he will get these debts paid one way or another. May pushes from one side, wishing Tom to go on with his life and provide successfully for the family. On the other side, Burgess pulls Tom to repay these debts. Burgess is a leader in this community, as maybe the only store owner in town. He helps provide for the community, as it is his own livelihood. He must hold together his investments, and Tom is part of his investment. Burgess leads all the community back to normal life, and in his quest to get Tom back on track, explains that all “the rest of the families are going back.” Burgess leads the community and holds it together as they return to normal life. Sal has a unique relationship with her parents. She gives Tom and May a reason to work and another person to provide for. She herself may not know how she pushes Tom, but as a father he wants and needs to get the best he can for his child. Tom and May have another reason to begin their life again: to allow Sal to grow and be healthy. As adults, they might be able to go without some things. But as parents, they cannot bear to see Sal without the best possible provisions. The flood devastated everyone in the area. But “the rest of the families are going back,” and Tom, May, and Sal must also begin again. Yet, now they are picking up more or less where they left off. Debts to be paid, “’lasses for Sal” to be procured. After all this destruction, and starting again from nothing, closure comes to the family in the realization that life will go on, even in more or less the same manner that it was. People still remain to remind Tom, May, and Sal of what life was like and will still be like in the future. This family used their strong relationships to stay together after they lost everything. Everyone is at a loss, but although someone may personally be destroyed, the community will find a leader and will still go on, reminding the destroyed how to live again. People still expect debts to be paid, to live as they did before the disaster. Starting from scratch is hard, but through family bonds and the seemingly eternal life of society, a person can go on living. Most likely, life later will be very similar to the life before.