What is the significance of the mud in Richard Wright's short story "The Man Who Saw the Flood"?
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In his review of Eight Men, the collection of short-stories where "The Man Who Saw the Flood" was published, James Baldwin wrote that the story reminded him not so much of the 1930s or African Americans, but of "human loss and helplessness". These are undoubtedly two important themes of the story and the image of mud is linked to them. The mud surrounds the helpless characters and the repetition of this image becomes almost obsessive in the story. The mud comes to represent the social, racial and economic forces that entrap black sharecroppers in the South offering them no hopes of a better future. Significantly, when the flood waters recede, the sharecroppers are left with a huge stretch of mud of which they cannot see the end. This symbolizes their unalterable condition of servants caught in a hopeless struggle against both nature and society.
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.
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