As in many of Robert Penn Warren’s novels, Flood takes the search for identity as one of its central themes.
Perhaps an overlooked work in Warren’s output, this 1963 novel offers a clear picture of the author’s salient themes, narrative techniques and prose style. A good comparison piece when studying All the King’s Men, Wilderness or A Place to Come to, Warren’s Flood presents an opportunity for students and scholars to examine the existential and metaphorical cornerstone’s of the Pulitzer Prize winning author’s fiction.
In Flood, Bradwell Tolliver, the narrator and protagonist, struggles to sort out a functional identity by finding ways to come to terms with his past, an identity constructed over and against “the transparent, but real, barrier of History” that seems to bar him from achieving a stable sense of self. The crisis and pressures of personal history are given metaphorical weight by the impending flooding of Tolliver’s former home-town. Yet the deeper issue of self-knowledge is larger and more abstract than the metaphor suggests.
On an existential level, Tolliver is beset by a sense that his identity is somehow slippery or false, too fluid to be real. Even with his memories of the past and his preoccupations with the past, Tolliver feels about himself that “I’ve had a good many years to think things over, and I have decided that the worse terribleness under that terribleness is that you don’t know any center of you any more, you don’t feel you any more, and you are sick because everything is sliding out of focus, out of equilibrium, as when those canals go wrong in your ears.”
The fixation on self-realization and identity carries the novel from its first pages to its last and finds expression in many of the most inward and poetic passages of the novel. The fact that this fixation remains largely unresolved in the novel is demonstrated in its conclusion as Tolliver realizes, “I cannot find the connection between what I was and what I am,” and thus becomes a figure representing the human conundrum generated out of a consciousness of personal history that ironically and ineluctably fails to function as a consciousness of self.