Throughout the course of The Year of the Flood we see how Toby’s character has developed into the level-headed and capable adult surviving after the waterless flood. What is particular to Toby’s character is the presence of these valuable traits before the onset of the pandemic. Through flashbacks that show her childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood there are elements of the hardened Toby that we are first introduced to. At the same time, Toby retains morale and values humanity even in the face of dystopia. It is this combination of traits that facilitate Toby’s survival after the flood, and arguably present her as one of if not the most capable individual in the aftermath of the pandemic.
Toby’s childhood was marred by several traumatic events that forced her to take on much responsibility in order to survive. Early on we learn that her mother fell ill from vitamin supplements being supplied by the HelthWyzer corporation. Toby’s father spends all of their funds in the attempt to care for her, and after her death, he kills himself with the rifle that Toby carries throughout the book. In the retelling of this part of Toby’s life, Atwood writes, “Her mother’s funeral was short and dreary. After it, Toby sat with her father in the stripped-down kitchen. They drank a six-pack between the two of them, Toby two, her father four. Then, after Toby had gone to bed, her father went into the empty garage and stuck the Ruger into his mouth, and pulled the trigger” (Atwood 27). Toby and her father seem to adopt similar attitudes in the wake of grief. They are both shown to be relatively composed in situations of high stress, and in these situations Toby’s father may served as a sort of example that Toby subconsciously or consciously took after in order to cope. Toby and her father’s level-headedness is often just that, however, coping. Underneath this resolve we see, especially in Toby’s father, the extreme emotional turmoil being controlled. Atwood writes, “He’d been a practical man, but sentimental under that-power tools in the shed, roses on birthdays” (Atwood 27). This same sentimental nature of Toby’s father that we sometimes see in Toby comes to a boiling point when he decides to take his life. Toby’s response to her father’s suicide again demonstrates a composure that manages to keep her safe in extreme situations but doesn’t abandon morality. Atwood writes, “She couldn’t face what was in the garage. She lay in bed, skipping ahead in time. What to do? If she called the authorities- even a doctor or an ambulance- they’d find the bullet wound and then they’d demand the rifle, and Toby would be in trouble as the daughter of an admitted lawbreaker- one who’d owned a forbidden weapon” (Atwood 27). Another person would likely crumble under the stress of losing their mother, then father, and finally being faced with the aftermath with no support system. Toby maintains her outward thinking even in this scenario, and realizes she must deal with her father’s death on her own. Again, while Toby doesn’t let the stress of such situations cloud her overall perspective, she still maintains her values and a solid identity, a feat that many other characters cannot achieve under the trauma of the waterless flood. Unlike her father, she is shown to have the ability to forge ahead even while enduring such stress. After burying her father’s body under the patio stones, Atwood tells us that Toby says a quick prayer. She writes, “Toby wasn’t much for standard religion: none of her family had been. They’d gone to the local church because the neighbors did and it would have been bad for business not to, but she’d heard her father say- privately, and after a couple of drinks- that there were too many crooks in the pulpit and too many dupes in the pews. Nevertheless, Toby had whispered a short prayer over the patio stones: Earth to earth” (Atwood 27). These lines not only ironically foreshadow Toby’s later association with the God’s Gardeners, but express her deep desire to remain human in an increasingly monstrous world. Atwood writes that Toby wasn’t interested in “standard” religion, and Toby goes on to later join the highly radical and unorthodox God’s Gardeners. Toby’ prayer, “Earth to Earth” also expresses the values of regeneration and the cycles of life and death that the God’s Gardeners so often speak of. Most importantly however, this scene depicts Toby as rational, even in her early life, but possessing a significant respect for human life and human relationships.
Toby’s emotional resilience is shown again when, much later in her life, she returns to her abandoned home to retrieve her father’s rifle. Atwood writes, “Then she dug with the shovel. A heartbeat. Then another. It was there. Don’t cry, she told herself. Just cut open the plastic, grab the rifle and the ammunition, and get out of here” (Atwood 23). Instances like this are often for Toby. She exhibits the same compartmentalization of thought when she finds Crozier’s corpse, murdered by the escaped painballers. Atwood writes, “Toby feels bludgeoned- that was brutal, it was horrifying- but she can’t show her feelings to Ren” (Atwood 367). What’s important to note is that Toby’s emotional strength is often interpreted as coldness and distance. However in these instances it is apparent that she experiences as much if not more than other characters of the novel. Toby’s composure masks genuine compassion that enables her to survive the conditions of the flood without abandoning her emotional depth and succumbing to the more brutal instincts of characters like Blanco.