Octavia Butler’s novel Parable of the Sower depicts an America that has crumbled into complete chaos and disarray. Within the dystopia of 2024, Lauren Olamina reflects on her family background and her past in order to help create a more ideal future for humanity. The key to the future is liberation, both personal and political. Therefore, the message of Parable of the Sower is revolutionary. Lauren does not just need to be a true leader; she needs to change what it means to be human. Butler reportedly said about the potential for female heroines to create a utopian society out of the ashes of the patriarchal dystopia: “I don’t believe that imperfect humans can form a perfect society,” (Zaki 239). Butler does not expect Lauren and the Earthseed community to become a Utopia because no matter how revolutionary and idealistic she might be, Lauren remains constrained by her past and her upbringing and ultimately, her biology. On the other hand, Lauren is a classic hero because she embarks on a journey that takes her as far from possible from the patriarchal context in which she was raised. Butler also understood “a tree cannot grow in its parents’ shadows,” which is why Lauren must brave the trip north (Miller 205). Lauren establishes the groundwork for a new human family out of the dregs of the old by conscientiously eliminating patriarchal techniques of social construction including exploitation, manipulation, and abuses of power. Parable of the Sower shows the potential for a new human community is rooted in feminist values of egalitarianism, liberation, and empowerment.
One of the ways Butler demonstrates that the vision of a new human community cannot take with it the remnants of patriarchy is through the lack of interplanetary enemy alien monsters. The only monsters in Butler’s world are human beings. As Barr points out, Butler’s aliens are “alienated women, not interplanetary monsters,” (98). Just as Butler refrains from the science fiction monster trope, the author also refrains from the typical male response to alien threats. In particular, Butler does not “write about zap guns,” using familiar patriarchal tropes of domination, subordination, and violence to subdue aliens who are categorically depicted, perceived, and received as invading species (Barr 98). By resisting the temptation to fall pray to violence, Lauren must break with her family — not just her blood relatives but the entire human race that is not willing to get on board with her Earthseed concept. To break the cycle of violence, Lauren must resist her own genetic programming as a human being who still possesses instincts to fight or flee from a scene of potential danger. As a feminist, Lauren opts to flee in order to find freedom beyond the walls of subjugation. Resistance through violence is futile. On the other hand, resistance through escape and self-empowerment do lead to genuine political transformation.
Another way Butler demonstrates that a new human society must be feminist in scope is through Lauren’s empathic superpower. It is somewhat problematic that empathy is feminized through the use of Lauren’s superpower, given the stereotype of women as being more empathic than men. Yet hyperempathy is only the extreme version of compassion and compassion is still the key to overcoming patriarchy. Because it has been classified as a disease, hyperempathy is also not necessarily gendered. In Parable of the Sower, readers encounter hyperempathy through the eyes of Lauren, but this does not necessarily mean that hyperempathy is limited to female figures. What is critical is that progressive humans like Lauren must resist using hyperempathy as a weapon, as just another zap gun. Lauren, for example, must capitalize on her “extraordinary mental facilities” but without manipulating others or abusing the power that hyperempathy implies (Salvaggio 78). Through the motif of hyperempathy, Butler also show how patriarchy destroys the essence of human potential — the potential to become a more compassionate person who creates a better world. As Lauren points out in her memoir, hyperempathy is pathologized in a patriarchal world. It is called “organic delusional syndrome,” (Butler 12). Butler here makes clear social commentary on the patriarchal nature of the social sciences and medical industries, which demean special abilities and uniqueness by labeling them and turning them into diseases.
The motifs of superior mental, emotional, and empathic powers run throughout the corpus of Butler’s books, which are “built around a society of telepaths,” (Salvaggio 78). Rather than assume other people are violent, hyperempaths like her must assume the best of others and refrain from preemptive strikes, the likes of which are commonplace in a patriarchal world. The patriarchal model has failed, as Butler clearly shows. Reverting to it through violence and proverbial “zap guns” would undermine the intelligence of the human species. In fact, Butler thematically and symbolically links Lauren’s hyperempathy with hyperintelligence because of the fact that Lauren attributes her own condition to her mother’s abuse of an intelligence-enhancing drug. Lauren also transforms her mother’s addiction into something that ultimately becomes an opportunity for salvation. Feeling too much, as Lauren does, is preferable to psychic numbness. Numbness precludes political action; hyperempathy motivates Lauren to take a stand. Her experience mirrors that of the society around her, in which the potential for change is embedded in pain and social problems. The failed US state depicted in Parable of the Sower is “not so much a catastrophe as an opportunity for the rebirth of the human species,” (Miller 202). Crises are catalysts for positive change, if a strong leader can guide humanity through the crisis in a meaningful way. Lauren’s personal psychological journey parallels the public, political journey of social change in America. The personal becomes political and vice-versa: the basis of feminism.
Lauren is conscious of the intersections between race, gender, status, and power in America. Butler’s novel eerily captures the actual society realities in America while pretending to be set in the near future. As Smith points out, “clearly, people of color and ethnic minorities are still regarded by the United States . . . as Other and other than fully human,” using the legal language of “alien” even in legal documents (385). Because Parable of the Sower is a science fiction novel, the concept of alien remains central but this is not the alien monster but the person of color — the disempowered and underclass that are the primary agents of change. Taking this angle in her hybrid utopian/dystopian vision, Butler breaks from the canon of science fiction literature, which was traditionally and typically steeped in androcentric visions and patriarchal assumptions and biases. Science fiction itself is a “historically white male domain,” and the worlds depicted in science fiction do tend to feature white male protagonists using violence to quell invasions of aliens who are symbolically people of color (Smith 385). Butler is part of the newer sub-genre of feminist science fiction that fuses elements of social commentary about race, class, gender and power while working within the literary genre of science fiction to capitalize on its themes, symbols, and motifs. “Science fiction’s new feminist chapter expresses a longing for a richer plurality of human images by portraying women as gendered or racial aliens who embrace, rather than quell, the invading monster,” (Barr 99). In fact, Barr claims that associating Butler exclusively with science fiction would devalue her writing because it would pigeonhole it and neglect to recognize its social and political importance (98).
In Parable, Butler shows that the next step in human evolution must be liberation and freedom. Liberation must be total and include personal liberation from stigmas and disease, and it must also entail liberation from capitalism and patriarchy. Likewise, freedom is the next step for human society. Earthseed offers human beings the opportunity for radical change, and for participation in a permaculture that can foil the stalwarts of the old system. The fact that Lauren is heterosexual shows that Butler retains a sense of optimism. It is not that women are naturally inclined towards empathy or hyperempathy, leaving men to be stigmatized and labeled, imprisoned by their biological sex. On the contrary, men like Banknole represent the seed potential in all human beings to transcend their gendered identity and societal gender norms. Transcending gender roles and norms also means transcending the tendency to exploit others, abuse power, and create social class hierarchies based on arbitrary characteristics. The hope inherent in Earthseed and Banknole shows that Butler remains an optimist as well as a realist in her work. Rather than being a fully dystopian work of fiction, Parable of the Sower reveals a “dynamic interplay of utopian, dystopian, and ideological elements in Butler’s work,” (Zaki 239). It is how Lauren and her followers respond to a racist and sexist world that drives the narrative in Parable of the Sower. Hyperempathy allows Lauren to feel both pleasure and pain intensely, paralleling Butler’s vision of a world that is filled with both the potential for self-annihilation and for renewal. Hope and despair coexist, mental health and mental illness coexist, slavery and freedom coexist.
Butler’s identity as a black female allows her to explore intersections between gender, race, and power. Parable of the Sower is quintessentially a Butler novel because they tend towards “strong female protagonists who shape the course of social events,” (Salvaggio 78). The experience of subjugation and oppression drives Lauren towards liberation. She avoids the temptation to take the easy way out by moving to Olivar, which while preferable to the status quo, also fails to provide any meaningful structural change. Olivar is a corporate zone, controlled by patriarchal systems of power and social hierarchy. It is “upper middle class, white, literate,” but now finds itself to be in trouble (Butler 118). Finding herself in a racially mixed and gendered society, Lauren knows that the only true freedom can be attained through her own liberation and self-empowerment away from any of the familiar social institutions. The challenge is starting humanity from scratch, while cleaning up the devastation left by the previous patriarchal models of enslavement. For example, it seems paradoxical that Lauren would start a new religion given the restrictiveness of her father’s patriarchal Christian teachings: “God wants men to be patriarchs, rulers, and protectors of women,” (Butler 36). Yet Lauren recognizes the need for a middle path, viewing Earthseed as taking the best of religion and fusing it with feminist principles of liberation and egalitarianism. Lauren knows she needs to abandon the patriarchal models that characterized her own family upbringing, which is why she runs away to start her own community.
The Parable of the Sower shows how personal and political change can be precipitated by crisis, and that responses to change must come in the form of deep structural transformation. It is not enough to create a lite version of patriarchy or capitalism that numbs pain but perpetuates real and symbolic slavery. A truly transformative and visionary leader like Lauren recreates human society by changing what it means to be human. She changes social norms and gender roles, leading her followers from self-imposed limitations, gender performativity, and racial subjugation into a potentially new world built on egalitarian social values. Whether or not she succeeds is not even the issue for Butler; what matters is that Lauren understands the principles upon which a new society must be built if humanity is to cease falling into the same traps again and again. Institutions like medicine, religion, and business can be rebuilt with feminist ideals and values. Butler implies that history will repeat itself unless the core elements of patriarchy, racism, and labor exploitation are eliminated. In Parable, Lauren sows the seeds for a new humanity.
Barr, Marleen. Lost in Space. UNC Press, 1993.
Butler, Octavia. Parable of the Sower. New York: Warner, 2000.
Miller, Gavin. “Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower.” In Hoagland and Sarwal (Eds.) Science Fiction, Imperialism, and the Third World. McFarland, 2010, pp. 202-213.
Salvaggio, Ruth. “Octavia Butler and the Black Science Fiction Heroine.” Black American Literature Forum, Vol. 18, No. 2, 1984, pp. 78-81.
Smith, Stephanie A. “Octavia Butler: A Reader.” Feminist Studies, Vol. 33, No. 2, pp. 385-393.
Zaki, Hoda M. “Utopia, Dystopia, and Ideology in the Science Fiction of Octavia Butler.” Science Fiction Studies, Vol. 17, No. 2, 1990, pp. 239-251.
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