The year is 2024. American society faces an economic and ecological apocalypse. A young girl from Robledo in California is determined to change the status quo.
Octavia Octavia’s Parable of the Sower is a story about a 15-yearold African American girl Lauren Olamina who struggles with a society riven by capitalism, class differences, and greed. Butler’s novel uses historical and contemporary contexts to show that empathy is essential in preventing social and political degradation. Butler believed that history is not always linear but can be cyclical. She also thought that social progress was not permanent. Parable was inspired by these concepts, as well as her vision and experiences of the future. She said, in a 1998 MIT speech: “This book wasn’t about prophecy. It was an if-this-continues story.” “This was an cautionary story, although some people have claimed it to be prophecy. To that I say ‘I certainly don’t'”. Her accurate and realistic foreshadowing creates a dystopic near-future society where issues such as climate change, mass imprisonment, gun violence and homelessness are all present. Gloria Steinem stated in a commemorative essay for the 25th Anniversary of the book that “If there’s anything scarier than a future dystopian novel, it’s if the one from the past has already become believable”.
The novel is a subtle, yet powerful, exploration of social inequality. It parallels the antebellum era of slavery, as well as the American Civil Rights Movement. The rich and the poor are separated in the walls of the walled communities in Parable of the Sower. They are also guarded with even larger walls, private security, and government policies. “Up on the hills, there was a walled estate – one large house and lots of little shacks where servants lived”.
Lauren remarks later in the story that “Some men of upper-class prove their masculinity by having only one wife with a large number of beautiful young girls who are disposable.” Nasty”. These images reflect the life on plantations in the American South. Slavery, abuse of slave women and a dependency on it were all part of daily routine. Was Butler implying the rich and influential were the main sources of discrimination against the poor and exploitation by the powerful? Was she trying to offer a more abstract and nuanced explanation of social degeneration? These questions require further review.
In Butler’s concept of cyclical histories, or what Ralph Ellison calls a “boomerang”, she conceptualizes a resurfacing violence and discrimination towards peoples. This is specifically related to slavery and the exploitation and exploitation of workers to support capitalist agendas. Butler did not portray modern slavery primarily as a matter of race in The Parable Of the Sower. Instead, she viewed it as a class issue.
Lauren looks at new opportunities in Olivar, a once wealthy coastal town that was privatized by a company called KSF who wanted to exploit the farming and natural resources of the town. Lauren considers a potential new opportunity in Olivar, an formerly wealthy coastal community that was privatized by KSF with the intention of exploiting Olivar’s natural resources and farming. They began to trade lower-paid work in exchange for security, food and jobs as well as protection from rising coastal waters.
Lauren’s analysis of Olivar reveals that “that is an old trick used by company towns – to get people in debt, hold them there, and make them work harder.” Being in bondage to debt. Lauren’s father was not interested in the change she wanted.
Lauren’s Baptist minister father, who was determined to keep her in Robledo despite Lauren’s repeated requests to leave for better opportunities, opposed Lauren leaving. He refused, however, to accept Olivar’s status as anything more than a form of slavery. Any attempt at finding a home outside Robledo was viewed as committing suicide. Lauren’s friend Joanne, who had tried to convince Lauren of the importance for change, also thought that she was insane. “People changed the climate around the globe.
Now they are waiting for old times to return. Lauren’s “Waiting For The Old Days To Come Back” is a reflection of how her community and society felt about change. Butler would add that Butler waited for “the sudden chaos and explosion which will destroy the neighborhood, or destroy the entire planet”. Lauren tries to convince her family members of the impending destruction their community. After many unsuccessful attempts, she creates Earthseed. Earthseed would eventually lead her and its believers towards a brand new destiny. Earthseed, a new faith inspired by change that Lauren created to help her resolve the catastrophe of her life, is the ultimate resolution. “All That You Touch Changes. You Change when you change.
Change is the only truth that endures. God is Change”. Lauren’s new religion is dominated by the theme “Change is the only truth that lasts”. She is convinced that if she resists change and stays in Robledo as an example, it will end in tragedy. Lauren’s hometown is destroyed and burned, as she expected. She and Harry, the last two people left in her town, are forced to move north.
Lauren, her group and the fugitive enslaved slaves from the 19th-century who fled north in search of freedom are strikingly similar. This is true, especially when you take into account the racial dynamics and gendered dynamics in the group. Zahra was recently freed from her husband who treated her as if she were a slave and bought her for money. Two black women traveling together with a man of color was a risky move, which reflects the social degradation Butler predicted for the future.
Lauren decides that they will travel as black men to increase their chances for survival. “We’re [Zahra] a couple of black people and their friend is white. Harry may be eligible to claim us as his cousins if Harry gets a good tan. Lauren’s decision not to be a woman [of color] reflects Earthseed, which says that “All That You Change, Changes You.”
Lauren’s character is plagued by hyperempathy. She feels the pains and pleasures of others around her. This is a challenge that cannot be overlooked when considering Butler’s theme. Lauren’s condition, what doctors call ‘organic-delusional syndrome’ is her greatest vulnerability. It also helps her to understand how the world might be a more peaceful place. “If we could all feel each other’s pain, would anyone torture?” Who would inflict unnecessary pain on anyone? This moment has a profound impact on Lauren as she learns to value empathy. “I would love to be able to give it away.
If I can’t find it, I would love to live with other people who do. Lauren’s hope becomes a reality, when she meets the’sharers.’ They are a family that has escaped slavery by debt and accepted them into her Earthseed society. Parable Of The Sower’s world is one of ‘everyman’s for themselves’.
Lauren’s group helps others that might be valuable assets for Earthseed. Her hyperempathy allows her to attract a wide range of people, who are surprised at her generosity. The fact that many of her fellow travelers were either former slaves or victims of debt slavery in institutions, accentuates the decline of Lauren’s life. Lauren tells Bankole who she meets along her journey, “So we’re the crew for a modern Underground Railroad”.
Bankole felt a strong connection to Lauren and her group from their very first encounter. As a doctor, he was able to understand their concern for others’ wellbeing. This person also valued compassion and empathy. “I found it surprising that anybody else was concerned about the fate of a couple strangers.” Lauren is determined to spread Earthseed and discovers that Bankole owns an enormous plot of land up in Northern California. “You can help me to build the Earthseed communities”. Acorn, the new Earthseed community they built on Bankole’s land.
Octavia’s Parable of the Sower depicts a world in which things are far worse than they are today. Her dystopic, both imaginable and practical, future is contaminated with social injustices that lead to political decline. Butler’s use if race relations in the historical context to reflect African American experience suggests that she is a supporter of “boomerang slave” slavery.
Lauren’s Earthseed syndrome and Hyperempathy set the stage for inspiring change. They ultimately serve to keep her alive, as well as provide a safe haven for her fans. The Huntington Library’s Pasadena branch has a display of Butler’s affirmations, letters and manuscripts. On the back of one of these notecards, there is a note written in handwriting that reads, “Tell stories full of facts.” Make the people KNOW and touch, and make them taste. Make people FEEL, FEEL, FEEL! Although the answer may not be revealed, her vision surely reflects Lauren Oya Olamina’s development and creation.
Butler, Octavia. Parable of the Sower. New York: Warner Books , 1993. Print.
Butler, Octavia. The Media in Transition. 8 Oct. 2019.
Ellison, Ralph. The Invisible Man is a novel by Ralph Ellison about an African American man who is unseen by society. Vintage International, New York, 1995. Print.
Steinem, Gloria. “Gloria Steinem on Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower.” Early Bird Books, 26 Feb. 2016, https://earlybirdbooks.com/gloria-steinem-on-octavia-butler.