Parable of the Sower: Essay Q&A
1. How does Butler use the idea of slavery in the novel?
There are many references in the novel to working conditions that resemble slavery, and many references also to the historical fact of slavery in the United States.
The topic is first raised in the context of the company town in Olivar. Lauren and her father fear that the unsuspecting residents will end up as virtual slaves to the KSF multinational corporation. The references to slavery increase toward the end of the novel. Travis Douglas's experience as a child of reading books passed to him by his mother reminds Lauren of what slaves in the United States did two hundred years ago: "They sneaked around and educated themselves as best they could, sometimes suffering whipping, sale, or mutilation for their efforts" (Ch. 18). Emery Solis is in a condition of debt slavery to a company before she escapes and joins Lauren's group. Her sons were taken away from her, just as in the South during the slavery era, slave families could be split up whenever their owners decided to do so. Lauren takes to referring to Emery and Grayson Mora simply as slaves or ex-slaves escaping to freedom. Like the slaves of old, they go north to find freedom and security. The allusion to slavery becomes explicit again when Lauren refers to their role as the "crew of a modern underground railroad," a reference to the underground networks utilized by slaves to escape their masters. "Slavery again," she adds, in the context of Emery's story, "even worse than my father thought, or at least sooner" (Ch. 23). Bankole takes up the same idea when he says "This country has slipped back 200 years."
By frequently reminding the reader of U.S. history, Butler suggests in her grim view of the future that the fight to abolish slavery may have to be waged all over again.
2. What is a dystopia and why does Parable of the Sower belong to that genre?
A dystopia is a novel usually set in the near future in which negative trends in present-day society have been exaggerated to produce a disturbing, sometimes nightmarish society. George Orwell's 1984 (1948), Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1932) and Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale (1986) are classic twentieth century dystopias. Dystopias are the opposite of utopias, which present an ideal society of the future. In Parable of the Sower, Butler takes a variety of social issues and trends in the United States in the 1980s and 1990s and projects them forward by thirty or forty years. No solutions have been found and the problems have become even worse, to the point that civilized life has virtually broken down.
One issue was the increasing popularity of "gated" communities in the late twentieth century. These were a response by the middle classes to fear of rising crime rates in urban areas. Gated residential communities were particularly common in California. Access to these communities was controlled by the presence of gates and fences (sometimes topped with barbed wire) and armed security guards. So in the novel, the middle classes of Robledo shelter behind "walled" communities to protect themselves from the rampant crime and violence that occurs in the unwalled areas. There is also a third category-the rich. As in 1980s America, they have already fled the cities and live in walled, heavily guarded estates in the hills.
Another contemporary issue that Butler used to create her dystopia was illiteracy, which was on the rise in 1980s America. So in the novel Zahra, Allie and Jill cannot write. Homelessness was another important issue that was in the forefront of public concern in the 1980s. There were an estimated two million homeless people in America in 1989. The popularity of designer drugs that can have serious side effects was another pressing social issue. Butler puts these two issues together and presents the unwalled areas as festering sores of homelessness and drug addiction, especially addiction to the drug pyro, that makes people want to start fires.
3. What is the significance of chapter 1 to the novel as a whole?
At first the opening chapter seems to have little connection with the narrative that follows, but closer examination reveals many foreshadowings of future events.
On the eve of her fifteenth birthday, Lauren has a recurring dream in which she levitates and flies toward the door of her room. Typically, this does not happen spontaneously; she teaches herself how to do levitate, just as, later, she will teach herself the survival skills she needs. This is a girl who does not rely on anyone else-even in her dreams. But before she can fly through the door she sees that the wall is burning. She cannot get through. This is a premonition of what will eventually happen to her community; it will all be burned. At this point in the dream, when she is enveloped in the fire, Lauren sometimes wakes up, which suggests one possible outcome: she will die along with everyone else. But on this occasion, she does not wake up. Instead, the dream continues but in a new setting. She is seven years old and is outside with her stepmother, Cory. She can see the stars. Cory tells her they used to be told that the stars were "windows into heaven." Lauren stares up at the stars, fascinated.
So in this dream Lauren goes through the fire to the stars. The dream shows there is a way through, and it will be her task to find it. It will be a while before she can fully articulate this vision, but when she writes in her journal a year later, "the Destiny of Earthseed is to take root among the stars" (ch. 7), she is drawing out the message contained in her recurring dream.
4. Is Parable of the Sower a feminist novel?
Parable of the Sower has some feminist themes, although these are not the sole focus of the novel. Certainly, part of Butler's purpose is to show a strong African-American woman succeeding in exceptionally difficult circumstances. Although Harry is the same age as Lauren, and they start the trek north together, there is no doubt that Lauren is the leader. None of the men who join the group challenge her authority. She lays down the rules and the others follow because they see that doing so is in their best interests. However, it is a sign of the times in which they live that Lauren must disguise herself as a man in order to be maximally effective. In a violent world, men still have control. Male violence against women is an underlying theme in the novel. The Gilchrist sisters, for example, are forced into prostitution by their cruel, drunken father. Another example is the corrupt employer of Travis and Natividad, who subjects Natividad to sexual harassment. A third example of male oppression is Richard Moss. He devises his own patriarchal religion so he can dominate women. He has three wives and does not permit them any education. This is why Zahra has never learned to read or write; her husband used to say that she "already knew enough to suit him" (ch. 16). Moss comes to a bad end, lying naked in his own blood in the street after the final ransacking of the community. This might be seen as the author's verdict on a patriarchal system. However, the society Butler depicts in the novel does not seem to be entirely prejudiced against women. Individual men may behave badly-which is not exactly a startling revelation-but the society appears to provide some opportunities for women, at least for those who can afford the education and training. A female astronaut goes to Mars, for example, and dies there. Butler's purpose is to show a variety of social ills, not all of them caused directly by male violence or oppression. She wants to point the way beyond these ills to a more sustainable, holistic vision for human life, rather than focusing exclusively on a feminist perspective.
5. Why does Lauren reject Christianity, and how does the new religion of Earthseed differ from Christianity?
Lauren's father is a Baptist minister who emphasizes Bible-based religion. But Lauren dislikes the religion she was born into, which she calls a lie. When she is baptized on her fifteenth birthday, the ceremony means nothing to her. The Christian ideas of sin and salvation simply do not register in her mind. For Lauren, the failings of her father's religion are expressed in the Book of Job, in which, in Lauren's words, "God says he made everything and he knows everything so no one has any right to question what he does with any of it" (ch. 2). This God sounds to Lauren like a "super-powerful man, playing with his toys the way my youngest brothers play with toy soldiers" (ch. 2). She has no time for this concept of God. Her God is not a person at all, but a process-the process of change, because change is the one thing that is constant in life. According to Earthseed, God is an impersonal force that can be shaped by humans, not a personal being who hands down laws and judges people by how well they stick to them. Lauren's God has no personal attributes, no likes or dislikes. As she puts it in her journal, "God is neither good / nor evil / neither loving / nor hating." Unlike the Christian God, the God of Earthseed does not need to be worshipped. Lauren would think it a waste of time to worship God. It would be far better to take practical action and respond and adapt to what life demands in the present moment. Earthseed does demand, however, that God, the God of Change, be respected. If it is not, change will come unexpectedly, and people will not know how to respond. This would be a disservice to themselves, to others and to God. Earthseed demands from its followers a pro-active attitude to life; there is to be no meek submission to an almighty God who sits on high and judges. For Earthseed, humans are partners with the infinitely powerful force called God in shaping the destiny of life.
Ultimately, the vision of Earthseed is so radically different from Christianity that the two can hardly be compared. This can be seen in their different understanding of the concept of Heaven. A Christian looks forward to being saved and going to Heaven after death. But for Earthseed, Heaven is a new planet, perhaps on some galaxy not even yet discovered, which will serve as the ultimate destination of the human race.