Analysis of the Idea of Boomerang in Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower
It is the year 2024. American society is at the brink of an environmental and economic apocalypse. A young girl in Robledo, California knows she can no longer accept the dormancy and perpetual degradation of the status quo and must find a way to inspire change for the chance of survival. In Parable of the Sower, Octavia Butler follows a 15-year-old African American girl, Lauren Olamina, as she struggles to navigate a world broken by class differences, greed, and capitalism. In her novel, Butler uses elements of race relations in the United States in a historical and modern-day context to suggest that empathy-driven change is fundamental in the prevention of social and political degradation. Butler was a firm believer that history was not always linear, but sometimes cyclical in motion. She also believed that the idea of progress, when relating to social change, was not permanent and could very well be reversible. These concepts are partly what inspired the Parable trilogy, along with her own experiences and vision of where the world could be headed. “This was not a book about prophecy; this was an ‘if-this-goes- on story,’” she said in a speech at MIT in 1998. “This was a cautionary tale, although people have told me it was prophecy.
All I have to say to that is ‘I certainly hope not’”. Her foreshadowing of global affairs, both realistic and wildly accurate, constructs a near-future dystopic society that must grapple with issues like climate change, mass incarceration, gun violence, homelessness, drug epidemics, and a broken economy driven by capitalism and wealthy institutions. In an essay commemorating the book’s 25th anniversary, Gloria Steinem said, “If there is one thing scarier than a dystopian novel about the future, it’s one written in the past that has already begun to come true”. Beyond the novel’s most obvious external conflicts, and with subtle nuance, lies a profound element of social inequality, sometimes paralleling the times of antebellum slavery and the American civil rights movement. In Parable of the Sower, the middle-class are segregated from the poor in their walled-off communities, while the rich are situated up in the hills, guarded by even bigger walls, privatized security, and government policy. “Up toward the hills there were walled estates – one big house and a lot of shacky little dependencies where the servants lived”. Later in the novel, Lauren notes that “Some upper-class men prove they’re men by having one wife and a lot of beautiful, disposable young servant girls. Nasty”. These images remain in direct reflection of plantation life in the American South where a dependence on slave labor and the perpetual abuses of slave women’s bodies were among the routine. Was Butler suggesting that the rich and powerful were the sources for class discrimination and exploitation? Or was she attempting to present a more nuanced and abstract explanation for social degradation? These questions require further review.
In Butler’s idea of cyclical history, or as Ralph Ellison refers to as a “boomerang” in his 1952 novel Invisible Man, she conceptualizes the resurfacing of violence and discrimination toward peoples, specifically relating to elements of slavery and the exploitation of labor to support capitalist agendas. In the Parable of the Sower, Butler was less concerned with portraying modern slavery as an issue of race, but more as a function of class. In the book, Lauren often evaluates the ways in which she can escape her dormant community and pave her own future, rather than the one her family seeks to maintain in Robledo. Lauren looks toward a new opportunity developing in the town of Olivar, a previously wealthy coastal town that had been privatized by a company called KSF who intended on exploiting Olivar’s farming and natural resources. In doing so, they began trading lower-waged work for the promise of security, food, jobs, and a protection against rising coastal waters. In her examination of Olivar, Lauren determines, “That’s an old company-town trick – get people into debt, hang on to them, and work them harder. Debt slavery”. With Olivar out of the picture, Lauren knew she needed change, but it would not come in the form of ‘debt slavery.’ While Lauren was motivated by change, she struggled to find people in her community, including her father, who were interested in the same things. Her father, the local Baptist minister, was persistent on staying in the safety of Robledo as he frequently challenged Lauren’s ideas of leaving town for any new opportunities. He refused to see Olivar as anything but voluntary slavery and regarded any possibility of finding a better home outside of Robledo as an act of suicide. Even one of Lauren’s closest friends, Joanne, thought she was crazy for considering a future outside their walls after attempting to persuade her on the importance of change. “People have changed the climate of the world.
Now they’re waiting for the old days to come back’. “Waiting for the old days to come back,” as Lauren puts it, reflects her understanding of the popular sentiments of her community and the rest of society in that they were very much afraid of change. Waiting for “the explosion, the big crash, the sudden chaos that would destroy the neighborhood”, or destroy the world, Butler might add. Following many failed attempts to convince her loved ones of the imminent destruction of their community, Lauren starts the creation of a new faith, Earthseed, which would ultimately guide her in leading its believers toward a new destiny. Inspired by change, Earthseed becomes Lauren’s understanding of truth and the eventual resolution to the cataclysm of her world. “All that you touch You Change. All that you Change Changes you. The only lasting truth Is Change. God Is Change”. “The only lasting truth is Change,” becomes the dominant theme throughout Lauren’s new faith. It’s the reason why she believes that resisting change, staying in Robledo for example, would only end in tragedy. Upon her anticipations, Lauren’s town is eventually burned and ravaged, and she is forced on a journey north with the only two remaining people from her town, Zahra and Harry. Fleeing Robledo and their refusal to join a privatized slave town like Olivar, Lauren and her group resemble fugitive slaves in the 19th century and their northern escape to freedom. This is especially true when you consider the racial and gendered dynamics of the group as well as Zahra’s recent liberation from a husband who bought her with money and treated her no less than a slave. The fact that two black women traveling with a white guy proved to be a dangerous move indicates the degradation of the social climate of Butler’s prophetic future.
Realizing the dangers of their multi-racial and co-gendered situation, Lauren decides to travel as a black male to increase their chances of survival. “We [Zahra and Lauren] can be a black couple and their white friend. If Harry can get a reasonable tan, maybe we can claim him as a cousin”. Lauren’s decision to change her gender not only illuminates the lack of privileges associated with being a [black] woman, but also reflects the vision of Earthseed in that “All that you Change, Changes you.” One of the greatest challenges Lauren faces throughout the novel, and one that must not be ignored when examining Butler’s thematic objective, is that her character suffers from hyperempathy causing her to feel the pain and the pleasures of the people around her. While this condition is Lauren’s greatest vulnerability and what doctors call an ‘organic delusional syndrome’, it ultimately becomes a powerful tool in her understanding of how the world could be a better place. “If everyone could feel everyone else’s pain, who would torture? Who would cause anyone unnecessary pain?” I’ve never thought of my problem as something that might do some good before, but the way things are, I think it would help”. This moment is foundational in Lauren’s character development as she begins to see the value of empathy in her world. “I wish I could give it to people. Failing that, I wish I could find other people who have it, and live among them”. Lauren’s wish ultimately becomes reality when she encounters a family of ‘sharers’ who escaped the bondage of debt slavery, accepting them as valuable contributions to her future Earthseed community. The world in Parable of the Sower mirrors an ‘every man for himself’ kind of place.
Most people refuse to trust any stranger out of fear, but Lauren leads her group in helping others who might be valued assets to Earthseed. Along her journey, she collects a diverse group of people who are all very much surprised by her generosity, a byproduct of her hyperempathy. Many of the travelers that join her pack are either prior slaves or were victims of institutional debt slavery, magnifying the extent to which Lauren’s world had declined. “So we become the crew of a modern underground railroad”, Lauren tells Bankole, a romantic partner she picks up along the way. Bankole was immediately attracted to Lauren’s group after their first encounter since, as a Doctor, he naturally shared their tendency to care for the wellbeing of others; yet another person who valued empathy and compassion toward others. “I was surprised to see that anyone else cared what happened to a couple of strangers”. Bankole plays a vital role in Lauren’s quest to spread Earthseed after she learns that he owns a large plot of land in northern California. “You could help me, build the first Earthseed community”. Bankole’s land ultimately becomes their new Earthseed home and they called it Acorn.
In Parable of the Sower, Octavia Butler creates a world that has far deteriorated from the one we live in today. Her dystopic future, both practical and imaginable, is polluted with human problems that provoke social injustices and political decline. Butler’s use of race relations mirroring the African American experience in a historical context suggests her sentiments toward “boomerang” slavery and a justification for social progress. Lauren’s Earthseed and Hyperempathy syndrome lay the groundwork for inspiring change, which ultimately serves in keeping her alive and providing a place for her followers to seek refuge. In an exhibit at the Huntington Library in Pasadena, California, many of Butler’s manuscripts, letters, and affirmations are featured on display. One of them in particular, a handwritten note on the back of a notecard, reads: “Tell stories filled with facts. Make people touch and taste and KNOW. Make people FEEL FEEL FEEL!” Did Butler write this note to inspire the work of Parable of the Sower? That answer may never be reveled, but surely her vision reflects the creation and development of Lauren Oya Olamina.
- Butler, Octavia E. Parable Of The Sower. New York : Warner Books, , ©1993. Print.
- Butler, Octavia E. “The Media in Transition.” The Media in Transition. 8 Oct. 2019.
- Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. New York: Vintage International, 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.
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