Writing and Language in Parable of the Sower
Even before there were written words, people communicated through gestures and images in order to explain important things in their lives, attesting to the social importance of clear communication. Language helps us track human progress through history, as language evolves just as complexly and quickly as human culture and society does. Through changes in language, we can observe the way our world has grown and developed over time and learn new things about human behavior. We use language not only to teach and protect but to share feelings, express thoughts, and spread ideas from one person to another. In Octavia Butler’s 1993 novel Parable of the Sower, language is a crucially important element to the story. In a dystopian future wrecked by chaos and destruction, most people struggle to find basic necessities like food, water, and shelter. From inside a walled community, Lauren, a young woman, observes the disparity of her situation. Although she is safer than the average person, she has no prospects from inside the walls and finds herself positioned against her devout father when she no longer wants to follow his religion.
When Lauren is forced to venture out into the world, she begins to build a new religion, Earthseed, and harnesses the power of storytelling to create a set of ideals that other people can believe in as well. Lauren realizes that though the world is a harsh and unforgiving place, each person deserves the chance to have their voice heard as everyone has experienced things in a different way. In Parable of the Sower, Butler repeatedly uses the words “write” and “stories” and other allusions to writing and reading to convey the importance of the individual in telling their own story or perspective on life, and how the power of language can bring together people of varied and diverse backgrounds. Within a society where there is little government and barely any laws saying what people can and cannot do, power is incredibly sought-after. To live a comfortable life in the world of Parable of a Sower, characters must accumulate enough power to get the things that they desire.
Language is one form of power that people can harness. Those who can read and write have control over others, and because they are more educated they have more opportunities in life. According to Lauren Lacey, “To work with power rather than be controlled by it, Butler’s protagonists engage in a constant process of adapting and becoming.” Lauren knows that she has to adapt to her new world in order to gain power, and she does this through her grasp of language. By creating a new religion and writing scripture, she harnesses language in her favor and becomes a leader to many people. Her mastery of the written word proves that she is smart and capable, and because of this people trust her to make good decisions. She describes people by saying that “They have no power to improve their lives, but they have the power to make others even more miserable. And the only way to prove to yourself that you have power is to use it” (Butler 143). In a world where education and literature have become less important due to people’s focus on survival necessities like food and water, the ability to read and write has become less common. Harnessing that, Lauren gains immense power as she now stands out as an individual. Through Earthseed, she can now tell her story and help other people tell theirs, and they will know that their history will not just be lost in time because it will be written down and preserved forever.
In this case, Lauren acts as the hero of her own story, a concept that has slowly gotten lost as the world deteriorated. She states that “my grandmother left a whole bookcase of old science fiction novels. The company-city subgenre always seemed to stay a hero who outsmarted, overthrew, or escaped “the company”…And what should I be doing? What can I do?…To begin Earthseed, I’ll have to go outside…Next year when I’m 18, I’ll go. That means now I have to begin to plan how to handle it” (Butler 123-124). Lauren realizes that she has to take control of her story is she wants to accomplish her goals, and she does this by using her religion to tell her story and the stories of those she meets. The accessibility of the language is what enables Lauren to be successful in her endeavors, and without it she would likely never have made it past the walls.
Language also has a considerable influence over how we react to catastrophic events. When terrible things happen humans find comfort in sharing their experiences with others, and through reassurances that life will go on and things are going to be okay. After tragedies, there is often an increase in the amount of art, literature, and music that gets produced. This is because our reaction to negative events is to share our feelings with the world, and we couldn’t do that without language. According to Jerry Phillips, “Lauren’s Books of the Living strongly assert the value of a transcendent consciousness, which sees hopeful possibility in the deadliest of seemingly arrested states….Nonetheless, in its indictment of existing barbarism, Parable of the Sower does offer a vague blueprint of what, ideally, ought to be.” Bad things are certainly happening in Lauren’s world, but she knows that she needs to respond to them in a positive way. She states that “The world is full of painful stories. Sometimes it seems as though there aren’t any other kind and yet I found myself thinking how beautiful that glint of water was through the trees” (Butler 263). Although her circumstances are not ideal, Lauren uses the power of storytelling to rebuild after the chaos. By creating Earthseed, she is providing herself and others with something to hold on to in a world that is often unpredictable. Only through language could Lauren turn the catastrophe of her world into a bright light and example of greatness for the future.
Community, as a value, is also very important to Lauren. When her home is destroyed and her family is killed, she feels that she has nowhere to go and no one to turn to. Venturing out with strangers, she is forced to forge new bonds with other survivors and find a new place where she can thrive. Having support from her newfound community is what allows Lauren to successfully create Earthseed, as she has people to talk and discuss with. She gets to see other people’s opinions and experiences as well as her own, and by bringing together the stories of all her community members she gains a more well-rounded perspective on what her religion should be. Mathias Nilges argues that “the ideal upon which Lauren founds a new, progressive community is the the conscious interdependence and agreement of its members, who must know, trust, and be able to work with each other.” While many of the people Lauren encounters throughout the book do not agree with her views about life and spirituality, they recognize that she is doing good work by engaging the community and giving people something to believe in. Lauren states that “I’m trying to speak-to write-the truth. I’m trying to be clear. I’m not interested in being fancy, or even original. Clarity and truth will be plenty, if I can only achieve them. If it happens that there are other people outside somewhere preaching my truth, I’ll join them. Otherwise, I’ll adapt where I must, take what opportunities I can find or make, hang on, gather students, and teach” (Butler 125). Without the ability to communicate through language, teaching would be nearly impossible. Lauren knows that through her teaching of Earthseed, she can connect with other people out in the world who are also struggling with their spirituality.
Through Earthseed and her storytelling capabilities, Lauren is able to easily connect with others and form a new community even after her old one is destroyed. People are willing to follow Lauren because they trust her; she offers something of value to them, and they can tell that she is an honest and good person because she is trying to spread her teachings to others in order to help them. Without a community, Lauren’s language would not be able to take her very far. But by using it to connect to others and build trust, she becomes more enlightened than ever. Besides the challenges that come from her environment, Lauren also faces other unique struggles due to her standing as a black women. In the novel, women are often taken advantage of for sex, and Lauren is wary of men who might be able to overpower her. She is also a racial minority, which makes it difficult for her to be taken seriously by many people. Others see her as weak not only because of her hyperempathy and her femininity but because of her blackness. Her father was a powerful religious figure and a black man, and although she disagreed with his religious views it seems like Lauren admired her father for his conviction and for his strong and influential presence in their society. Inspired by her father’s passion and his conviction to have his voice heard, Lauren often reminisces about her home and her family after they are killed. After going back to her old house and seeing the burned remains of her community, Lauren says that “I have to write. I don’t know what else to do….There’s nothing familiar left to me but the writing. God is change. I hate God. I have to write” (Butler 158). Through her writing, Lauren makes sure that her lineage and the story of her past and her ancestors will not disappear. Although the place they once lived is gone, she and her family can live on through Earthseed.
The idea of being able to create something special and unique to you is prominent in the novel, as Lauren is always searching for a religion that she can truly connect to. Madhu Dubey writes that “Parable of the Sower similarly exposes the hollowness and duplicity of recent American ideologies of urban development. The novel takes as its point of departure an uncannily credible future in which ideals of the American city as a consumption artifact have devolved into a precarious urban order founded on economic and racial inequality.” Lauren proves that although there is no longer an “urban order” as Dubey puts it, she can share her ideologies and help other minorities like Zahra and many more women and people of color that she encounters. In a future where men hold much of the power, Lauren’s conviction and belief in her own power are a big part of the reason why she is able to survive and build a new life for herself. Earthseed is her way of saying “this is who I am,” and people grow to respect her despite the fact that she would be socially unequal to them. All people use one form of language or another to communicate with those around them. Whether it be verbal, physical, textual or any other form, language is a key part of existing in today’s society. One way that language is most influential is how it allows us to relate to other people through the sharing of stories, both personal and impersonal.
In Parable of the Sower, Butler presents Lauren as a storyteller-turned-savior; she has the power to rescue and rehabilitate others through her use of written language and the creation of her religion, Earthseed. By showing others the importance of having their story told, she reminds those in dark times that their voices matter just as much as anyone else. In a world where people are fighting for the most basic of survival, knowing that you will make a lasting mark on the world gives people the hope that they desperately need. Through her building of power, use of community, and self-reliance and confidence given to her by language and writing, Lauren becomes a leader to many and an inspiration to those she meets.
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