In Parable of the Sower, the main character Lauren has a fictional disease called hyper empathy syndrome, meaning she feels the pain and the pleasure of others. In their introduction, Day, Green-Barteet, and Monz discuss the Currie, Kelly, and Pomerantz article which states that narratives surrounding girlhood have “positioned young women in a space that simultaneously highlights their vulnerability and proclaims their strength” (5); we believe that Lauren perfectly represents this dichotomy in girlhood. In this post, we examine the ways in which the concept of hyperempathy syndrome both reinforces normative ideas of girlhood as powerless and creates a new definition of girl power by presenting a positive side of femininity.
According to Day, Green-Barteet, and Monz, girls “continue to be constructed as passive and weak within much of contemporary Western culture” (4). Though Lauren is without a doubt a strong character, her hyperempathy reinforces the narrative of passivity and weakness in girlhood: because of the syndrome, she is constantly preoccupied with ensuring those around her are comfortable. When her brother Keith is injured, for example, Lauren must “let [her] body shake and hurt and vomit in helpless empathy with Keith” (97). Lauren is pathologically compelled to feel with others, a natural exaggeration of the construction of girls as nurturing and, by extension, weak.
Hyperempathy is further connected to normative femininity through the character of Mora. Lauren reflects that Mora is “a male sharer, desperate to hide his terrible vulnerability[.] Sharing would be harder on a man” (324). This passage reveals two important details about the nature of hyperempathy: first, that vulnerability is ‘terrible’ and an undesirable trait, and second that such undesirability is typically associated with girls and women. By emphasizing the difficulty Mora faces as a male sharer, Butler also underlines the way in which sharing is considered a feminine trait; Mora must “[do] a lot to keep people away from him—keep them from knowing too much about him” (324). In other words, for Mora to hold on to his masculinity, and by extension his chance of survival, he must banish any trace of feminized traits—including his hyperempathy.
We may see, then, how Lauren’s hyperempathy syndrome is negatively conceptualized as a disease throughout the story. However, her hyperempathy could also be seen as a gift. Many characters in the novel show their lack of ability to sympathize with other people; this is of course natural, given their harsh environment. Even Lauren shows her lack of emotional ability when she loses her brother. When her town is burnt down and she loses all her family, she doesn’t lose her aplomb for survival. Because of her hyperempathy, however, she always has to consider the pain of others. It not only includes the pain she inflicts, but also the pain of others not related with her behaviour. Thus, her hyperempathy keeps her from forgetting the fact that “they are same people like me, who can suffer physically and emotionally,” (26-27) which may otherwise be hard to recall in her severe environment. In other words, because of her hyperempathy she can consider others sincerely and think beyond mere survival. Therefore, hyperempathy plays a role for her to keep hope and belief toward humanism. Her thought about Earthseed is based on this sensitivity; her many writings clearly show her hope and belief despite her current surroundings.
At first, Lauren cannot share her ideas about Earthseed with other people. However, after the fire when she has to wander to survive, she began to share his ideas with others carefully. Her hyperempathy means that she has the power to keep her hope in spite of more severe situation, even more than that, she started to share and influence other people by her ideas. Consider, for example, the moments after Jill Gilchrist dies: Lauren tells the reader that “We read some verses and talked about Earthed for a while this morning. It was a calming thing to do…we needed something calming and reassuring” (295). In the time after tragedy, it is Lauren’s hope in a religion about empathy that helps the group. It is impossible to think of her power without the hyperempathy syndrome.
According to the text “Girl Power and Girl Activism in the Fiction of Suzanne Collins, Scott Westerfield, and Moira Young,” by Fritz, girl’s socio-political identity can be obtained by not just resisting but by actively embracing the stereotyped traditional girlhood. Lauren’s hyperempathy described well the common expected characteristics of girlhood like emotional, sympathetic being. However, Octavia Butler chooses to accept and embrace those stereotypes by using Lauren’s hyperempathy, and she suggests the hope that the possibility of future girlhood, girl power and girl activism.
Lauren’s hyperempathy is a physical burden for her in that extreme situations, and is intimately tied to constructions of girlhood and femininity as weak and passive. However, because of it, she cannot lose the last bit of humanity within her and may finally share and influence other people with her ideas. Therefore, there is a silver lining to hyperempathy: it implies new meanings of girlhood and femininity that have the power to change and develop the world even in the harsh situation like Lauren’s.
In this post we have examined how Lauren’s hyperempathy syndrome intersects with normative concepts of girlhood. How might her hyperempathy effect and be effected by other aspects of her character, for example her race or class?
Why did Lauren only begin to share her thoughts about Earthseed when her home was destroyed? How might her hyperempathy syndrome connect to her growth regarding her religious beliefs?
Butler, Octavia E. Parable of the Sower. Grand Central Publishing, 1993.
Day, Sara, Miranda Green-Barteet, and Amy Montz. “Introduction.” Female Rebellion in
Young Adult Dystopian Fiction. Ashgate Publishing, 2014.
Fritz, Sonya S. “Girl Power and Girl Activism in the Fiction of Suzanne Collins, Scott
Westerfeld, and Moira Young.” Female Rebellion in Young Adult Dystopian Fiction. Edited by Sara K. Day, Miranda A. Green-Barteet, and Amy L. Montz. Ashgate, 2014