Gaining and possessing power in Parable of the Sower (Brittany J. and Sarah P.)

Inside the dystopian setting of Los Angeles that Lauren describes within her journal entries, citizens who possess a degree of power have paid jobs, guns, money, a family, and home within a walled-community. The reader can identify the novel as dystopian through Butler’s descriptions of Lauren Olamina’s environment, as well as the conditions of the United States within the future setting of 2024. Dystopian here is defined as “an imaginary place or condition in which everything is as bad as possible” (OED). Butler’s dystopia is formulated around power structures, both in terms of tangible factors such as weaponry and allies, and characteristics traditionally tied to being powerful, such as masculinity. In our post, we argue that power is created through possessing weaponry, forming allies and how female gender norms defy conceptions of power.

Weapons and allies are essential for the characters when it comes to possessing and gaining power, as having power is key to survival in this dystopian world. As a traveller, individuals and pairs of people are more vulnerable to attacks and starvation. In order to defend oneself and survive such a vicious environment, a gun gives vulnerable travellers a degree of power, but can simultaneously create a bigger threat. The reoccurring themes regarding conceptions of power dynamics within Parable of the Sower are also argued in Lauren Lacey’s work, “Octavia E. Butler on Coping with Power in Parable of the Sower [..]. Lacey states, “to work with power rather than be controlled by it, Butler’s protagonists engage in a constant process of adapting and becoming” (380). The instances of working with power through adapting and becoming are seen throughout the novel when Lauren and two surviving members of her community, Zahra and Harry, travelled North along California freeways, initially counting on Lauren’s escape pack for survival. The small group learns to adapt to their surroundings and inflict violence on those who threaten their survival and gradually became more powerful through their possession of weapons, money, and allies entering Lauren’s group. Adaptability is continually present throughout the novel as more allies are added, and the presence of power is shown within the group as a whole, and individually. In her work, Lacey argues Butler’s novel “demonstrates that coping with power requires adaptability, strength, and the willingness to take power for oneself” (381). The adaptability and strength of utilizing power are evident when characters begin to work with other travellers along their journey. Although guns provide some security for travellers, there is power in numbers; Lauren increases her chances of survival with every ally she gains. By having more allies, Lauren’s group are able to have two watchers at a time during the night, with each watcher using their individual power by having a gun as their weapon of defense.

The task of coping with power largely lands on the female characters within the novel, such as Lauren and Zahra, because they are both experienced in taking power for themselves through their use of weaponry as a means of defense. Lacey mirrors the importance of female power by stating, “to cope with power, Butler’s female characters learn to understand its complications and deceptions” (382). Readers become aware of the dependence on women to lead and protect the group when, despite the power gained from guns and allies, Lauren is still skeptical of travellers she comes across throughout the novel. One example of such skepticism over deception occurs when Lauren hears Allie and Julie’s cries for help and was aware of the possibility that the cries could be used to lure empathetic travellers into the hands of thieves or gang members.

Lauren confronts the existing power dynamics in the novel by adapting to the dystopian society’s notion of what it means to be seen as powerful. Appearance is, therefore, a key factor in displaying power, and by extension surviving the hostile environment. As a female character posing as a man, Lauren effectively becomes more powerful, as males are perceived to be physically stronger. She subverts stereotypical perceptions of femininity, of females being weak and submissive beings, by displaying physical and mental strength through both her protection of the group and through her decision-making as a leader seeking survival for the whole group. In the image of Lauren carrying her resources in a “pillowcase … resting on [her] hip like a baby” (162), Butler contrasts the traditional maternal role with traits associated with masculinity, such as leadership, and controlling resources. Lauren is a strong leader, a provider, and carer, as she ultimately seeks protection for the group. Through the simile, Butler challenges the association between femininity and powerlessness, as the alternative maternal image of Lauren connotes power. However, whilst what can be deemed Lauren’s internal characteristics of power, such as her survivalist intuition, are evident to those close to her, the external portrayal of power is still linked to her appearance, company, and weaponry. As aforementioned, the possession of a gun allows an individual to display an element of power. A gun, as a phallic symbol, is still then tied to the idea of masculinity equalling power, but by Butler using the transferable item of a gun, she shows that females are also powerful, and that power is a changing construct. As Lacey states, the protagonist “demystify[ies] dominant discourses” by responding to the power structures they exist within (380). In other words, through Lauren, Butler deconstructs the idea of males being inevitably more powerful than females, by drawing attention to the way that Lauren is able to gain power by possessing a gun and gaining allies.

Finally, through the focus on change in the religion Earthseed, Butler continues to show that power is linked to change. The verse that Lauren presents as “the literal truth” progresses from “God is Power” to “God is Change” (25), shows that power is also changing. Power, therefore, changes in the novel through a “community of refugees” (389), displaying power “based on cooperation rather than subjugation” (382). Through the female protagonist and the subsequent development of Earthseed, Butler contrasts the existing power structures with a sense of collaborative power formed among supposedly powerless people.

Works Cited: 

Butler, Octavia E. Parable of the Sower. New York: Grand Central Publishing, 1993.

Lacey, Lauren J. “Octavia E. Butler on Coping with Power in Parable of the Sower, Parable of the Talents, and Fledgling.” Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction, vol. 49, no. 4, 2008, pp. 379-394.

Oxford English Dictionary. Dystopia, n. <http://www.oed.com/viewdictionaryentry/Entry/58909&gt;

Discussion Questions: 

  1. Power dynamics were an important theme throughout the novel, and the characters all had unique experiences of creating and coping with their own individual power. That being said, tangible factors such as weaponry and allies were key elements for travellers wishing to survive. In terms of survival, do you think power in possessing weaponry or power in having allies was more important to travellers? Or do you think both weaponry and allies were both equally important for survival? Explain how you came to an answer.
  2. In the post we spoke about the way Butler challenges the idea of powerlessness being associated with women through Lauren. Do you think Butler does this enough? If not, in what ways does Butler reinforce the idea that women are powerless? 

5 thoughts on “Gaining and possessing power in Parable of the Sower (Brittany J. and Sarah P.)

  1. I believe that Butler not only challenges the notion of women powerlessness through Lauren, but through all the girls in the group. Comparing pain and hardship isn’t always right, but if we go through everyone’s histories, it could be argued that the girls had harder lives than the guys. When compared to the other girls, Lauren’s life was not as harsh. For the majority of her life, she had food, a home, education and a loving family. The only difficulty in her upbringing was her hyper empathy. Although her sharing would justifiably make her weak and feeble, Lauren does not allow it to be her detriment. She learns how to cope with it, becomes level headed and is able to take care of her companions. On the other hand, Zarah was raised on the streets; hungry with a drug addict mother who sold her to a man she did not know. Throughout her fifteen years on the streets, she received beating, and had to resort to stealing and rummaging through dead bodies to survive. During the communities’ fire, her daughter was shot in her arms and Zarah was raped. Yet as soon as she is back on the streets, she uses her knowledge to help her friends survive. She doesn’t let her rape or her daughter’s death consume her. Natividad was a maid until her employer started subjecting her to sexual harassment. Jill and Allie were forced into prostitution by their own father. They were regularly beaten and they both witnessed their father beat Allie’s child to death. Their response was burning their house down in order to escape him. As for Emery, she was a modern day slave because of debt. The beatings she and other slaves received were intensified because she’s a sharer. She eventually runs away with her daughter after her sons were taken from her. The men in the group, aside from Mora, did not live through a series of daily hardship as the girls did. Each of them had received some kind of education and had a loving family at some point in time. The women, however, lived through constant trials, yet they pushed through in order survive. They did not wallow in their unfortunate circumstances, they fought to change them. None of them were saved by anyone else aside from themselves. In Natividad’s case, she shared her burdens with Travis. In my opinion, Butler completely destroys the idea that girls are powerless damsels in distress. Instead, they are depicted as strong individuals, who adapt, have inner strength and are all powerful in their own rights.

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  2. Hi both! I think your question regarding power in weapons versus power in allies is quite an interesting one, as it depends entirely on context; that is, having a gun might be helpful in one instance, but in another pale in comparison to having the help of allies. I’m thinking in particular of Lauren, here–often, a gun may act as more of a hindrance to her, due to her hyperempathy. Consider for example when Lauren shoots a man and “he didn’t fall, but I felt his pain, and I wasn’t good for anything else for a while” (Butler 296). The sharing of pain happens more than once in this scene, and the only reason Lauren is able to get out alive is because she is helped by her group; had she been alone, or even with only a few other people, it is likely she would have been killed while trying to recover from her pain. On the other hand, Lauren is often able to help herself when she fatally shoots someone in immense pain; she frees herself from their overwhelming feeling. In moments like these, Lauren’s gun is more helpful in gaining power not only over the situation, but over herself/her feelings.
    Ultimately, though, in this particular environment I think that having a gun is seen as the more powerful option, even if this is not necessarily the case. As you stated in your post, a gun is something of a phallic symbol, and whoever holds it is the most masculine and, accordingly, the most powerful. When Mora is denied a gun, for example, he says that Lauren “doesn’t know how it is. She thinks she does, but she doesn’t” and then that he “knew she was a man. Just didn’t know she was the only man here” (310). Here we see a number of associations with the gun: first, that Lauren as a woman does not actually know how the world works and thus should not be trusted with the power of the gun; second, that the gun makes her the man in the group; and third, that Bankole’s trust in Lauren’s decision to withhold the gun from Mora makes him less of a man. The anger that Mora feels being denied the symbol of masculinity points to his wholehearted belief that the gun equals masculinity, and that masculinity equals power. Bankole points out to Mora that the only reason he and his daughter are still alive is because of the power of having allies and Mora says nothing more on the subject, but never apologizes. We see here, then, that even if at times the group becomes more helpful than the gun, it is still the gun that is seen in the culture as a more powerful aid.

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    1. I’m really glad that you brought up that moment where Mora calls Lauren the only man here. For me it was one of the key parts of the novel that highlighted the dynamics of being a woman in leadership. It is always interesting how powerful women and the men who follow them are denigrated simultaneously in these circumstances. Mora knows that a part of Lauren’s authority is that the men in the community listen to her (at least somewhat), and so if he can embarrass Bankole and the others, he can wield toxic masculinity to oust her position in the group. It’s very fraught when a part of your power as a leader is that people with more privilege than you are receptive to your orders. It’s a balance that can easily be toppled.

      I really liked how this post navigates the binary of masculinity and femininity in power, and I would definitely agree that one of Lauren’s biggest assets is her ability to identify allies. It amused me that she is very cautious initially when she starts out with Zahra and Harry and she chastises Harry for trying to help people they meet, but she jumps at the opportunity to help Natividad and Travis. That being said, like y’all mentioned in this post, she is definitely discerning about who she decides to bring into the group and assesses this based both on how marginalized the outsiders are and what resources they can contribute. I agree, Rachel, that weaponry carries such a strong symbolic relationship to power that we ignore other factors that may have a more direct relationship to survival and access. I find it difficult to separate guns from allies though. People as allies and the resources they bring with them through weaponry seem closely tied to me based on how Lauren notices things like Bankole’s wealth and access to a gun. Rather than stealing and assaulting people for what they have, Lauren, Zahra and Harry take the approach of bringing people into the fold, one that is collaborative but also strategic. It is definitely more ethical, but it’s not purely benevolent, which is in-keeping with Lauren’s pragmatism.

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  3. I love the simile that you found about how Lauren holds her pillowcase of supplies on her hip like a baby, and I hadn’t thought of it as a way to contrast her masculine self on the road with the mothering version of herself that she was forced to be back at home. Regarding the question about whether or not I think that guns or allies are important on the road, I think in this society it can be both reassuring and dangerous to have either. With a bigger group of allies, you draw attention to yourself, and especially with a group like Lauren’s, with former slaves, mostly women, and some children, I think it becomes an easy target for raiders. Even though the number of people in their group ends up being beneficial for Lauren, there could have easily been people in the group whose main goal was to earn the trust of the group and when they were on watch alone for the first time at night, to steal their food, the guns that weren’t on the sleeping bodies, and run. Because of this, I agree with you that Lauren’s apparent masculinity was in the favour of the group, because it gave them more protection from people that they were travelling with, who assumed that Lauren was a boy and thus more dangerous to attack, until they got to know them better. Guns, if they are visible, can become something of desire for people travelling on the road next to you, but I think if they are concealed while still remaining ready for use, they can be a helpful tool for ensuring survival (even though bullets can be difficult to come by). Ultimately, I think that even though Lauren’s group ended up being beneficial, having a gun would be more so, because in a society where everyone is a target and predator at the same time, it can be almost impossible to find someone you can trust.

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  4. It’s interesting that you discuss Earthseed and the connection you make from it to power. I also felt there was a strong connection between Lauren’s religion and the meaning of power that you describe. You wrote that Lacey argues Butler’s novel “demonstrates that coping with power requires adaptability, strength, and the willingness to take power for oneself”. For me this was a very strong link to Earthseed and Lauren’s application of it to their survival. A central tenet of Earthseed and Lauren’s core beliefs is that one must take responsibility for their own actions, not wait to be saved by a divine power. This idea of “taking power for oneself” runs along the same line; that one must be in control and be proactive if they are to be powerful and able to survive in the society that Butler creates in the text.

    In terms of your discussion questions, I think that while both the weapons and allies were valuable assets and contributed to the group’s survival, I think that the allies were more important. Because, for the majority of the journey, Lauren, Zarah, and Harry travelled in a large group, they had less need for weapons then they would have if they had been on their own. As Lauren says, a group is less likely to be robbed or attacked when they are large in number. In this sense, the group itself may be a more effective defense then the weapons they carry.

    Your second question brought up a new consideration for me, that is, the relationship between power and Lauren’s hyperempathy. Does her diagnosis and its effects impact her ability to hold power? I can see both sides of this considering that throughout the novel, and especially after she leaves Robledo she holds a great deal of power, over her own situation, as well as the increasing allies that you mention above. However, she also admits to being quite vulnerable because of the hyperempathy. I wonder, if Lauren did not have the strength of her allies, as you discuss above, if her diagnosis would be far more debilitating. I wonder if you considered how her hyperempathy and its impact on her ability to hold power, related to her characterization in terms of femininity? For instance you discuss how Lauren assumes a male identity in order to be perceived as more powerful. How do you think this ties in with hyperempathy?

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