Community is a critical aspect of Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower as it is vital in the struggle for existence for people in a chaotic world. The evolution and adaptation of change, which are common themes in the novel, reflect Charles Darwin’s theories in The Origin of Species. Communities rely on the co-adaptation of their individual inhabitants to evolve and survive as a collective structure offers better protection and capabilities similar to the co-adaptive relationships in the biological world.
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Community in the Parable of the Sower
Community is the central theme of the novel, being synonymous with survival in the dystopian world. The protagonist originally lives in a walled community, one of the few safe havens where people can maintain a decent and normal life when chaos, poverty, and anarchy are prevalent outside. The community is small and interdependent, attempting to survive through desperate means under the pressures of the outside world.
The foundation of the community seems to be a common ideology and belief. For example, the walled community values education and work ethic while being seemingly Christian. However, as Lauren notes, “The community, the families, individual family members. … We’re a rope, breaking, a single strand at a time” (Butler 42). She refers to how the modern civilization of the walled community is gradually collapsing into the metaphorical darkness of the world outside.
Once the gated community collapsed, and Lauren made her way North, she gradually began forming a new community with the aid of those who supported her ideology of the Earthseed. The collective environment around an ideology, as well as the erection of physical barriers to isolate the community from outside influences, is the pattern which communities follow as they undergo collapse and become new ones as old members join new organizations in order to survive.
This can be examined through Darwin’s Theory of Natural Selection, where he wrote: “In social animals, it will adapt the structure of each individual for the benefit of the whole community; if the community profits by the selected change” (Darwin 67). It implies that biological and social communities are inherently adaptable, incorporating members that are beneficial to their well-being and thus undergoing change caused by evolution.
Gender and Masculinity
The dystopian society described in the Parable of the Sower has strong divisions based on stereotypical roles and gender essentialism. The original walled community that Lauren grows up in supports this as well since women are expected to take care of homes while men venture outside the walls. There are certain expectations, and women largely depend on men for survival. While neither feminine nor stereotypical masculine traits are inherently negative, such strict gender roles are problematic and serve as a critique of society where females are not equipped to survive individually, but men lack the empathy to ensure stability in the community.
Furthermore, men are forced into masculinity and aggression in order to remain visibly confrontational and be a threat to others as stated by one of the characters, “out here, the trick is to avoid confrontation by looking strong” (Butler 202). The effect of gender binaries results in men being unable to demonstrate signs of empathy or softness, and in this way, they are extremely hindered.
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These gender politics of the novel can be examined through Darwin’s notion of co-adaptation, “I can see no limit to the amount of change, to the beauty and complexity of the coadaptations between all organic beings, one with another and with their physical conditions of life, which may have been affected in the long course of time through nature’s power of selection, that is by the survival of the fittest” (Darwin 83).
Co-adaptation is a mutually beneficial relationship among species, with each using its skills, forms, and characteristics to contribute to the survival of both. Therefore, in other words, the community gender dynamics described in Butler’s novel, although not necessarily morally correct, are a result of social evolution. To overcome natural selection, the structure was created where men equipped with survival skills are the protectorate of the group while women foster the internal development of the community.
The whole novel is a commentary on the concept of capitalism and privatization, which are only concerned with financial gain and economical as well as political domination of industries. Consequently, it degrades society and the environment, leading to the chaos described. In this context, power becomes critical. The city of Oliver, where Lauren lives, is relatively wealthy and uses its money to buy security to some extent.
Privatization in itself is a natural concept of capitalism, but challenges facing mankind, eventually lead to the privatization of natural resources such as water. This creates barriers to access for the poor and leads to the commercialization of the water supply, as in the novel, which ultimately determines who can live. This inherently goes against the natural order explained by Darwin as the economic system that overrides the ecological one. Communities become dysfunctional due to such power dynamics and a lack of access to the basic resources for the poorest populations, serving as the foundation of the civilizational crisis in the novel.
The concept of community is relatively complex in Butler’s novel and can be examined from the perspectives of structure, gender, and economics. However, communities and their inhabitants naturally follow the rules of the biological world suggested by Darwin regarding natural selection and coadaptation as a matter of survival. Therefore, the change, albeit sometimes destructive, is essential for evolution and survival.
Butler, Octavia E. Parable of the Sower. Four Walls Eight Windows, 1993.
Darwin, Charles. The Origin of Species. Gramercy, 1995.