Although slavery is considered to be the issue of the past, in the novel Parable of the Sower, Octavia Butler imagines that this social phenomenon may acquire a new form soon. The extension of powers of big conglomerates may lead to the aggravation of poverty and enslavement of employees. Apart from potential financial slavery, Butler draws readers’ attention to its form that already exists and is experienced by some women in marriage. This essay will provide a summary of the novel and the character analysis, as well as discuss the social issue of modern-day slavery. It will compare the author’s vision of the future with present-day problems to figure out whether there is a background for the emergence of neo-slavery.
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The story takes place in the near future, which is in 2024-2027 years when the world suffers from climate change. Lauren Olamina, a 15-year-old black girl, lives in a fictional town of Robledo, California. The whole place is surrounded by a wall that protects residents from the invasion of drug addicts and thieves from outside. Her neighborhood consists of poor people who spend days growing food and training to use weapons in case they are attacked by the community from behind the wall. Lauren predicts that the barrier will be broken one day, and it is necessary to take measures to safeguard the neighborhood. However, no one listens to her, and the normal life continues even when the raids of outside thieves become more frequent.
Eventually, Lauren’s prediction comes true when one day, pyromaniacs from behind the wall destroy it and set the town on fire. Lauren’s family dies, as well as most of her neighborhood, so she and two other survivors head north. On their way, other people join them, some of them being former debt slaves. They also meet a man called Bankole, who develops a romantic relationship with Lauren and suggest going to his land in northern California. Not every one of the travelers survives, but in the end, they come to that land and find Bankole’s family dead and the area devastated. Lauren gives her community a choice of whether to stay there or proceed with their wandering. The group decides to settle down in that place and begin a better life with the help of seeds that Lauren has brought with her. She calls them Earthseed, and it is not only real seeds but also a religion invented by her, the God in which is the change.
Lauren Olamina is the protagonist of the story, and the novel is written in the form of entries in her diary. She is the truth-seeker since she does not take things at face value and is not subject to collective delusion and denial. Being a daughter of a Baptist minister, she does not adhere to her father’s religion, although she agrees to be baptized. Instead, she invents her own faith, the central concept of which is the change. Perhaps, it conveys the thought that people cannot thrive if their lifestyle, mindset, and social order remain invariable when there is a need for change. Another remarkable peculiarity of this girl is her hyperempathy, which is the ability to feel pleasure and pain of those around her. Lauren obtained this syndrome as a result of her mother’s drug use during pregnancy. Though Laurence’s father considered it a drawback, this ability seems to have helped her to understand people better and to become a good leader for the group of survivors.
To explore the theme of slavery, which will be discussed further, it is necessary to consider two more characters: Zahra Moss and Emery Solis. Zahra Moss is one of three wives of Richard Moss, a rich man who believes that “God wants men to be patriarchs, rulers and protectors of women, and fathers of as many children as possible” (Butler ch. 4). He bought her like a slave and treated her as if she were his property. Luckily for her, she survived after the destruction of Robledo and joined Lauren in her journey to the north. Thus, Zahra’s role in the novel is to show the kind of slavery that women may suffer from in their married life.
Emery Tanaka Solis used to work for an agribusiness conglomerate as a debt slave before she joined Lauren’s group. Her mother urged her to marry when she was 13 to protect her from starving. In the first few years of her marriage, Emery gave birth to three children: a daughter, Tori, and two boys. After her husband’s death, her sons were taken from her against her will by the conglomerate. Being left alone with her daughter, she decided to escape from the conglomerate, and eventually found shelter in Lauren’s community. The character of Emery serves to show what contemporary slavery could look like if large companies were given unlimited power over their workers.
Discussion of a Social Issue
The theme of slavery is one of the prominent motifs of the novel. The concept of debt slavery is revealed through the story of Emery Solis, who was forced to work for the conglomerate. The enterprise’s employees “had to pay for food, for clothing” and received wages “in company scrip, not in cash” (Butler ch. 23). They could spend their earned vouchers only at the company shop, which limited their choices. Furthermore, their “wages … were never quite enough to pay the bills,” and since workers could not leave their employers if they owed them money, people were enslaved by the company (Butler ch. 23). It means that they could be arrested, punished, or “traded and sold with or without their consent, with or without their families” (Butler ch. 23). The novel also describes a city of Olivar, which became a stronghold of slavery after being bought by the company called KSF. People there accepted their miserable position in exchange for safety, guaranteed employment, and food. Thus, Butler predicts that one day, large companies may take people under control and deprive them of personal liberty.
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Another side of slavery is concerned with women like Zahra Moss. Her husband seemed to collect women as if they were his trophies. Butler writes that “he could pick up twenty women like that if he could afford to feed them” (ch. 4). Richard Moss would not let Zahra receive education or go anywhere she wanted and generally treated her like his possession. Since Butler included the character of Zahra in her novel, she seems to believe that in the future, women will still suffer from gender discrimination.
Nowadays, things are not so terrifying, as described in the novel. Workers have the support of the government in case their employers oppress them. However, the situation is reversed as far as the Hispanics or the Blacks are concerned (Kouhestani 900). Butler once said in her interview that these “people have been held against their will and forced to work after having been seduced by lies about good salaries” (qtd. in Kouhestani 900). It is not common knowledge; thus, Butler reveals to her readers the truth that they do not notice in their everyday life (Kouhestani 901). Furthermore, present-day companies sometimes abuse their power when they employ a cheap workforce and do not care about workers’ safety. People who have to earn money in such poor conditions often have no alternative, which makes it possible to regard them as contemporary slaves.
As for marital slavery, it is not a prospective problem because it has existed for centuries. In fact, this issue is expected to be eliminated in the future, which will mark the establishment of equal rights for both genders. However, some females are still treated like slaves by their husbands. Regarding the position of Black women, Frazier states that “slavery and its afterlife continues to shape all of our present lives and ooze into the future” (69). Thus, the long-standing issue of female slaves is still present in the contemporary world.
With regard to the current situation, Butler’s predictions conveyed in the novel are likely to come true one day. Lauren posed a question in her diary: “Is that the future: Large numbers of people stuck in either President-elect Donner’s version of slavery or Richard Moss’s?” (ch. 4). Sorrowful as it is, this kind of future may be the one that is awaiting people if governments let corporations have unlimited power, and individuals do not review their values.
To sum up, the dystopian novel by Octavia Butler is an eye-opener for its readers since it discloses the social issue of slavery, which is reviving in the contemporary world. This problem has gained a new shape as planters from the past has transformed into the owners of large companies taking advantage of people without caring about them. Thus, Butler warns that in the future, people may be enslaved either by conglomerates or by domineering men.
Butler, Octavia E. Parable of the Sower: A powerful tale of a dark and dystopian future. Hachette UK, 2014.
Frazier, Chelsea M. “Troubling ecology: Wangechi Mutu, Octavia Butler, and Black Feminist Interventions in Environmentalism.” Critical Ethnic Studies, vol. 2, no.1, 2016, pp. 40-72.
Kouhestani, Maryam. “Environmental and Social Crises: New Perspective on Social and Environmental Injustice in Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower.” International Journal of Social Science and Humanity, vol. 5, no. 10, 2015, pp. 898-902.