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Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower is a dystopian future based novel that follows the coming of age journey of protagonist Lauren Olamina, a young, black female faced with the difficult task to survive her travels North through California in search of establishing her religious community, Earthseed, after her neighborhood in Robledo is destroyed by thieves and drug-addicted murderers. Lauren and two other survivors from her neighborhood invasion, Zahra and Harry, accompany her on her travels North in hopes of creating a better future for themselves to escape the turmoil of violence, arson, and thievery that exists in the economically and socially collapsed world they live in. Along the way, the group takes in other refugees that soon become a part of Lauren’s Earthseed community called Acorn at the end of the novel. Lauren’s central belief in Earthseed that“God is change” helps her adapt to survive in the post-apocalyptic landscape of California. Two prominent themes in the novel are freedom and slavery, both utilized by Butler in different ways of retelling African-American history in the context of the future. Butler depicts slavery in the novel to manifest in two different ways, one of the future being debt slavery triggered by capitalism and the other bonded labor in rural areas of the nation, painting the image of African-American plantation slavery. Lauren serves as a symbol of freedom from the past through her journey to escape the crumbling state of society and establish new life elsewhere, all while helping others join her along the way. Both uses of these themes contribute to Butler’s vision of the future where freedom is diminishing and slavery is permeating, a society that echoes the past for African-Americans and their struggles for human rights.
Lauren’s character rejects this idea proving that the determination to rebuild a community once destroyed in her life is possible and can mend the universal loss of humanity society is facing. Butler’s world envisions the regression of America’s “freedom” and progress to a slave state, where the future now mirrors the past. One of the central manifestations of slavery in the novel is debt slavery in which a person is economically bound to their laborer or debtor to pay off debt. The prevalence of debt slavery in the crumbling economy of Butler’s dystopian future pushes forth her message that slavery has not ceased to exist beyond its birth on the plantations and has taken a modernized form through the exploitative effects of capitalism. We are first introduced to the existence of modern-day debt slavery in chapter 11 where continuous robberies in Lauren’s walled neighborhood of Robledo prompts local families to leave the walled community in search of security. The neighborhood is informed of the opportunity to leave Robledo and settle in Olivar, a coastal city recently bought out by KSF, a Japanese-German-Canadian corporation that aims to dominate the farming and solar industry along the coastline through enticing its residents with plenty of jobs, security, and a guaranteed food supply. In exchange for these benefits, citizens will pay high taxes and be paid low salaries, driving up the cost of living to a premium. Desperate to stimulate its economy, the citizens of Olivar voted for KSF to take over and revitalize the job market. Olivar’s take over sparks debate amongst members of the community, especially between Lauren and her stepmother, Cory. Lauren and her father both recognize the true cost of KSF’s takeover: making capital by placing the residents, its workers, into perpetual debt by offering low salaries for labor and high taxes. She notes how this exploitative method is an “old company-town trick” to “get people into debt, hang on to them, and work them harder” (Butler 111).
Cory disagrees and tells Lauren that there’s “no reason to believe the company would allow that kind of thing” (Butler 113). Lauren recognizes Cory’s desperation to escape the uncertainty of everyday life but cannot reconcile with the idea of life in Olivar being better than Robledo knowing they’ll have to sacrifice their freedom for security and live in debt. “Freedom is dangerous, Cory, but it’s precious, too. You can’t just throw it away or let it slip away,” (Butler 112) she emphasizes, explaining to her stepmother that even though Robledo isn’t the safest, their community has more free will compared to Olivar, where they’ll be enslaved by debt. Olivar’s privatization by KSF is meant to “illustrate how contemporary capitalistic enterprises like corporations, in their disregard for humanity because of hunger for the almighty dollar, oppress people as much as the antebellum system of slavery did in the historical past”(Allen 2009). KSF serves as the perpetrator of modernized debt slavery, a capitalistic machine that manipulates the general public into believing that working for their corporation will provide them with the benefit of security, while in actuality, results in its workers having their freedom stripped by spending a lifetime paying off debt to the company. The evolution of slavery transcends race in the context of the novel, where anyone can be exploited for profit. Furthermore, the “KSF situation is also reminiscent of how mining companies in places like West Virginia treated their workers in early American history, as well as the system of sharecropping that developed in the South after the Civil War” (Allen 2009). Butler creates a parallel between the future and the past of power struggles between workers and their companies to warn that if there are no regulations enforced on enormous corporations within our generation, history may repeat itself at the expense of human rights. Slavery also manifests in its most “traditional” form where “black and Latino workers are held in bondage by farm owners in the South” (Allen 2009). Butler continues to allude to America’s past of slavery by illustrating how farm labored work still persists in rural areas of the nation, evoking the image of African-American plantation slavery. The juxtaposition between debt slavery triggered by capitalism in cities and slavery on farms presents two different landscapes of the past and the future coexisting. We discover the continuation of bonded labor that exists in Lauren’s world later in the novel where she meets Emery, a runaway ex-slave who reveals her past of labored work on a farm to pay off debt. In chapter 23, the group stumbles across Emery and her daughter sleeping at their campsite.
They take them both in and she recounts to Lauren her experience of having to pay labor for food and shelter and how the low wages they made could not meet their living expenses. She and her now dead husband were slaves that were “forced to work longer hours for less pay, could be “disciplined” if they failed to meet their quotas, could be traded and sold with or without their consent, with or without their families…”(Butler 265). Emery’s experience of oppression by her slave master describes the same abuse that would occur on plantations hundreds of years ago. Slave masters would utilize these same tactics to manipulate their slaves and prevent them from disobeying them. Her experience also provides evidence of the return to an agricultural economy dependent on labor, considering how massive amounts of the population have fled cities destroyed by violence, theft, arson, etc. We see this exact image in chapter 20 where Lauren and her group detour around the Bay Area that’s being destroyed by arsonists and thieves that “seem bent on destroying what’s left” and are “desperate, fleeing people of their weapons, money, food, and water…”(Butler 226). The drastic change in the landscape of Lauren’s world further illustrates how America is reverting to its past of a slave economy, emphasizing Butler’s idea that history is cyclical and that slavery is not a thing of the past and will continue to persist throughout time unless dealt with. Freedom is utilized thematically through Lauren and her journey North in search of a better life, leaving the past behind her.
She represents a new hope for life in a world that is deteriorating around her, shown through her determination to help herself and others escape their difficult circumstances and create a new settlement up North. Butler portrays Lauren to be an ex-slave and a symbol of freedom for others like her to triumph their past and believe that life can flourish in a world so destructive. Lauren’s travels involves her and her group encountering several disadvantaged groups and individuals whom they help guide on their travels with them. She forms an alliance with a racially mixed couple, Travis and Natividad, after saving their water from being stolen and protecting them against a wild dog attack. Later, the group saves Allie and Jill, former prostitutes, from the rubble of a collapsed house and shelters ex-slaves Emery and her daughter Tori, as well as Grayson and his daughter Doe. Earlier in the novel, Lauren was highly suspicious of others, especially in chapter 16 where she refused to let a seemingly innocent elderly man cook his potatoes in their fire. Now, Lauren puts herself at risk to help others in need and provides them with food and supplies from her camp, as well as the additional safety of travelling in a pack. Her group now consists of ex-slaves, prostitutes, and minorities which she’s helped get back up on their feet, mirroring the leadership of Harriet Tubman, an ex-slave who helped slaves escape Northward to Canada through the underground railroad (Allen 2009). Similarly, Lauren is symbolic of being the conductor of her own underground railroad, providing the opportunity for herself and others in need the chance, the freedom, the begin again (Manuel 2004). Butler draws a parallel between these two black heroines as a liberator for the disadvantaged to leave their traumatic past behind and start anew. These parallels are significant to how Butler retells African-American history in the context of the 21st century in the novel and how Lauren’s journey to Canada to found Earthseed, her religious community, is similar to slaves travelling Northward seeking freedom. Acorn, the first Earthseed community she establishes at the end of the novel is symbolic of freedom from the past and in the same way represents the spiritual liberation of slaves triumphing slavery (Manuel 2004). In chapter 25, the last chapter of the novel, one of the verses reads “Seed to tree, tree to forest,” representing the completion of Lauren’s task to survive her journey up until this point and establish a community. Her goal of establishing her Earthseed community is now coming into fruition, much like a seed growing into a tree and then expanding into a forest, like how Lauren’s group has continually grown in members along the way. Lauren’s empathetic nature is the antidote to the loss of humanity in society. Her strong leadership qualities to guide and direct others under her guidance, although she is young, shows how adapted and quickly matured she has become to the world that demands such strength to survive and highlights Butler’s message that the belief in hope and freedom to change your fate in an unforgiving world is possible.
Slavery and freedom are both prominent themes in the novel and are represented in various ways. Butler blends her view of the future and the past by contrasting debt slavery in cities and farms to demonstrate America’s regression to the past. Lauren captures the essence of freedom in the novel through her willingness to help others leave their past behind and start anew in Acorn. Parable of the Sower remains relevant to our time in how it portrays the issues America is currently facing today to its highest degree in the future. Butler’s vision of the future serves as a warning to how the lack of regulations for capitalism, the drug industry and climate change will result in society’s collapse. She urges today’s generation to take actions against these prevalent issues or else they may have dire consequences in the near future.
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