At the end of Parable of the Sower, there is “A Conversation with Octavia E. Butler” in which she states that she would like readers to contemplate the question, “Where are we going?” So rarely do we as readers have the opportunity to know exactly what the writer intended us to ponder, so I would like to honor her intentions. I was particularly drawn to this question, as earlier in the semester Beth posed the question, “What does it mean to be going somewhere?” Beth’s is a profound question, as it may be examined in a personal, literary, social, or other context. I consider myself to be going somewhere because I am attending college as a stepping stone to meet my career goals. Since I was young, this was the life trajectory expected of me, in which I accumulate normative success, resume points, throughout my years.
My assumption, though I cannot be certain, is that many of my peers share a similar mindset. Your life is going somewhere if you accumulate some of the major “plot points”— college, career, romance, wedding, house, kids, grandkids, or a subset of these. It’s the life narrative that’s been told and perpetuated. But is your life going somewhere if you never seek or achieve those experiences? What if your life, instead of a series of changing circumstances, is the story of a changing and evolving self? Are you going somewhere? There is a conflict in personal as well as literary narratives as to whether progress should be measured by evolving plot or character.
To return to Octavia Butler’s work and the class blog, I would like to reference Eva’s recent blog post, “Unraveling in Parable of the Sower”. She examined the concept of going somewhere as it pertained to the decline of Robledo; Lauren prepared for a catastrophic event then adjusted to the idea of gradual decline. In real life, we often find a build-up of pressure and sometimes an immediate, cascading, devastating release such as an earthquake or a burst housing bubble. Regardless of the rate of build up and release, these narratives are considered as a series of events. This can help us understand the structure of Parable of the Sower as it is a story of Lauren’s changing circumstances, not changing self. As I explained in class on Monday, I consider Lauren to be a stagnant character. Yes, later in the reading she takes human life when earlier she rejected the notion. However, the earlier rejection was of Keith’s cold blooded murder for the sake of theft. She killed her attackers in self-defense, a reflection of the realist attitude she exhibited even early in her days in Robledo. When no one else cried danger, she kept her emergency pack stocked and regularly practiced shooting. She was under no illusion of safety. Additionally, she remains true to Earthseed despite the pressures of the road.
Other characters do go somewhere in terms of personal change though, and I do not want to disregard that. Most obviously, as time passes fellow travelers appear to become Earthseed converts. Those who believe her teachings are altering their entire ideology and in some cases becoming religious for the first time. It may be that they are more willing to support the idea of accepting and shaping change because of the harsh circumstances they have been placed in. The circumstances of a person on the road force them to become more of a realist as well, as evidenced particularly in Harry’s changing character. After the earthquake, Lauren describes Harry holding a gun and willing to kill:
“I hadn’t seen him that way before. It was impressive and frightening and wrong. Right for the situation and the moment, but wrong for Harry. He wasn’t the kind of man who ought ever to look that way. When had I begun thinking of him as a man rather than a boy?”
In this way, Butler does deliver both character and plot development. However, as Lauren is mostly unchanging, I feel that Butler’s focus is more on the trajectory of plot than characters.
Earlier in the semester, Emma G. wrote the blog post “Good Writing and Trust” in which she stated that The Turner House was “just plain bad” because “the novel never seems to go anywhere, plot-wise, and really at no point could I detect anything close to a coherent plot.” I consider it valid not to enjoy a book with this structure as everyone has different artistic preferences, but I would argue that the book goes somewhere with the characters instead. Their lives unfold somewhat gradually, naturally, and they are shaped along the way. Leah, who once concealed her struggles, learned to open up to David. Cha-Cha, who once avoided his mother and felt consumed with the idea of a haint, found peace in both the situation and perhaps generational identity by speaking with his mother. Additionally, I think the book forces you to go somewhere personally with your interpretation of the human condition.
After all, this work was fairly realistic (ghost aside, depending on your personal beliefs) and told life as it was for these people. They didn’t reach a resolution or have a mushy gushy everything is okay moment. They kept living their lives as we keep living ours. It caused me to reflect on the structure of my own life, in which there is no exposition, rising action, climax, and then resolution. It just keeps going. Additionally, your opinions of this type of work are like a mirror, reflecting something of yourself back (artistic interpretation is based on what you bring to the table as exemplified in this article). Do you buy into the narrative structure? What bothers you about it? And why is that? If this work bothered you or was not satisfying, that could be a reflection of your own beliefs about what it means to be going somewhere. While you contemplate and hopefully look forward, consider Butler’s question, “Where are we going?”