Octavia Butler’s continual theme of challenged consent seems to run through more than just one of her novels. Readers see it again in Fledgling. However, Butler puts a spin on this one – her characters acknowledge the power and influence that have marred the 21st century understanding of consent.
No mistake, consent is challenged here. We see that right off the bat when Shori first encounters and bites Wright. Her bite has an immediate effect on him, which forces him to do a 180 degree spin from his original position on a no biting policy, in which he responds “Goddammit” (Butler 10) to her biting him, followed by him “jerking his hand away [from her]” (10), clearly illustrating the lack of consent. Looking at this scene, it is quite clear that Shori’s bite is both a surprise, and an unwanted one at that. Promptly soon after, Shori “ducked my head and licked away the blood, licked the wound I had made. He tensed, almost pulling his hand away. Then he stopped, seemed to relax. He let me take his hand between my own” (11). Following that, he tells her “It feels good” (11). He responds “Do I?” to her answer, and then “squeezed past the division between the seats to my side of the car, and put me [Shori] on his lap” (11).
So, there’s a lot going on in this scene – but there are two things to focus on: whether or not this relationship is consensual, and whether it can ever truly be consensual hereafter, and the questioning of the possible taking advantage of someone who may be a minor. This post will focus on the former, and then revisit the latter in another post later on.
Can a relationship that starts out on uneven footing ever become even, and therefore consensual, after the initial steps? I would argue no. Shori might not know who she is at this point in the novel, but she is fully aware that she surpasses normal – she is stronger, faster and more perceptive than a human. Additionally, while at this point in the novel she does not remember that her saliva holds chemical/hormonal catalyst that will allow her to create a symbiont relationship with a human, the dynamic change in the aforementioned scene is indicative of power – one that she explores both with Wright and other humans for about a week, prior to reuniting with her family.
However, is not remembering an excuse, or an explanation? Or both? And can she be redeemed from it? It seems that it doesn’t particularly make a difference until readers examine intent. As the novel is told from Shori’s perspective, her intent is going to make or break her as a character. But she doesn’t remember – and then she does. And she continues to indulge in a relationship with Wright. It is an explanation, as opposed to an excuse because she confronts the ethical issue later on in the novel. She offers Wright a choice, one that may count for nothing because he has become dependent on her in their symbiotic relationship, but nonetheless, there is a choice. But readers do not condemn her for this choice, and choosing to offer him one. This seems to stem from the acknowledgement that there is an ethical dilemma. If this had not come to her attention, Shori would be less of an admirable character, given her history, struggles and hopes that readers have for her as a character trying to rediscover and fit in with a world that she once belonged to.