Essun shows incredible strength throughout the book, persevering through periods of enslavement and great personal loss, including when she forces herself to murder her own son to save him from a life of captivity and servitude. I think my opinion of Essun (or as she is called at the time, Syenite’s) killing of Corundum is likely to be controversial. I do not think Essun is a “bad person” for killing her son: I think she is extraordinarily brave and strong for this act. Essun knows that if Corundum is captured by the Guardians, they will turn him into a node maintainer who is permanently sedated and tortured by the Fulcrum, and bound to a wire chair for the rest of his life. She will not allow this life for her son, and thinks, “She will not let them take him, enslave him, turn his body into a tool and his mind into a weapon and his life into a travesty of freedom” (Jemisin 441). Essun then unleashes all of her power to shatter the world, in turn killing her son, as she believes “Better that a child never have lived at all than live as a slave. Better that he die. Better that she die. Alabaster will hate her for this, for leaving him alone, but Alabaster is not here, and survival is not the same thing as living” (441). Essun understands that there is a fate worse than death, and enslavement by the Fulcrum falls under this category. Her decision to kill her son is out of love for Corundum, who she knows is better off dead than having his mind and body enslaved for his whole life. While most see maternal instinct as caring for and showering children with affection, Essun’s maternal instinct in this dire situation leads her to do the right thing for her son.
In Essun’s decision to murder her child, Jemisin alludes to the true story of Margaret Garner, a fugitive slave who escaped with her family and killed her two-year-old daughter as they were about to be captured and returned to slavery by U.S. Marshals. The story also inspired Toni Morrison’s Beloved, in which the fugitive slave Sethe kills her daughter, Beloved, so that she will not have to face a life of enslavement. In each of these situations, the mother is trapped in an impossible situation: whether or not to let her child endure a miserable life of hardship. In each case, the mother sees death as a better option than the bondage her child will face. I think that Jemisin’s allusion to the Garner story reveals the toll that slavery takes on humans, both on Earth and in the Stillness. In both situations, it changes maternal instinct from the giving of care and affection to the necessity of tragically ending a child’s life. In The Fifth Season, Essun’s experience of enslavement forces her to see death as the only option for her young son, which is heartbreaking.
On the other hand, Alabaster does not agree with Essun’s decision to kill their son. Years later, he tells her, “I understand why you killed Corundum… But I’ll never forgive you for doing it” (Jemisin 447). I think it is interesting that Alabaster has this attitude towards the murder because he himself has had his own children turned into node maintainers. While I personally believe Alabaster’s inability to forgive Essun reflects his own weakness, I wonder if others would take a different perspective. Is Essun cruel and inhumane for killing her own child to save him from a life of enslavement? Or does her act merely reveal an understanding of the toll that slavery takes on human lives and an attempt at saving her child from it?
Finally, I was interested in the difference in Essun and Alabaster’s attitudes towards their son’s murder. Their personalities and views on life consistently clash, and I see Essun as a foil to Alabaster. I think Essun is brave and has become empowered by the hardship she faces, while Alabaster, despite his great power, has become passive as a result of years of oppression. Their differing world views are obvious as Essun discusses her desire to join the pirate ship in Meov (the Claslu). Alabaster asks her what she is “looking for” and why she is “restless,” to which Essun responds that she doesn’t know (370). However, subconsciously Essun thinks, “A way to change things. Because this is not right” (371). Essun cannot be idle in the face of her world’s injustice. She seeks to change everything, and create a better world for future generations of orogenes. Alabaster tells her, “You can’t make anything better… The world is what it is… live the pirate life if that makes you happy. But stop looking for anything better than this” (371). Alabaster does not share Essun’s ambition to change the world. He tells her “I’ve never wanted much from life. Just to be able to live it, really. I’m not like you, Syen. I don’t need to prove myself. I don’t want to change the world, or help people, or be anything great. I just want… this [his family]” (422). Alabaster does not yearn for much from his life aside from simple things such as raising his son, Corundum. Meanwhile, Essun grows restless from this life that satisfies him, and feels the need to join the pirates and try to make change in the world. Her strength and desire for a better life contrast with Alabaster’s lack of interest in trying to change the oppressive world they live in.