Now that we’re two-thirds of the way into N.K. Jemisin’s trilogy, I can’t help but notice that what I initially thought was a dramatic moment is actually a common technique that Jemisin uses throughout The Broken Earth for both aesthetic and literary purposes.
Although it wouldn’t be found on a Googled list of writing techniques, the rule of three has been used in many different genres and mediums in order to make a group of three words, phrases, events, or characters “more humorous, satisfying, or effective than other numbers in execution of the story and engaging the reader. The reader or audience of this form of text is also thereby more likely to remember the information conveyed…because having three entities combines both brevity and rhythm with having the smallest amount of information to create a pattern.” In modern times, the rule of three can be seen in literature (Three Little Pigs and Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol), educational slogans/catchphrases (“Stop, Drop, and Roll”), and public speaking (Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Non-Violence and Racial Justice” speech) to name a few.
The first time I noted the technique was in The Fifth Season when it was used back-to-back when Syenite is fighting with Edki the Guardian: “She scrambles backward again, tries to get to her feet again, tries again to reach for power, and fails in all three efforts” (261), “And then— And then— And then—” (262), and “And then/ the obelisk/ shatters” (263). Jemisin starts using the rule of three in this chapter to indicate that this moment of orogeny is significant because it’s unlike any that reader has experienced before as it’s the first time an orogene connects with an obelisk. Outside of writing in groups or repeats of three, Jemisin also effectively uses the number three as a theme in both small details and key plotlines of the trilogy. In the Stillness, everyone’s full name must consist of three parts: their personal name, their use-caste, and the name of their comm. These names are essentially titles that give its owners protection and purpose by demonstrating they have proper shelter and can fulfill their part in the “united” survival through the Fifth Seasons. In The Obelisk Gate, Jemisin reveals that the conflict in the trilogy centers around three factions: the humans, the stone eaters, and a third mystery group whose anonymity is being used to propel the plot as both Essun and the reader are unravelling the history of the Stillness together.
In her blog post “Tricking readers into acceptance,” Jemisin admits that she had to trick the audience into accepting ”a protagonist who [is] an ‘unlikeable’ fortysomething woman of color” by using three “displaced temporal narratives.” By splitting the protagonist’s past into three “different” characters, Jemisin gives the audience the opportunity to essentially get a three-for-one deal in which they can consume the complexities of Essun’s life with as little bias as possible through small, separate bite-sized experiences that the reader can fully immerse themselves in. This narrative style forces the audience to remember all the moments and trauma Essun goes through since the text requires the reader to simultaneously live through each “person” for the entirety of the first book. If only Essun’s story was known, the reader would most likely be unable to experience the intensity of her trauma and empathize with her character/actions in the whirlwind that is The Fifth Season.
Interestingly enough, after tumbling through several WIkipedia hyperlinks (as one tends to do), the Rule of Three is also a religious Wiccan belief that “states that whatever energy a person puts out into the world, be it positive or negative, will be returned to that person three times.” In fact, the Rule of Three also coincidentally goes by the Law of Return. When applied to The Broken Earth, the Rule of Three ensures that whoever put the moon out of the world’s orbit better be ready for its return. Even though we’ve discussed Jemisin’s various sources of inspiration from Octavia Butler, mythology, and Marvel comics, I find it too much of a coincidence that according to John Coughlin, the Rule of Three hypothesizes that “a literal reward or punishment [is] tied to one’s actions, particularly when it comes to working magic.” While Wiccans are associated with Pagan witchcraft, I couldn’t help but get goosebumps from connecting this to Alabaster’s explanation of orogeny as “magic” (205) in The Obelisk Gate. In fact, there’s also a similar idea surrounding the rule of three in Hindu Vedanta literature that “symbolizes that our energy returns our way as many times as needed for us to learn the lesson associated with it.” Perhaps Father Earth uses the Fifth Seasons as the energy being redirected to the Stillness’ remaining human population until the moon is returned. In other words, The Broken Trilogy can be known as the world’s longest hostage situation at this point.
If you’re interested, some other instances of this technique can be seen in pages 330, 354, 381, and 418 of The Fifth Season and pages 155, 191, 328, and 361 of The Obelisk Gate. I’d love to hear your interpretation!