Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler

Core text

Butler, Octavia. Parable of the Sower. Four Walls Eight Windows, 1993.

Summary

This is the first of two novels (Parable of the Talents) centered around a young Black teenager named Lauren Oya Olamina. Due to climate change, a scarcity of resources (especially food and water) has led to a collapse of institutions and a rapid rise in violent crime. Inside a walled community, Lauren and her family live in fear of the world around them characterized by drugs, murder and “debt slavery” amid unchecked corporate greed. Lauren resists her father’s traditional religious views and begins to develop her own new religion called Earthseed focused on humanity’s future. As Lauren predicts, the gated community is attacked and her family is murdered. She manages to escape due to her own survival training and begins a trek across California with other climate refugees looking for water, food and shelter. Lauren has what she calls “hyperempathy” syndrome, which causes her to experience bodily the pain of others, including animals. Eventually she founds her new religion in a collective she calls Acorn with the other refugees. Lauren believes that humans will have to travel to another planet in order to leave behind their flaws that led to their responsibility for climate change and inability to manage it.

This novel presents several interesting avenues for teaching climate change, including the roles of community, family, religion, natural resources, and empathy, as well as contrasting dystopia and utopia.

Teaching Resources

  • Ira Mark Milne, and Timothy Sisler. Novels for students. Volume 21 presenting analysis, context and criticism on commonly studied novels, 2005. This series can be useful as a starting point for early undergraduates to get oriented to a text, especially if they are non-majors just beginning their first literary research paper/project. This volume has a section on this novel.
  • Rebecca Wanzo. “Apocalyptic Empathy: A Parable of Postmodern Sentimentality.” Obsidian III: Literature in the African Diaspora Vol. 6, No. 2 / Vol. 7, No. 1 Fall/Winter 2005 – Spring/Summer 2006, Page 72- 85. This article is useful in thinking about affect (here sentimentality) as it relates to political action. It also address questions about religion in relation to politics.
  • “‘FAILING ECONOMIES AND TORTURED ECOLOGIES’: OCTAVIA BUTLER’S PARABLE OF THE SOWER AND PARABLE OF THE TALENTS.” Positive Pollutions and Cultural Toxins: Waste and Contamination in Contemporary U.S. Ethnic Literatures, by JOHN BLAIR GAMBER, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln; London, 2012, pp. 25–56. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1d9nqmh.5.
  • Mayer, Sylvia. “Genre and Environmentalism: Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, Speculative Fiction, and the African American Slave Narrative.” Restoring the Connection to the Natural World: Essays on the African American Environmental Imagination. Ed. Sylvia Mayer. Munster, Ger.: LIT, 2003. 175–196.
  • Phillips, Jerry. “The Institution of the Future: Utopia and Catastrophe in Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower.” Novel: A Forum on Fiction 35.2/3 Contemporary African American Fiction and the Politics of Postmodernism (Spring – Summer, 2002), pp. 299–311. JSTOR DOI: 10.2307/1346188. This article contextualizes the novel within a canon of philosophy concerned with modernity, the state, utopias, and apocalypse.

Discussion Questions

Check out the very useful guide at http://parableofthesoweratunc.web.unc.edu, especially on issues of the Environment created by an introductory-level English class at UNCC.
Some other questions directly related to climate change in the novel could be:

  1. How do changes in climate contribute to major shifts in social and political structures? Consider the relationship of scarcity and violence. In addition to examining this question in the novel, students could also research a real world context in which these kinds of effects are already taking place (ex. the “Arab Spring” uprisings in 2010).
  2. Examine the origins and effects of Lauren’s hyperempathy syndrome. What, if any, distinctions are being drawn between humans and other animals? How does this syndrome contribute to Lauren’s desire for social and spiritual change? What are the limits and powers of empathy in responding to climate change?
  3. What is the conceived relationship between humans and the natural world in the Lauren’s new religion, Earthseed? How are these relationships similar or different to other real world systems that structure human interaction with the environment (cultural, religious, economic)? (This could also involve student research).
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