Parable of the Talents by Octavia Butler

This post was developed and authored by Kaitlin Mondello, Ph.D.

Core Text

Butler, Octavia. Parable of the Talents. Seven Stories Press, 1998. 

Summary

In this sequel to Parable of the Sower, Butler continues the story of Lauren Oya Olamina and her religious movement called Earthseed. Butler interweaves multiple narrators through collected journals, mostly Olamina and her daughter Larkin, but also occasionally her husband Bankole and her brother Marcus. Both Bankole and Larkin accuse Olamina of choosing Acorn and Earthseed over them. But all of Olamina’s care and work come to a horrific end when a fascist religious fanatic is elected who establishes Christian America (CA). CA violently raids Acorn, which is accused of being a “heathen” “cult.” Bankole dies in the raid, while an infant Larkin is kidnapped and sent to live with a CA family that abuses her and where she is renamed. All the members of Acorn are enslaved as CA turns the community into a modernized colonial-style slave plantation where Christianity is used to justify the horrors of slavery. After enduring immense suffering and sexual violence, Olamina orchestrates a rebellion and escape with other members of Acorn, all of whom begin to look for their stolen children. Prior to the raid, Olamina discovers that her brother Marcus has been enslaved as a prostitute and she buys his freedom, but Marcus will not accept Earthseed and instead becomes a famous minister in CA. Ultimately, Olamina builds Earthseed into a powerful successful and international movement, but the novel is surprisingly more focused on Larkin’s anger against her mother. Larkin becomes close to her uncle Marcus but he keeps her from Olamina who cannot forgive him this betrayal when she discovers it toward the end of the novel when Larkin finally finds her. There is no resolution between Olamina, Larkin, and Marcus. 

Teaching Resources

  • Allen, Marlene D.”Octavia Butler’s Parable Novels and the “Boomerang” of African American History.” Callaloo, vol. 32 no. 4, 2009, pp. 1353-1365. “Butler’s novel series Parable of the Sower (1993) and Parable of the Talents (1998) reflect her emphasis upon asserting an Afrocentric aesthetic in her science fiction worlds. […] Butler uses African American history in the two texts as a synecdoche for the cycling of racism and sexism throughout all of human history. Butler offers the story of Lauren Olamina and Earthseed as a parable for how we might avoid the “boomeranging” of history. Thus, she teaches us as readers both important lessons about history as well as techniques we might use to survive through the impending environmental, societal, and economic crises that are destined to evolve as a result of our current actions (or inactions)” (1353). 
  • Morris, David. “Octavia Butler’s (R)Evolutionary Movement for the Twenty-First Century.” Utopian Studies, vol. 26, no. 2, 2015, pp. 270–288. Abstract: “In the ruined landscape of twenty-first-century California, Lauren Olamina, the main character of Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents, founds a new religion, Earthseed. Earthseed deifies the cosmic pervasiveness of change with a simple statement: “God is Change.” While several scholars have usefully explicated the religious origins and affective qualities of the Earthseed community, I argue that Earthseed goes further, challenging the 1990s utopian imagination to invent new modes of organization that can work within new social and material realities. As a religion, Earthseed aims at changing humanity as a whole species, a goal so large that it requires radically new models of social and political organizing. In the second novel, Olamina changes Earthseed from a local, sustainable community to a decentralized movement that parasitically draws energy from social ruin. In doing so, Earthseed offers a challenge to the utopian thinking of the 1990s: fidelity to utopian goals requires new methods that can allow a utopian movement to thrive even in the absence of the robust public sphere that supported revolutionary social movements of the 1960s.”
  • Wanzo, Rebecca. “Apocalyptic Empathy: A Parable of Postmodern Sentimentality.” Obsidian III, vol. 6/7, no. 2/1, Fall/Winter2005-Spring/Summer2006 2005, pp. 72–86. Abstract: “This essay analyzes the relationship between feelings and politics in Octavia E. Butler’s novels “Parable of the Sower” and “Parable of the Talents.” Comparison of the sentimentalism approach used by the author and Harriet Beecher Stowe in the novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”; Characteristics of Butler’s novels which are categorize as postmodernism; Significance of feeling of the novels’ heroines to political activism.” 

Discussion Questions

  • Is Earthseed an environmentalist movement?  Throughout the novel, Larkin critiques Earthseed, particularly its mission to “scatter among the stars.” Debate the merits and drawbacks of this tenet from Olamina’s and Larkin’s points of view.
  • What role does religion play in the environmental and social crises of the novel? Students may compare and contrast Earthseed and Christian America, or consider the relation of Earthseed to science, especially evolutionary biology, or deep ecology.
  • Christian America and the modern slave plantation they create are based on the history of colonial slavery which used Christianity to justify its atrocities. At the same time, the election of President Jarret is arguably a prediction of the election of Donald Trump and his policy of separating children from their families at the border. Consider one of these historical events in relation to the novel. 

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