The Novels (Masterplots II: African American Literature, Revised Edition)
When Parable of the Sower was first published, its image of Robledo as a wealthy gated community living in fear of the have-nots beyond its walls seemed dystopian. The continued development of gated communities since has made its vision of the future more plausible. By contrast, the company town of Olivar, where people are promised food, employment, and a modicum of security in exchange for total submission to their employment, is somewhat more alien to the experience of most readers, but it still has recognizable historical analogs in the company store system of the nineteenth century.
Within Robledo’s illusory security, young Lauren Olamina grows increasingly frustrated with her parents’ refusal to confront the reality of their new world. While they prefer to look backward to a lost time of prosperity, Lauren develops a new religion called Earthseed and writes its sacred text, The Books of the Living. When she attempts to present it to her neighbors, she is at first mocked, but in time she begins to gain their attention, particularly as the walls that protect Robledo from the poverty and desperation outside begin to break down. In the end, Lauren leads a small surviving remnant northward to found a new community, Acorn, on land donated by Bankole, one of the refugees. Even as Acorn represents hope, however, Lauren and her followers recognize the necessity to defend their small community and preserve its ability to grow its own...
(The entire section is 546 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
In Parable of the Sower, Lauren Olamina is the only daughter of a Baptist minister who leads the family’s walled community in California in the year 2024. The neighbors valiantly try to protect one another against the hordes of illiterate homeless people and thieves in the western United States, which is suffering from extreme poverty and climate change. Lauren’s family scrapes out a living, but Lauren suspects that the community’s walls offer only an illusion of safety, particularly because the police are both corrupt and ineffectual. Lauren learns what she can about survival tactics and struggles to articulate in her journals the principles of Earthseed, a religion that she believes she has discovered. Earthseed is based on the premise that God simply means the concept of inevitable change. Lauren also struggles to hide her hyperempathy, a delusional syndrome—caused by her birth mother’s drug abuse—that causes her to experience the pain suffered by others.
As civilization continues to deteriorate, Lauren’s brother Keith runs away and is murdered by drug dealers, and her father goes missing and is presumed dead. When Lauren is eighteen, her worst fears come true when a murderous group of drug addicts burns down her community. Lauren is briefly incapacitated but manages to grab the survival pack that she keeps prepared. While combing through the wreckage the next day for some sign of her family, she finds only two neighbors still alive: Harry Balter and Zahra Moss. Zahra tells Lauren that she witnessed Lauren’s stepmother and brothers being shot and burned. Zahra and Harry’s own families have also been killed, so the three survivors form an alliance and decide to walk north in the hope of finding better lives in Oregon, Washington, or even Canada.
No longer sheltered, the trio must kill in self-defense for the first time, which is doubly traumatic for Lauren because of her hyperempathy. They witness rape, robbery, murder, wildfire, and even cannibalism. However, they manage to retain their own humanity and even assist others at the risk of their own safety. Lauren continues to write, refining her thoughts about Earthseed and her belief that, even in these dark times, humanity must not lose sight of the importance of traveling to other stars in order to ensure the long-term survival of the species.
During the trek north, Lauren meets Taylor Bankole, whom she calls by his surname. Bankole is a former doctor in his late fifties whose own community was also destroyed. In spite of their age difference, the couple falls in love and agrees to marry, and they ultimately lead their growing group to a parcel of land that Bankole purchased years earlier in an isolated area of Northern California. As the book closes, in 2027, the group...
(The entire section is 1138 words.)
Bibliography (Masterplots II: African American Literature, Revised Edition)
Agustí, Clara Escoda. “Butler’s Parable of the Sower.” Extrapolation 46, no. 3 (Fall, 2005): 351-59. Focuses primarily upon the novel’s use of the themes of exploitation and its escape.
Butler, Robert. “Twenty-First-Century Journeys in Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower.” In Contemporary African American Fiction. London: Associated University Presses, 1998. Examines the use of the motif of a physical journey as symbolic of an internal transformation.
Gant-Britton, Lisbeth. “Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower: One Alternative to a Futureless Future.” In Women of Other Worlds, edited by Helen Merrick and Tess Williams. Crawley: University of Western Australia Press, 1999. Focuses upon the dystopic and post-catastrophic elements of the novel.
McCaffery, Larry. Across the Wounded Galaxies: Interviews with Contemporary American Science Fiction Writers. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990. Includes an interview with Butler that provides a look inside her and a description of her writing process.
Melzer, Patricia. “’All That You Touch You Change’: Utopian Desire and the Concept of Change in Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents.” FEMSPEC 3, no. 2 (2002): 31-52. Focuses on the role of characters’ reactions to change in the development of the two novels, from a feminist critical perspective.
Phillips, Jerry. “The Intuition of the Future: Utopia and Catastrophe in Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower.” Novel 35, nos. 2/3 (Spring, 2002): 299-311. Examines the motifs of Parable of the Sower in the context of other works of utopian and dystopian literature.