Octavia Butler

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In Octavia Butlers "Speech Sounds," how does the author's characterizations of the story's protagonist and antagonist "fit" the story's central conflict?

Rye is a woman who has had trouble communicating with others her entire life. She has been ostracized by her parents, friends, and even strangers for the way she talks. She grew up in a world where everyone was able to communicate except for her. During the pandemic, this inability to communicate became deadly as that is one of the things that kills people during the disease. Rye cannot talk or write and is thus left with no one to talk to or even listen to her thoughts. It seems like there is no point in living anymore because of this solitude but then she meets Obsidian and they are able to communicate through writing on each other’s arms when they can find something sharp enough to write with.

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In Octavia Butler’s “Speech Sounds” there are two protagonists in the story. Rye is a young woman trying to survive after a pandemic illness results in massive deaths and leaves the survivors without their ability to communicate. Some have lost their speech, others the ability to read or write. The world has become a violent place filled with desperation and loneliness. Rye is alone and on the brink of suicide. She meets a man she calls Obsidian. At first she fears him but after a brief interaction she begins to trust him and actually becomes attached to him. Although impaired from the illness, they are able to find a way to communicate with each other without conflict. However they soon come across the antagonist in the story, a man who is threatening a woman and who ends up stabbing her to death. Obsidian kills the man, but his last act before death is to shoot Obsidian. Rye is again alone.

The central conflict of the story is the disease and the lack of communication within society. The real antagonist is the disease that all of the characters are fighting. The aggressive man represents the disease and its cruelty as he takes everything again from Rye, leaving her alone again. Rye, the protagonist, ends the story with purpose and hope when she realizes the two surviving children of the couple can speak and communicate.

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