The Characters

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

The characters of the Patternist series are largely allegorical, and their moral register is usually clear. They allow Butler to speak with oracular elocution through many masks. This oracular quality and the accompanying sobriety of her narratives reflect the Old Testament influence the author explicitly acknowledged. The characters represent personalities that might bring forth a species that is not as fatally self-mutilating as humanity seems to be.

In the 1970’s, Butler joined Samuel R. Delany in bringing to African American literature the poetics of science fiction narrative. Butler employed simple syntax and an active voice to craft dramatic narratives in a fashion reminiscent of Ernest Hemingway’s literary naturalism. Her particular use of such a style proved as fitting for her fantastic stories of elemental perseverance in the face of violent and tragic struggle as was Hemingway’s to his more realist subject matter.

In Butler’s naturalistic science fiction, characters have hyperbolic, exaggerated powers, and they live their parables through stories that amplify and illuminate the endless pain of Earth’s underclass masses. The moral polarity of her universe is summed up in two characters: Doro is an entity that exists by migrating from human body to human body, killing each new consciousness with his own and using each body until it weakens and dies. His ancient purpose is to find and “herd” humans gifted with mental powers, who “taste” better to him as host bodies. Anyanwu is endlessly young, because she can use her mental powers to renew the aging cells of her body. She can also change her DNA and shift into the shape of any living creature or become biologically male. In addition, she too can “taste” people and can make a medicine in her saliva to heal them, and she can cause them to regrow lost body parts.

Doro is the symbol of an almost preternatural project of impersonal violence that Butler sees in the universe. Anyanwu (and the character’s other incarnations) is a compassionate healer. Female personalities ground Butler’s narrative. Virtually all are annealed by male violence. The cause may be nothing more than human tendencies toward particular gender roles. Doro and Anyanwu are nonetheless compelling as figures of messianic stature in a naturalistic cosmology in the tradition of Theodore Dreiser, Richard Wright, and Hemingway.