The Sparrow

by Mary Doria Russell

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The Sparrow Analysis

  • Mary Doria Russell was inspired to write The Sparrow by the five hundredth anniversary of Columbus’s arrival in the Americas. Her novel dramatizes how even the most well-intentioned group of explorers could wreak havoc on a society they fail to understand.
  • The novel consists of two parallel storylines and a large cast of characters, whom Russell based both on people in her life and figures from her extensive research into the Jesuit order.
  • The Sparrow explores timeless religious and philosophical questions without providing ready answers, focusing in particular on the tension between belief in a benevolent God and the reality of suffering.


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Last Updated on February 25, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 943

The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell is a science fiction book that wrestles with philosophical, religious, and historical themes.

Russell began writing the book in 1992, the five hundredth anniversary of Columbus’s arrival in the New World. In the dialogue around the anniversary, Russell felt that the simplistic view of the European explorers, and judgment of them by modern standards, was unfair. She began writing The Sparrow to demonstrate how a likable, intelligent, and well-intentioned group of people could cause chaos by exploring a previously unknown society. To achieve a level of “radical ignorance” that would reflect First Contact in the New World, Russell was forced to set her novel on a completely different planet.

Russell develops this theme by showing how the Jesuit mission tries to avoid the mistakes of early European explorers yet still disrupts the balance among the two sentient species of Rakhat, the Runa and the Jana’ata. Although the Jesuit crew are careful to hide their technology from the Runa, and even argue over whether or not they should bury Alan Pace’s body and further contaminate the ecosystem, they unknowingly have an enormous impact on the planet through the seemingly harmless act of gardening. After seeing the Jesuit gardens, the Runa begin growing their own gardens. This nearby food source, in contrast to their tradition of gathering, provides the Runa with extra nutrition and time together, increasing their sexual activity.

As a result, the careful population balance the Jana’ata impose is disrupted, and the “surplus” of Runa infants are commanded to be handed over to Jana’ata patrols to be killed. In horror, Sofia reacts by resisting the Jana’ata patrol and inciting the chant: “We are many. They are few.” While the Runa had previously been resigned to their fate, they begin to echo this chant, and a widespread resistance to Jana’ata control begins, inciting violence and social upheaval.

Russell chose to write the novel with two parallel plotlines because it was the kind of structure that she enjoyed as a reader. Throughout the book, readers are taken between two storylines: the first is the story of Emilio’s return to Earth and the Jesuit hearings to discover what happened to him, and the second is the story of the mission to Rakhat. While it initially takes work to set up the various characters and locations, as the novel progresses and the stories become deeply intertwined, readers are drawn into both plots. The story of Emilio’s return to Earth is heavy and somber; he is a traumatized, shattered man. In contrast, the story of the Rakhat mission contains witty and lighthearted dialogue, and even comical situations, between the characters. Weaving the stories together, Russell builds intrigue and also provides her audience with some relief from the slow, painful revelations Emilio makes during the hearings after his return.

Russell develops a large cast of characters in the novel, describing details from physical appearance and mannerisms to complex personal histories. In her interview with Nick Gevers for Infinity Plus, Russell explains how various characters were inspired by real people in her life or even by historical biographies. Where Russell’s personal experience was lacking, she completed extensive research. To write about Jesuit priests, for example, Russell read many biographies and autobiographies to gain an understanding of the order.

In addition to her realistic characters and interactions, Russell’s knowledge of history, anthropology, and biology are also evident in the book. Russell’s personal expertise makes The Sparrow an intellectually rich book. Inspired by human history and by predator/prey relationships in nature, such as the cheetah and gazelle, Russell creates the Rakhat world...

(This entire section contains 943 words.)

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of Runa and Jana’ata species. Like the cheetah, the Jana’ata appear more powerful than the gazelle but, in reality, are entirely dependent on them.

The Sparrow’s exploration of religion and philosophy also reflect Russell’s own life. Raised a Catholic, Russell left the church and was content as an atheist. During the time that The Sparrow was written, Russell was wrestling with her religious roots. As a mother, she yearned to pass on a religious framework to her son, as a basis for morality, but could not reconcile herself to the Christian faith. Eventually, Russell decided to convert to Judaism.

In light of the author’s experiences, it becomes clear why The Sparrow is such a successful and nuanced exploration of religion. Russell writes with empathy toward almost every character—the atheist, the non-religious Jew, the Catholic, the agnostic. The questions presented in the novel and the dialogue between the characters is honest and relentless. In the voice of Anne, Russell demands answers to the problems raised by a belief in God. At one point, Anne even decides to direct her questions and anger, however irreverently, to God himself. Through the character of Emilio, and his raw pain, the timeless tension between the reality of suffering and a belief in God is exposed.

In the various issues touched upon in the book, including the religious and philosophical themes, the novel does not provide clear, strong statements. The strength of the story and the complexity of the characters come first, and this reflects Mary Doria Russell’s own approach to life. In an interview on her official website, she states:

One of my greatest convictions is that very few things in life are Either/Or. In my observation, almost every issue is And And And And And.

The Sparrow is followed by a sequel, Children of God;the end of the novel hints at the story’s continuation, with the Father General referring to a second Jesuit mission to Rakhat.