The Sparrow

by Mary Doria Russell

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The Sparrow Themes

The main themes in The Sparrow are family, faith and doubt, sexuality and celibacy, and intercultural impact.

  • Family: The members of the mission to Rakhat, many of whom have been denied traditional forms of family, create a family among themselves.
  • Faith and doubt: The novel does not supply answers to the characters’ spiritual doubts, instead portraying faith as fluid and complex.
  • Sexuality and celibacy: Sexual desire is an acknowledged part of life for each of the characters, including those who have taken religious vows of celibacy.
  • Intercultural impact: Despite the crew’s best efforts, the mission ultimately has a devastating intercultural impact on Rakhat.


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Many of the characters in The Sparrow are marked by the loss of family or the yearning to have a family. Sofia Mendes, orphaned at a young age, finds family while on Rakhat; she learns how to share love and affection by watching Anne and eventually marries and conceives a child with Jimmy. Emilio’s suffering is a result of Supaari’s longing for family; Supaari trades Emilio to Hlavin Kitheri in exchange for being named a “Founder,” giving him the right to have children.

While Emilio’s path of celibacy requires him to forfeit sex, the more difficult sacrifice for him is the loss of family. At one point in the novel, Emilio knows that Sofia is in love with him and would marry him if he was willing. Although it pains him deeply, Emilio remains committed to celibacy and gives his unspoken blessing for Sofia and Jimmy to marry. After D.W. and Anne die, Sofia attempts to comfort Emilio by placing his hand on her pregnant belly. She means for this gesture, and for the baby’s movement, to remind Emilio that life goes on; instead, it sends him into deeper grief.

Anne and George, married over four decades, were never able to have children. Through their hospitality, however, they create a sense of family among the group. Settled into life on Rakhat, Anne reflects on the “semi-family” they’ve created. After Anne’s death, ties are strengthened through the group’s shared grief. Jimmy tells Emilio that he’s part of their family, and Sofia tells George that he will be a grandfather to their unborn baby.

Although some characters are denied a traditional family, the novel presents a view of family as one that can be created among friends. These relationships are presented as more beautiful than Supaari’s desire to simply reproduce.

Faith and Doubt

The characters in The Sparrow are not easily divided into those who believe and those who do not. Instead, faith is portrayed as a complex journey.

Among the characters who profess Christianity, and have even committed to the life of a priest, faith is fluid, and doubts are real. Emilio openly acknowledges the doubts he experienced, and continues to experience, long after becoming a priest. During Alan Pace’s funeral, Marc Robichaux suggests that “perhaps we must all own up to being agnostic, unable to know the unknowable.” Rather than giving confident answers to difficult questions, the priests in the novel bring refreshing honesty to their discussions of faith.

On the other side, among characters that do not readily identify as religious, there are still moments of faith. When the Stella Maris leaves Earth, Anne experiences a moment of clarity and certainty in the existence of God. Even George, who doesn’t show interest in religion, has moments where he is drawn “to the beauty of belief.”

Various characters in the novel pursue a sense of meaning, trying to discern the action of God in their lives. “A turtle on a fencepost” becomes shorthand in the book for a coincidence that seems to point to the will of God. Emilio is deeply convinced that the mission is the will of God; even near the end, after having already endured the death of his friends and the hand mutilation procedure, Emilio is thrilled to meet Hlavin Kitheri. To meet the creature whose voice triggered the entire mission seems, to Emilio, to be divinely orchestrated. He feels bitterly betrayed when these hopes are dashed and he is instead subjected to seemingly pointless suffering.

The Sparrow does not supply clear-cut answers to Emilio’s doubts. At the end of the novel, the Father General...

(This entire section contains 1298 words.)

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suggests that by retelling the story of his suffering, Emilio will find meaning in it. Although Emilio appears to be at a point of total despair in his faith, the Father General says that Emilio is closer than he himself is to God.

Sexuality and Celibacy

Although many of the characters in the novel are Jesuit priests committed to celibacy, all characters are presented as sexual beings. Within the book, there is a sharp boundary between attraction and action. Jesuit priests Marc, Emilio, and D.W. all feel sexual attraction toward others but choose not to act on these desires. Sofia Mendes is attracted to Emilio but controls this desire. Jimmy Quinn is openly attracted to Sofia but exercises self-control and respect to contain his attraction in the confines of friendship until, eventually, Sofia returns his feelings.

Similarly, Anne and George have a loving marriage, but they also feel attraction toward other characters. Anne is honest with herself about her attraction to Emilio and George’s attraction to Sofia; when discussing celibacy with Jimmy, Anne compares the marriage vows she made in youth to the vows Emilio made as a priest.

As the primary character, Emilio is aware of his own sexuality. When he first meets Sofia and feels attracted to her, he takes up running and turns to his work with added energy in order to cope. When Jimmy asks Emilio how he lives without sex, Emilio surprises Jimmy by matter-of-factly recommending masturbation.

Throughout the novel, Emilio’s relationship with God takes on the terms of a love relationship. While on the Stella Maris,Emilio confesses to Anne that he is falling in love with God; this causes Emilio to feel naked and vulnerable. When Emilio is eventually raped by Kitheri and subjected to months of sexual violence, his relationship with God—of which years of celibacy had been such a sacred part—is shattered. Back on Earth, he sneers that he is “God’s whore.”

While the sadistic sexual pleasure Kitheri pursues—indulging every whim—is portrayed as empty and violent, healthy and loving sexual relationships are also portrayed in the book. Sofia, a victim of prostitution herself, eventually finds a fulfilling and loving sexual relationship with Jimmy. Anne and George’s sexual relationship is part of the strong bond between them and a source of joy. On the Stella Maris,they laugh and joke about trying to have sex in zero gravity. Marc Robichaux, although committed to celibacy, sees sexuality and his attraction to women as part of God in nature.

Intercultural Impact

When the Jesuit mission arrives on Rakhat, they are conscious of the intercultural impact they could have on the existing society and struggle to make wise decisions to minimize it. They decide to hide much of their technology, including their aircraft, from the Runa.

The humans’ concerns are rooted in Jesuit history on Earth. This is made clear when the narrator says: “They were making things up as they went along; there were no guidelines except the negative example of their predecessors’ disastrous interactions with technologically simple cultures on Earth. They had no wish to be taken for gods or to begin a cargo cult here.”

Despite this awareness, the reality is that impact is inevitable. When Alan Pace dies, the group argues about whether or not to bury his body on the new planet. In response to concerns of contamination, Anne states that “the moment we stepped out of the lander, we affected this ecosystem.”

As time passes on Rakhat, the human foreigners share more of their culture. Watercolor drawings, a water slide, and pulley systems are all eagerly taken up by the Runa. Their garden, a seemingly innocent and simple endeavour, is what eventually throws off the balance between Runa and Jana’ata society, leading to eruptions of violence.

The second human mission to Rakhat believes that the Jesuits have “poisoned” the atmosphere; Supaari tells them that “the foreigners” are responsible for the outbreak of violence. In contrast to these accusations, the novel portrays the motives of the Jesuit explorers, and the resulting intercultural impact, in a complex and compassionate way.


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