Friday, January 21, 2011

Skills for Survival

Drowning people/Sometimes die/Fighting their rescuers. (Butler 61) This verse is used to introduce chapter 6 in Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower. The verse, in my opinion, is one of the most poetic and intriguing that is used throughout this half of the novel. However, like most epigraphs, it is used to tell the reader exactly what they should expect to see on the pages ahead.

The first sentence in Chapter 6 reads, “Joanne told.” (Butler 61) However this does not sufficiently explain the use of this epigraph in this chapter. Our knowledge from the previous chapter is what makes the reader able to connect this epigraph to the chapter. We can then make the deductions that “Drowning people” is more likely than not referring to Joanne. The “rescuers” in this case is not a plural, but in fact a singular rescuer in Lauren.

Where the verse becomes less straightforward is the second line, “Sometimes die.” (Butler 61) There are no obvious deaths within the chapter, which leads us to question whether or not we can trust these epigraphs to reveal information about the coming events within the narrative. However the parallel that this verse has to the situation at hand is clear. Lauren believes that if the people in her community remain uneducated on how to maintain themselves outside the comfort of their walls that they are surely to be met with ill fate. She encourages Joanne to study this type of information as a test subject of sorts, as well as the fact that she is considered Lauren’s closest friend.

The verse does not have to apply strictly to the fact that Joanne disclosed information to her mother that Lauren had talked to her about. Because it was Joanne’s mother that reacted negatively to what Lauren considers to be help, is a statement about how others will react to her preparations for surviving outside the wall. No doubt that more within the community would react as Joanne’s mother did.

Lauren’s thoughts during the conversation with her father reveal the reasons for her choosing this particular epigraph. She thinks, “…I think your world is coming to an end, and maybe you with it.” (Butler 62) She whole-heartedly believes that her information regarding survival is what will save those who live within the community. As she is met with resistance, from Joanne, from Joanne’s mother, and her own father, it is clear that the remainder of the community will probably react in a similar fashion, with severe resistance and anger. Without the skills that she is trying encourage them to learn, she believes that they will all, in fact, die if an emergency of catastrophic nature were to ever occur. Their resistance to her information suggests that they are at risk to die by fighting what Lauren believes to be necessary skills for survival.


  1. I like the verse, and the focus which the verse brings. I basically like what's here, precisely because it's focused, but I do have a substantial criticism - the problem is what isn't here. This essay is short by a couple hundred words - and my point isn't that slavishly following the word/page count I've laid out is important. My point is that you were starting to do something interesting, and once you had things nicely set up, in order to explore some more challenging material, you just stop.

    What "challenging material" am I referring to? You begin with the literalistic observation that Lauren believes Joann, and the community who she represents at this moment, to be drowning. You do a fine job of elaborating that point. But you ignore the role of Joann within the novel: she, in fact, goes to where survival skills are "irrelevant" by moving to Olivar.

    The point here is probably obvious: for Olamina, Olivar is another form of drowning, another form of denial, another form of death. But it's a challening, complicated moment, precisely because Joann isn't trying to survive off the land, nor is she there when the community burns - she has gone to Olivar instead.

    The evaluation of her in this chapter - that she, for rejecting Olamina's teachings and going to Olivar instead of running North (note Harry's vehement disagreement with Joann!!!), is choosing to drown - isn't something we'd all agree with.

    So - is Lauren right, and is Joann choosing to drown by going to Olivar? Or is Olivar an alternative which Olamani cannot, for some reason, understand? This is an example of the questions you can ask, and the problems you can explore, after setting up a firm foundation (which you have done).

  2. Karin,

    Your essay did a very nice job of breaking apart and dissecting this multifaceted verse. Of course the most obvious connection is Joann betraying Lauren; in fact, it follows right after the verse, so it only makes sense that the two are strongly connected.

    However, I think the verse has a robust undertone throughout the whole chapter - even the entire book - and you could have added other examples. You could have added the advice Lauren's dad gave to her, about how "it's better to teach people than to scare them" (Butler 65). Just like it's more beneficial to teach a person to swim than rescue them when they're in their most frightened state, it would be better to prepare the community for disaster rather than scare them with hypothetical scenarios. That might be pushing the metaphor a bit, but it's a start.

    Basically, I see the verse as an allusion to a person that unwisely sacrifices oneself for the sake of another. So, if the community is the party drowning and Lauren is the rescuer, is it beneficial for Lauren to rescue it? Maybe it would be more advantageous for Lauren to let the community deteriorate on its own; that way she won’t have to be dragged down with it.