Friday, February 18, 2011

Robledo's Berlin Wall

Revision to

Trapped. That is how Lauren Olamina feels in Octavia Butler’s novel Parable of the Sower. Surrounding Lauren’s community Robledo is a wall designed to keep intruders out. Lauren’s desire to break free of the wall and get out into the world is well known in this book. Butler’s constant drilling of the wall surrounding Lauren’s home shows that the wall is influenced by the Berlin Wall of the Cold War.

Parable of the Sower was published in 1993, while the Berlin Wall collapsed only a few years earlier in 1989. The walls in Robledo and Berlin both serve the same purposes: to protect those inside, and prevent unwanted people from stampeding the town. In Germany the soviets were trying to keep out the West Germans, while the fortress in Parable of the Sower is keeping out the street poor, or at least attempting to. Not completely different from the fleeting Germans, Lauren describes the street poor as being desperate, crazy, and/or dangerous. Furthermore, many of them carried weapons, untreated diseases, and wounds (Butler 10-11). Similarly to the Berlin wall, the wall surrounding Robledo represents freedom. Lauren wants to be on the other side, just as the Germans wanted mobility around their country.

Another similarity between the Robledo wall and the Berlin Wall is that both needed a great amount of protection. The Soviets had the Berlin wall heavily guarded to prevent attacks and refugees, while the Robledo wall also had to be protected. When some of the kids in Robledo have to leave their fortress to be baptized in the church, they must carry weapons with them. Lauren said “All the adults were armed. That’s the rule. Go out in a bunch, and go armed” (Butler 8).

However, these walls are opposites in terms of what is waiting on the other side. In his book Life Between Two Deaths, 1989-2001: U.S. Culture in the Long Nineties, Phillip Wegner describes the fall of the Berlin Wall as: “Unexpected and unplanned for, an encounter with a traumatic Real, it instigated a sequence of actions that would culminate two years later in the dramatic collapse of the Soviet Union…The fall of the Berlin Wall was the result of a peaceful and collective mobilization that emerged spontaneously within the Cold War situation” (Wegner 24). This collapse segued into a reunification of Germany to what we know of it today, recombining West Germany and East Germany into one unified Germany.

In stark contrast, the fall of Robledo’s wall was quite different. While it was still the “traumatic Real” Wegner illustrates, the collapse was far from peaceful. The wall was taken down by the “paints” who were pyro addicts. The paints invaded the town and stole all the money and valuables from the townspeople, after first raping them, murdering them, or both. This destruction is a polar opposite of the result of the Berlin Wall collapsing. It actually seems as though the events taking place during the time of the Berlin wall were similar to those after the collapse of Robledo’s wall, and vice versa. Even so, the protagonist of the story Lauren Olamina did not know this; her only goal was to escape the confinements of the wall.

To Lauren Olamina, the wall surrounding her home was a cage and she was begging to be let free, doing whatever it takes to gain that freedom. Unlike her father and step-mother, she does not know what it outside. Her parents know the dangers that irk outside the walls, they know what life used to be like without them, and how much times have changed. Lauren perfectly describes her parents’ recollections of life before the walls and danger: “To the adults, going outside to a real church was like stepping back into the good old days when there were churches all over the place and too many lights and gasoline was for fueling cars and trucks instead of for torching things. They never miss a chance to relive the good old days or to tell kids how great it’s going to be when the country gets back on its feed and good times come back” ( Butler 8). Here Butler is describing our world today as having essentially no faults. But digging deeper reveals a sense of satire; our society is not as perfect as we think it is. In Berlin, Germans were living the same lives as the people in Parable of the Sower, so by reflecting on Berliners perhaps Butler was trying to actually fault today’s society, instead of praising it.

While most people are content with staying in one spot, Lauren desperately wants to break away from home. Even though Joanne Garfield, Curtis, and Corey see the wall as a protector of their freedom, Laurens sees it as the obstacle inhibiting her freedom. She tells her friend Joanne “We’ll die in here unless we get busy now and work out ways to survive,” (Butler 56) but of course Joanne does not agree, and Lauren is scolded for her radical ideas. Even though Lauren is the only one who wants to actually escape the wall, this could be because her idea of “freedom” is different than everyone else’s. After the Berlin Wall was torn down, East Germans were reunited with West Germans. While they may not have actually met before, in Parable of the Sower Lauren is in a way “unites” with sharers like her in Emery, Grayson, Mora, and Tori. This is most likely the only positive aspect to the collapse of the wall: Lauren coming together with people she can relate to; people who finally understand what she is going through. Robledo’s wall was preventing Lauren from being with other sharers, just like the Berlin Wall confined Germans to one half of their country.

Critics may say that Octavia Butler did not actually base her wall surrounding Robledo on the Berlin Wall. Perhaps they say this idea is too general and there is no way to prove this argument. While it is not physically possible to ask Butler the truth, one can use deductions based on her past interviews. If a critic says that instead of the Berlin Wall, Robledo’s wall was based on the need for protection from the 1992 Los Angeles Rebellion, which was also taking place while Butler was writing. During this time rioters burned down book stores and whatever else fit their pleasure, and along with the Rebellion came murders, robberies, and assaults. This may seem similar to life in Parable of the Sower, but in Conversations with Octavia Butler edited by Conseula Francis, Butler herself says the Rebellion had no impact on her writing, saying “actually I was working on the novel as the riots broke out and I worried about whether I should go back and change the novel because I didn’t want to seem as if I was either feeding off of or promoting some of the things that went on in the riots. I mean, they burned down my favorite Black bookstore for heaven’s sake” (Francis 58). However, this is contrasting to the rest of Butler’s work in Parable of the Sower. In a 1994 interview Butler stated that “when I wrote Parable of the Sower , the things that stirred me up the most were the things going on right now. The daily news. There are so many terrible things that are going on” and that she pulled her ideas out of the newspapers (Francis 54-55). Butler was approximately fourteen when the Berlin Wall was erected in August of 1961, and forty-two when it was torn down in 1989. Therefore, what was in the newspapers during the time Octavia Butler was writing Parable of the Sower? The collapse of the Berlin Wall, of course. Butler takes these current events and applies the collapse of the Berlin Wall to the Robledo wall.

Works Cited

Butler, Octavia E. Parable of the Sower. New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2000.
Francis, Consuela. Conversations with Octavia Butler. Jackson, Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi, 2010.
Wegner, Phillip E. Life Between Two Deaths, 1989-2001: U.S. Culture in the Long Nineties. Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2009.

1 comment:

  1. The single thing that stands out here is your strength as a researcher. Two sources might not seem like much, of course - but asking the two correct questions, and answering them through research, is far better than citing ten sources to no real purpose. For that reason among others, this is a dramatic improvement over the original.

    In the first draft, you were starting out with a worthwhile question, or problem. Here, you're pursing that problem with a strong and consistent methodology, and recognizing the limits (that is, the deductive nature) of some of what you're doing.

    While the methodology is strong, let me point out a central limitation here. What, ultimately, does it *mean* if Butler is drawing heavily upon the Berlin wall. You ably discuss the element of satire inevitably involved - but at the same time, back down from drawing any conclusions, even if tentative, from them:

    "Therefore, what was in the newspapers during the time Octavia Butler was writing Parable of the Sower? The collapse of the Berlin Wall, of course. Butler takes these current events and applies the collapse of the Berlin Wall to the Robledo wall."

    Especially given the good things going on in this essay, you end not with a bang, but with a whimper, coming perilously close to saying nothing in the end (you've said lots, of course, but *at the end*, when you've earned it, you're saying nothing).

    How could you have ended the essay differently, given its strengths up to this point? I'd argue that exploring the question seriously, which you raise briefly, re: whether or not Lauren, by uniting with other Sharers, is counterintuitively engaging in her own "German Reunification" , would have been a good answer. Another, very different approach, would have been to apply the concept of the "Traumatic Real" more rigorously to the novel - that approach would also have a ton of promise.

    Another approach, which might appeal to the historian in you, is to deal at greater length and complexity with gated communities, especially in LA - in other words, to explore the precise critique she's making, rather than to draw broader conclusions from it.

    Short version: this is a strong revision, with great research and some great ideas, but falls short when it comes to putting it all together.