Proppian Analysis of Octavia Butler’s “Parable of the Sower”
Russian Formalist Vladimir Propp is well known for analyzing fairy tales and concluded that there are 31 “functions” available in every tale. Propp defined a function as an act of a character. They are important because of what action the function takes, instead of who is performing the action. These functions make up the fundamental structure of all fairy tales. They are relatable in regard to their structure, and the sequence of functions is always identical. In addition, no function excludes the possibility of another function. Overall, Propp believes that while the specific characters will change, their actions/functions remain constant and limited (Propp 20).
While Propp did this analysis of solely fairy tales, the functions apply to literature as a whole. Beneath the dialogue and characters, all books, from children’s stories to scientific fiction to romance novels, have the same common underlying plot and theme. Therefore, the science fiction novel “Parable of the Sower” by Octavia Butler can undergo a Proppian analysis, and show that deep down Propp’s functions can be applied to the world of literature as a whole.
Propp has identified a total of 31 functions, always occurring in the same order. While it is rare for a tale to have all of these functions, he stresses that every tale must have three: Villainy, Liquidation, and “Wedding.” The Villainy sequence (or sometimes lack in other works) in “Parable of the Sower” is when Robledo first came under attack destroying her community and killing all her family. Liquidation, in which the “villainy” function is remedied, would be Lauren escaping Robledo’s disastrous life and finding new people who are more like her, such as the sharers. Lauren spends a majority of the remainder of the book on a quest to liquidate the villainy. Finally, Propp defines the “Wedding” function for fairy tales as the hero/heroine acquiring either traditionally a wife or husband, or in this case, acquiring wealth or power. By the end of “Parable of the Sower,” Lauren is gaining power with her new friends/family through her “Earthseed” verses. These crucial functions will be explained in more depth through a Proppian analysis of the novel.
*In this section of my paper I will go through a Proppian analysis of “Parable of the Sower.” Instead of going into full details for the draft, I have included the outline of each relevant function from my proposal. In this section I will include direct quotes/passages from the book to help prove my point. *
Alpha = Initial situation. This is the beginning of the novel, where Lauren talking with her stepmother outside. We get the feel for how the story is going to go.
Beta = absentation. We see a large gap between entries from Lauren, specifically from page 27 to page 31, where three months are skipped.
A = villainy/lack. As I mentioned above, this is when the Paints raid Robledo. I think for the purpose of this analysis I will refer to the villainy Lauren encounters later on to be conjoined with this original villainy.
B = mediation. Lauren comes home to find the villainy that has occurred.
C = counteraction. This is where Lauren consents to taking action and decides leaves Robledo.
↑(up arrow) = departure or dispatch of the hero. Lauren actually leaves Robledo here, deciding to go with Zahra and Harry.
G = spatial transference between two places, guidance. While travelling along the highway, Lauren and her new friends pick up some stragglers along the way, including Grayson Mora, Allie, and Bankole.
H = struggle. Lauren’s encounters with the thieves along her road trip to Bankole’s old home represent a further struggle in her pursuit of liquidation.
J = Branding of the hero. Like her travel companions, and actually most of the people in the novel, Lauren does not escape without some battle wounds. These marks are generally used in fairy tales as a means for recognizing the hero.
K = initial villainy or lack liquidated. I am not all too sure if you could consider the initial villainy to be liquidated, but by escaping to Bankole’s land, Lauren is getting rid of the violence in her life.
↓ (down arrow) = return. A not exact translation as what Propp had in mind in “Parable of the Sower,” but I view Lauren returning home as going to Bankole’s property, which is now her new home. It may not be as ideal as her house before all hell broke loose, but that home is destructed, so Lauren cannot go back there. Instead, she starts her new life in a new home.
*In this section of the paper I will use Byron Raglan’s “The Hero” and perhaps Kermode’s “Genesis of Secrecy” to support my argument and oppose Bertel Nathhorst’s view of Proppian analysis.*
Not all literary critics agree that a Proppian analysis can be applied to all literature. In fact, Swedish entrepreneur and comparative religion student Bertel Nathhorst gives no merit to Propp’s analysis to even fairy tales. In his published thesis “Formal or Structural Studies of Traditional Tales,” Nathhorst terms Propp’s method to be false, and spends a significant amount of time attempting to prove the falsehood and make Propp into a fool. The main problem Nathhorst has with Propp is the vagueness of Propp’s functions. For example, the corresponding part of the villainy function, the lack, (not show in “Parable” because instead we see villainy here), is believed by Nathhorst to be so wide that too many events can fit in it. Nathhorst says of the lack function: “here most things can be included, from kidnapping, theft and murder to the threat of a forced marriage, illness or declarations of war” (Nathhorst 26). However, he is missing Propp’s overall message: the root of each literary work, whether it be a fairy tale or science fiction novel, is essentially the same. If there was a separate function for kidnapping or illness, no two tales would ever have similar features. The lack function is important not because of what exactly happens to the hero of the story, but because either an act of violence (villainy) or nonviolence (lack) is crucial to the story. This gets the protagonist motivated to take action and become a hero. If nothing ever goes wrong, there would be no story to be told. Every story centers around the hero/heroine encountering a problem, and they spend the course of the pages attempting to liquidate the problem.
*To further support this I will use Lord Raglan’s “The Hero.” I do not have the book yet (it was not at Hillman even though they claim to have 2 copies, so I have to go to Carnegie tomorrow) so I cannot do this part yet… I will also include a bit on Kermode but he does not have very much content on Propp aside from a page or two in Chapter IV.*
Butler, Octavia. “Parable of the Sower.” New York: Grand Central Publishing, 1993.
Kermode, Frank. “The Genesis of Secrecy.” Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1979.
Nathorst, Bertel. “Formal or structural studies of traditional tales. The usefulness of some methodological proposals advanced by Vladimir Propp, Alan Dundes, Claude Lévi-Strauss and Edmund Leach.” Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell, 1969.
Propp, Vladimir. “Morphology of the Folktale.” Austin : University of Texas Press, 1968.
Raglan, Byron. “The Hero: A Study in Tradition, Myth, and Drama.” Courier Dover Publications, 2003.
“The Functions of the Dramatis Personae.” http://www-personal.umich.edu/~esrabkin/Propp.htm