Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Ooloi Dominance Illustrated Through Point of View

Throughout Lilith’s brood, Octavia Butler introduces the reader to complex, and dynamic characters through two different perspectives.  In the first book, Dawn Lilith’s story is told through third person omniscient.  Through this voice, the reader comes to learn that Lilith is a human woman who is unwillingly bestowed the burden of having to reawaken and retrain humanity by the Oankali.  The reader knows her thoughts, is told of her pain, and understands her struggle—but unless her thoughts are spoken aloud, the reader never gets to hear them through her own voice.  Instead, her thoughts are filtered through some unknown omnipresent narrator; a narrator who knows everything about Lilith, and yet describes her and her actions in a calm, almost distant manner.  This distant voice is very similar to that of Jodas’s, the first construct Ooloi’s first person narration.  The reader knows its thoughts, its true thoughts, because he makes them known to the reader unfiltered and through his own voice.  Jodas’s thoughts, and his rational for his actions, are very similar to the unseen narrator of Dawn especially when it comes to the unwilling “seduction” of its human mates.  This distinction between third person omniscient and third person is not so much a preference of narration of the author, as it is a key to understanding the story as a whole.  In Dawn, the sparse, distant, yet knowing narration feels as though it is coming from the perspective of an Ooloi studying Lilith rather than some omnipresent, unknown narrator.  Whereas in Imago the case can be made that since Jodas is an Ooloi, it is able to narrate for itself, informing the reader on its human mates much in the same way as Lilith is informed upon by her unknown and unseen narrator.
            “Lilith saw Joseph’s body stiffen, struggle, then relax, and she knew Nikanj had read him correctly.  He neither struggled nor argued as Nikanj positioned him more comfortably against his body.  Lilith saw that he and closed his eyes again, his face peaceful.  Now he was ready to accept what he had wanted from the beginning.”  (Butler, 190) 
            The above quote is a description of Nikanj, more or less, forcing itself on Joseph.  It’s language is calculated, and beckons no sympathy for Joseph or his plight.  Another interesting aspect of this narration is that it is in direct conflict with Lilith’s feelings.  The narrator remarks about how, as Lilith watches Nikanj “seduce” Joseph, she becomes aware of Nikanj as “a totally alien being, grotesque, repelant beyond mere ugliness…”  and does “all she could to keep from turning and running away.”  However, it does not take her too long before the “perverse” desire causes her to “gasp” and jump into bed with them.  (Butler, 191)  In this way, by neglecting Lilith’s perspective and maintaining that Joseph, deep down, wants to sleep with Nikanj despite his apparent refusal, the narrator is describing Joseph’s “seduction” in what seems to be a favorable manner.  This view of what Nikanj is doing is completely detached from Lilith’s emotions of horror and disgust, and reluctant submission.  This gives the narrator its own sound, its own distinct personality, which is wholly independent from Lilith’s thoughts or feelings.  Typically, the third person omniscient either speaks for the main character, which in this case is Lilith, or is more of an unbiased observer.  This narrator, however, in its sparse language and favorable description of Ooloi “seduction” leads to suspicion that perhaps the Ooloi are the ones narrating the story.
            This similarity between the Jodas and the unseen narrator of Dawn is further emphasized by the fact that the only book out of the trilogy that is not narrated by the third person omniscient is Imago.   Imago is instead is narrated by the first ever construct Ooloi, Jodas, and in this way, one could say that the author is keeping up the pattern of Ooloi narration.  This is made evident through Jodas’s very similar description of the “seduction” of Jesusa and Tomas; however since its description is in first person, there is no inclusion of Jesusa’s thoughts.  However, considering her confusion and repulsion at the thought of being “mates”  with her brother, it is easy to surmise that perhaps when she gazes down at Jodas seducing her brother, her mind is filled with the same doubt and revulsion as Lilith’s was.  (Butler, 645) However, despite her confusion and repulsion Jodas nonetheless succeeds in “seducing” both of them. 
“I lay down and moved close against Tomas so that all the sensory tentacles on his side of my body could reach him…I became aware of Jesusa watching.  I reached up and pulled her down with us.  She gasped as the contact was completed.  Then she groaned and twisted her body so that she could bring more of it into contact with me.”  (Butler, 642)
This scene is almost an exact copy of the Nikanj’s seduction of Joseph and Lilith.  However, the main distinction is whereas in Dawn the humans’ thoughts were considered (although inevitably dismissed) is in my opinion, not a coincidence.  This scene and perhaps the entire novel Imago marks the completion of the evolution that is taking place throughout the trilogy.  Whereas the first novel was narrated by a distinctly Ooloi sounding voice, the last novel is unabashedly told from the perspective of the Ooloi.  However, the human voice is noticeably much more silent in the Imago, perhaps also suggesting the completion of the Oankali control over the human race.  Now that the problem causing resisters have been sent away to Mars where they will cause trouble for themselves rather than the Oankali, the Oankali are free to complete the gene trade in peace.  It is in this way that the author uses perspective throughout the trilogy to reinforce the fact that the Oankali have completed their dominance and usurpation of human thoughts, feelings and authority.  


  1. I thought it was interesting to view the third/first person narration as having a distinct Oankali/Ooloi voice. The third person narrator presents things simply as facts much like an Oankali would, we get Lilith's feelings through the text and the Oankali reactions but it is all very matter of fact. I would argue though that in Imago the human voice does come out in Jodahs, we see the questioning of its own nature and purpose and a strong sense of doubt that hasn't been present in other Ooloi as far as we have been told. The fact that Jodahs is the process of dissolving/regressing and that Aoar nearly destroys itself come to mind. But I do like how you work the idea that the transitioning narration reflects the completion of the trade between the Oankali/Humans culminating in the first person melding of the species. I think it would be worth your time to expand upon the idea of the shifting narration as a parallel to a completion of the trade. This is very important to our understanding of whether Humans/Oankali are willing going into this trade or if there is remains some uncertainty/resistance by the end of the text or if both species have been self destructively drawn to one another?

  2. Technical point: this is 3rd person attached, not omniscient. The narrator always sticks with Lilith.

    I'm interested in your feeling or intuition that Dawn is told through an ooloi-like narrator. While I like it, it doesn't really work for me unless you can show through the text what you mean. In what ways does the narrator mark itself as being ooloi or ooloi like, outside of normal narrative conventions? I want you, in other words, to try to pin down an interesting concept in the text, to see if you can make it stick.

    I think you can explain that change as partially a matter of perspective - but it's also a change in behavior, and I think you need to deal with interplay between perspective and behavior if you revise.

    This is at least teetering on the brink of being your best work, but you still need deeper involvement with the text, and more examples (both within and beyond the seduction seen) to really flesh out your case re: the Ooloi narrator.

    Your discussion of the seduction scene is a strong reading. I think it's perfectly possible to say that the narrator is simply closely attached to Lilith, and that she is being morally/intellectually compromised by her affair (basically) with Nikanj. However, your close attention to detail makes your reading work well. Do more of this!

    Clearly you are write that there is parallelism to the seduction/rape of Joseph in the seduction of Jesusa & Tomas. You oversimplify here, though, by ignoring that the human characters *do* actually articulate their feelings (Tomas is torn by anxiety over kissing someone who isn't a woman; Jesusa is tormented by her her sense of duty; both are plagued by the problem of incest). Furthermore, language here does more than it does for Nikanj - who just ignores it.