Study Guide

Parable of the Sower Themes

By Octavia E. Butler

  • Philosophical Viewpoints

    In Parable of the Sower, our young prodigy heroine Lauren Olamina founds Earthseed, her own religion. Yeah, folks, in case you were wondering, that's pretty intense. Lauren's not just doing it for fun—she really believes it, and she's put a ton of effort into working out her ideas. According to Earthseed, God is Change, not a deified authority figure. Lauren lays out Earthseed with poetic verses, conversations with people she meets, and actions.

    Fundamentally, Lauren sees recognizing the importance of change—and working with it—as a way of empowering people to better their communities and lives. Eventually, there's the Destiny: the idea that humanity should settle on other worlds in outer space. But that's something that humanity needs to actually make happen.

    Questions About Philosophical Viewpoints

    1. Lauren argues that people need to think of change not just as an important thing, but as God. In today's world, where most professional philosophers are atheists, is Lauren's emphasis on God a step forward or a step back? Could Earthseed be considered just a philosophical viewpoint without religious components to it? Or if you take the religion out, does it no longer work?
    2. What's the difference between a religion and a philosophy? Is there a clear difference? In many Eastern traditions, for example, there's not a huge distinction between religion and philosophy. Is Earthseed like that? Or is it different?
    3. How does Lauren's life shape Earthseed, and how does Earthseed shape her life?
    4. In many ways, Lauren is the the change she wants to see in the world. In other ways, she isn't in a position typically thought of as powerful, and she only changes the lives of a few people. Is she a success? Is Earthseed a success?

    Chew on This

    Focusing on the importance of change is a particularly powerful way to help people solve problems and build community.

    Focusing on the importance of change isn't a particularly powerful way to help people solve problems and build community.

  • Change

    If the theme of Parable of the Sower were a boiled down and slapped on a bumper sticker, it would totally say God Is Change. Now, literature in general is all about change: we analyze plot as it develops and characters as they develop, and the whole thing is about how we're getting from point A to point B, and why.

    But this novel takes the to another level. Lauren Olamina, our heroine, actually makes a religion out of this idea. Sometimes people are receptive to her message and how she frames it, and sometimes they aren't. One question this novel asks is: how should a person go about trying to convince others of something, anyway? Particularly something as simple but profound as the thesis that God is Change?

    Questions About Change

    1. Throughout the novel, Lauren tries to convince people that God is change. Some heed her message, but others, like Bankole (25.99-102), aren't convinced. What persuasive strategies does Lauren use to spread her beliefs? Consider her use of poetry, for instance. How many people in real life are moved by the beauty of various scriptures? What's effective about Lauren's approach, and what isn't?
    2. What changes do characters other than Lauren go through in the book? Consider Zahra and Travis, for instance. How would Lauren's Earthseed philosophy and her idea that God is change account for those two individuals' journeys and experiences? Is Lauren's framework a good one to view Zahra and Travis through? Why or why not?
    3. At one point (5.96), Lauren says it takes a plague or something equally huge to convince people that big-time change is possible. What big changes have you made in your own life? What factors influenced you to make those changes? How does your experience compare or contrast with the things that made Lauren change, like the destruction of her Robledo neighborhood?

    Chew on This

    Lauren's right. Change is the most important factor in our lives.

    Change is overrated. While it may be important, there are other factors that are better to focus on.

  • Religion

    There are so many religions out there—which one to choose?

    Well, if you're Parable of the Sower's Lauren Olamina, you don't choose; you create your own. Confronted with a world that's falling apart, Lauren—who is just a teenager—creates her own belief system, Earthseed, the central tenet of which is that God is Change. There's no dogma here. If you're basic believe is that change is the foundation of the universe, then that means everything is always developing. If you ask Lauren, the point isn't to follow rules: it's to participate in and contribute to the constant evolution of the world.

    Questions About Religion

    1. How does Lauren's father influence her creation of Earthseed? He's a Baptist, but as early as Chapter 2, we learn that Lauren doesn't believe in his God anymore. Yet he still seems to be influential for her, either by his overwhelming absence (21.33-34) or by the lessons he taught the Robledo community (15.67-68).
    2. Is there a place for humor in Earthseed? Lauren considers it very important for Curtis and, later, Bankole not to laugh at her ideas. But do any of the verses reflect a humorous attitude?
    3. How does Lauren Olamina compare with key figures of other religions? Does she seem like a prophet? A poet? An oracle?
    4. How does religion in Parable of the Sower compare with religion in the novels of other science fiction or fantasy authors? Think of Orson Scott Card's work, for example, or Philip Pullman's.

    Chew on This

    Founding your own religion is a healthy response to a disintegrating society.

    Founding your own religion is a bad idea, no matter what's going on around you.

  • Dreams, Hopes, and Plans

    Remember how in Battlestar Galactica (the recent one, folks, not the original), Commander Adama told everyone how great it would be to get to Earth? He wasn't sure if there really was an Earth, but he knew that people needed something to believe in, so he just acted as if it were real.

    Sometimes it helps people unify and make progress if they have a big gigantic goal they can work toward and put their faith in. In Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower, Lauren Olamina tells people who follow Earthseed, the religion she's creating, to believe in a Destiny: they're gonna go out to space and settling among the stars. Space is a real-life heaven, she says; we can actually get there and make a new start for ourselves.

    Questions About Dreams, Hopes, and Plans

    1. Think about President Eisenhower's quote that "our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don't care what it is." He seems to be saying that religion is necessary for civic order, but which religion isn't important, because the basic principle is just that people feel some kind of awe or belief in something beyond them. How might this relate to Earthseed's Destiny? Is it helpful or necessary for Lauren's followers to believe the Destiny or work toward it?
    2. How does Earthseed's Destiny connect with sci-fi in general? How does science fiction, as a genre, offer hope or promises to people?
    3. Some self-improvement gurus suggest setting goals that are SMART: Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Realistic, and Timely. How does Lauren's Destiny fit or not fit into such a system? What about her short-term goal of migrating north to find a safe place to establish a community?

    Chew on This

    People need a long-term goal or Destiny to focus on in order to make progress.

    People don't need a long-term goal or Destiny to focus on in order to make progress.

  • Compassion and Forgiveness

    In Parable of the Sower, Lauren Olamina, has a funky hyperempathy syndrome that makes her acutely aware of the pain or pleasure felt by other people. Translation: if someone around her feels pain or pleasure, she feels the very same thing—even if that thing terrible, like getting beaten up or shot.

    Like a lot of people with a real-life condition or disability, Lauren has a unique relationship with her syndrome: she sometimes sees it as a good thing, and sometimes as a bad thing. The syndrome also affects her ability to open up with other people, since it's difficult for her to gauge when and how she should inform other people about the condition. But basically, it makes her totally aware of other people's emotions, and that gives Lauren a unique perspective on compassion and forgiveness.

    Questions About Compassion and Forgiveness

    1. Lauren's never 100% sure whether her hyperempathy syndrome is a good thing or not. In what ways does it benefit her? In what ways does it disadvantage her?
    2. Lauren often wonders if the world would be a better place if others had to experience hyperempathy syndrome, too. How would Keith have been different if he had been a sharer? What about their father? What about Cory?
    3. What does it mean for doctors to refer to Lauren's hyperempathy syndrome as an "organic delusional syndrome"? Is Lauren's sharing real or delusional? If the sharing is a mental experience, is it possible at all to conclusively declare whether the things she feels are true or false?
    4. What's the significance of the fact that Lauren has her hyperempathy syndrome because of her mother's drug abuse? Would it be different if she had it due to some other reason—say, faulty genes?

    Chew on This

    The world would be a better place if more people were "sharers" like Lauren.

    The world wouldn't be a better place if more people were "sharers" like Lauren.

  • Community

    In Parable of the Sower, a big part of Lauren Olamina's plan for living according to her own religion is to establish her own community. She doesn't have to wait long for the chance to put her ideas into action. Once her own hometown Robledo is destroyed, she has to migrate north as a refugee, and on the journey she attracts followers who eventually help her establish the first Earthseed community: Acorn.

    Questions About Community

    1. What's the difference between community and family? Lauren has a family up until Robledo is destroyed, and she starts building her own community not too long after that. Is one preferable to the other? In what ways do the two concepts overlap, and in what ways do they differ?
    2. When Lauren first leaves Robledo, she regards strangers with suspicion, but as time goes on, she becomes more welcoming toward them. Is either of these mindsets more practical and realistic than the other? What causes her to shift from the earlier perspective to the later one?
    3. If Acorn is the definition of a community, does Olivar count as a community, too? If Acorn is the model, what are the criteria by which we could decide if a certain place—such as Olivar—counts as a community? What advantages would Olivar have compared to Acorn? What disadvantages?

    Chew on This

    Contributing to a community is one of the best ways to help yourself survive.

    Community is overrated; there are plenty of other good ways to survive on your own.

  • Poverty

    Parable of the Sower is set in the not-so-distant future. We're talking 2024-2027, and what Octavia Butler gives us is a United States that's falling apart—and where poverty is widespread. That's, um, not very far off the mark: even in 2015, according to a Federal Reserve Board survey, almost half of all people in the United States reported that they couldn't come up with $400 to meet an emergency. Ouch. So what does that forecast for us? Through the eyes of her heroine, Lauren Olamina, Octavia Butler takes a look at what may come.

    Questions About Poverty

    1. It's never entirely clear, but it seems the pyro addicts in the novel may be masquerading as a help-the-poor, eat-the-rich movement. Is it helpful to accuse certain segments of the population of wrongdoing, or does such a strategy just create others, a convenient target for people to aim their anger at, without solving any societal problems?
    2. How do attitudes toward the poor differ among various characters in the book? How does Lauren see them, before and after the collapse of Robledo? How does Zahra see them? What about Harry or Cory or Bankole or any other character of your choosing?
    3. How does Lauren change as a result of becoming one of the street poor? How does she stay the same? Track her attitudes toward money before and after the destruction of Robledo.
    4. How does Keith experience poverty once he leaves Robledo? What does he do at first, and what does he do later? How does his sudden influx of income affect his relationship with Cory? With Lauren?

    Chew on This

    Lauren's experience of poverty is a necessary stage in her growth as a person.

    Poverty is romanticized. It's not necessary for Lauren to go through poverty in order to understand how to improve the world through her work.

  • Slavery

    So, slavery in the United States was abolished after the Civil War, right?

    Yeah, not so fast. In Octavia Butler's near-future sci-fi novel Parable of the Sower, there are various types of slavery taking place all over again: we've got debt slavery, marital slavery, pretty much everything but plantation slavery (and who knows, that may even be happening somewhere). People might argue that these aren't tantamount to what was taking place for Black folks prior to 1865, but what does Lauren Olamina, the novel's narrator, have to say about that? Just what does it mean to own another person, anyway?

    Questions About Slavery

    1. How does money function in Parable of the Sower? Which characters have access to money, and how much money, and at what times? How does income level or access to money affect who gets taken seriously and who isn't?
    2. What different perspectives on slavery or servitude do characters have? For instance, if Emery and Zahra were to debate the worth of living with a controlling husband, what might they say? What about the same debate, but between Lauren and Bankole? Or between Lauren's father and Cory?
    3. How does the depiction of slavery in Parable of the Sower relate to the world of today? Consider, for instance, labor by prisoners in the United States, who are sometimes paid than a quarter per hour and sometimes not paid at all.
    4. How does the depiction of slavery in Parable of the Sower compare with the depiction of it in other sci-fi novels?
    5. Is economic power over someone the same thing as coercive power? What about persuasive power over someone, such as a friend or lover? Is that a type of coercion as well? If so, is all coercion necessarily bad?

    Chew on This

    Debt slavery, marital slavery, and other types of slavery exist and are real forms of slavery today.

    Slavery only refers to a situation in which one person owns another person.

  • Perseverance

    All right, so sci-fi heroine Lauren Olamina in Parable of the Sower is a prodigy teen who invents her own religion, founds her own community, and in all kinds of ways is just plain awesome. Don't argue with that, because you can't. But what actually makes Lauren so awesome? Well, one of the major factors is her perseverance. She sticks to her goals and works hard—she even preaches a sermon about the importance of perseverance. She tries to get others to see the importance of hard work and change and problem solving and more—and then when her hometown is destroyed and her family killed off, she just perseveres some more by heading north to save the world.

    World, don't mess with Lauren Olamina.

    Questions About Perseverance

    1. What's the relationship between perseverance and change? The former is all about sticking to a goal and holding firm for a long period of time, but the latter is about things shifting and not staying stable. How does Lauren manage to exemplify perseverance, flexibility, and adaptability in the face of change?
    2. Who else in the novel perseveres besides Lauren? Consider Zahra or Bankole, for example, or Cory. What's the difference between merely surviving during adversity and actually flourishing or achieving big goals?
    3. What impression does Alicia Leal make on Lauren in terms of perseverance? Why is it such a benefit for Lauren to have Alicia as a role model? Why doesn't she have any other role models?
    4. Consider the sermon about perseverance that Lauren preaches to her Robledo community after her father vanishes. She tells everyone to persevere and stay put, even though she's already made plans to leave. Is it a good sermon? Should Lauren have said something else, or was what she said the right thing to say?

    Chew on This

    Perseverance is a personal trait that's necessary for success.

    Perseverance is something you learn, not necessarily something you're born with.

  • Race

    You may have noticed that most sci-fi novels feature white characters—or alien species whose ethnicity doesn't much reflect life in the United States today. Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower is very different: it was authored by a Black woman who wanted to "write herself in" to her stories and to American literature.

    In this novel, the protagonist and narrator, Lauren Olamina, is a young Black woman. Race is definitely a factor in who's able to survive in Lauren's world and how—it's not something that Lauren can afford to ignore. She seems more eager to ally with people who are also minorities or who come from mixed background, perhaps seeing in them not only a kind of safety but also a strength that is ordinarily ignored or overlooked by people of the dominant white ethnicity.

    Questions About Race

    1. How do people in Robledo, other than Lauren herself, think about race? How do people who travel north with Lauren think about it? What's similar and what's different in the perspectives of these two sets of individuals?
    2. Through her character Lauren Olamina, what does Octavia Butler seem to be saying about race? Is there any single big point Butler is making, or are there multiple small points?
    3. How would this novel be different if the narrator and main character were white?
    4. How does race relate to sexuality in this novel? Consider the relationship between Jorge and Bianca, or the disguise relationship between Zahra and Lauren. Is the near-future United States envisioned by Octavia Butler a place with more tolerance (or less) than today? How so?

    Chew on This

    It's wise for Lauren to ally with ethnic minorities.

    People from ethnic minority backgrounds in this novel are strong in times of adversity because they're used to adversity.