Parable of the Sower (1993) is the story of Lauren Olamina, a young woman who lives in a near-future dystopian California. When her home community succumbs to the destructive forces of the world around it, Lauren is forced onto the road in search of a new life. Throughout her journey, she gradually builds a new belief system, as well as kinship with a new community.
Introduction: A cautionary tale and coming of age story in a dystopia that’s eerily realistic
Table of Contents
You can’t read Parable of the Sower without feeling deeply disconcerted by how relevant Butler’s world-building is to the United States right now. Part of the reason for this is that the book starts in 2024. Butler’s story takes place in California, just outside of L.A. in a walled community. The world depicted is dangerous, hungry, and desperate. Inside the walls of the community there are a dozen neighbors who do their best to work together and survive. Among them is Lauren Olamina, a fifteen-year-old Black girl who does everything she can to warn people that their neighborhood won’t be safe from the outside world forever.
When the community does eventually fall, Lauren is forced out of her home and onto the road with other refugees headed north in hopes of finding work that actually pays money and won’t turn them into slaves.
This story is at once a coming-of-age tale, an exploration of the nature of humanity when times are desperate, and a philosophy on the most powerful force in the world – change. Butler shows us that slavery isn’t as distant from our modern world as we like to think, and that the most vulnerable among us will be the first to become victims if and when times get desperate.
In this summary, we’ll guide you through a brief summary of all the major plot points of this acclaimed post-apocalyptic novel, and we’ll end each section with a brief analysis of some of the main themes.
So, let’s begin.
Times are tough
The year is 2024, it’s July, and the last wall-screen television in the community has just gone out. Lauren, along with some of the town’s other young members, is leaving the walled town to travel by bicycle to a nearby church. They’re accompanied by Lauren’s father, who is the community’s pastor. Even though it’s a hardship, the people of the town have pooled their resources to fill up the church baptistry so that the newest generation can be baptized.
Lauren is being baptized not out of faith, but out of respect for her father. She no longer believes in his Christian God, or any of the other mainstream religions. She’s been thinking about a new potential God, one based around the idea of change, and forming her own philosophies around this new god. She may even be creating her own religion – but she still has yet to figure out what that entails.
To get to the church, the group has to cycle past the struggling people who live outside the walls. These are homeless people. Desperate people. Among them are many victims. Naked women and children. Lauren suffers from a rare condition called hyperempathy, which she acquired due to her mother’s drug use during pregnancy. Because of the hyperempathy, Lauren can literally feel both the emotional and physical pain of people and animals near her. One day on an outing to practice shooting, Lauren has to kill a wild dog who is threatening her group. She feels its pain and she feels it die, like she herself is dying, but she does not die with it.
While the people of Lauren’s community are safe and support each other, times are still hard. Starvation is not far from any of them. And raiders occasionally find their way over the fences, and people are killed when venturing outside the walls.
Lauren understands what no one else seems to – that life as they know it is temporary. It seems like everyone is content to deal with their misery in the belief that the next new president will bring things back to the old ways. But Lauren knows that something worse is coming.
When meeting the members of Lauren’s community, we immediately see a generational divide between people who remember what was, and those who only know the world as it is. This idea will develop as we recognize that Lauren’s way of looking at the future is different, and likely more functional, than that of the adults around her.
Violence in Parable of the Sower is brutal. Outside the walls people are raped, abused, and murdered. There’s no apparent law enforcement or firm denouncement of the behavior. These are just the brutalities that humans perpetrate against one another now. It’s a reality.
Lauren often talks about change. She talks about God in the same context. She’s beginning to develop what will be her guiding philosophy – that the only God is Change – Change with a capital C. That with a God like Change, you will either experience change yourself, or you will be destroyed. And that, ultimately, you get to choose one of those endings or the other.
Lauren begins to write verses that come to her that reflect this doctrine. Eventually she faces the fact that she’s forming a new religion, and names it Earthseed. The essence of the Earthseed religion is that God is Change, people have the power to shape God, and people’s destiny lies among the stars.
A prodigal son
Lauren is in trouble. She had shared her concern about the community’s bleak future with a friend, but it didn’t go over well. The friend was frightened and told on her, so Lauren’s father sat her down and had a talk with her.
As a teenager, she feels that she is the only one who understands what’s going on – that the community is denying its inevitable destruction. But after talking to her father, she finds that he also understands. But he tells her it is better to teach people than to scare them. That’s why he takes young people out for shooting lessons and teaches people to prepare “earthquake packs,” even though he’s really preparing them more for escape than for natural disasters.
The conversation helps Lauren understand more about why her father makes the choices he does. She respects him, but she also knows that one day she will have to leave him behind. He’s still clinging to the hope of a society that she believes will never exist again.
Lauren’s brother Keith also wishes to leave the community, but for very different reasons. At 13, he’s young and restless, and eager to display his manhood by sneaking out and seeing what’s beyond the walls. On his first trip out, he is gone for five days and returns beaten and bloodied, and is only in his underwear.
Their dad lectures him, and makes him apologize in church the next morning. Keith had taken the key to the community gate, and the key was then stolen, putting the entire town in jeopardy. Keith apologizes – but he hasn’t learned his lesson, and leaves again.
For a few months, Keith lives outside the walls. He often returns to visit his mother, Lauren’s stepmother, Cory, and to give gifts to the two siblings he likes. Lauren asks him if he is getting his money through prostitution or drugs. He says he’s making money teaching his friends how to read. However, he later confesses that he murdered a rich man on the road and took everything from him.
Not long after, the police call Lauren’s dad and stepmom to identify Keith’s body. He had been slowly and meticulously tortured to death, likely by drug dealers he had stolen from.
Lauren, unlike her father, feels no connection to the hope represented by things like insurance and a paid-off house. Her eyes are on the stars, and on Japan and other countries that are still investing in space travel. The US is backing out of space travel, which signals to Lauren that she is living in a place that has no chance of survival.
We are also witnessing the emergence of a prophet. Lauren is steadily writing her Earthseed verses. They are simple, straightforward, and they speak the truth. She believes they are also the basis for a philosophy that could galvanize a following and propel humanity toward the stars.
Keith was a cautionary tale – an answer to the question of whether it’s possible to adapt to the world as it exists now. The answer is no – not without selling your soul. Not without hurting other people. Lauren knows that humanity has to change, and that change can’t take place where people are clinging to the past.
Lauren begins to wonder if her only choices are to live with her family in a steadily declining, increasingly dangerous walled-in community, or to strike out on her own and go north. There’s a promise of jobs and liveable conditions up there, or so they’ve heard.
One day, Lauren’s father – who also teaches at a nearby college – goes to work and doesn’t return. Lauren helps to support her family, but things in the community are looking increasingly dire without her father’s leadership. And a couple of months after he goes missing, Lauren’s prophecy comes true: one night, a group of raiders rams a truck through the community gate.
The breach is all it takes for thieves, murderers, and desperate, starving people to flood in. Every single house is set on fire. People are dragged out of their homes, raped, murdered, and robbed.
Lauren flees just behind her stepmother and little brothers, but she loses sight of them. She grabs a gun off a dead body and runs out of the gate. She stumbles across a burnt-out garage and seeks shelter for the night.
The next morning, she goes back to try to reconnect with her stepmom and brothers. She finds out that they are dead and that her community has been burned down. It is now being casually looted by hordes of scavengers. Filthy, bloody, and exhausted, Lauren becomes a scavenger in her own home, packing up a few articles of clothing along with a packet of emergency money that had been buried behind a tree.
Lauren is sickened by everything she sees. Friends and neighbors are dead on the ground, having their pockets looted. Maybe to the people beyond the wall this community looked rich, but it wasn’t. What did these monsters gain by burning it all down?
Lauren hears someone call her name. She is joined by a young man named Harry and a woman named Zhara who also lived in the community. The three of them return to the burned-out garage to recover and share what they know. After some rest, they pack what they have and begin making their way north, stopping at a highly secure shopping center to get some supplies.
While this work of fiction is telling the story of an eerily possible near future, it’s also telling the story of growing up and of human evolution. A child cannot grow up in the shadow of its parents. And maybe the human species can’t grow up in the shadow of its home planet.
Lauren understands that God is Change. She calls the act of forethought and planning “godshaping,” because it is a way of turning change in one’s favor – or at least trying to. She recognizes that to resist change is to die. Unfortunately, before she can choose to leave town herself, the choice is made for her.
Themes of gender and racial injustice have arisen in the story to this point, but since Lauren has now been forced outside the walls of her home community, she has to confront racial issues head-on. Harry is white, but Lauren and Zhara are black. Lauren is choosing to travel as a man in hopes of reducing any chance of violence against her and Zhara, as well as against them and Harry for appearing to be a “mixed” trio.
On the road
An attack comes in the night on Harry’s watch. Lauren is awakened by the weight of a body falling on her – a dead body. When she gets up, she sees Harry in a losing battle against another man. Lauren picks up a large rock and bashes the man in the back of the head.
Because of Lauren’s hyperempathy, she immediately feels the pain she’s inflicted and passes out. When she comes to, she sees Harry and Zhara looking over her with concern and she knows she has to tell them about her hyperempathy – or “sharing,” as she calls it. But first, she has to deal with the man, who is unconscious but not dead.
She feels the back of his head and knows his wound is, if not fatal, at least life-altering. If they were to walk away from him, he would likely suffer a lot before dying. This would affect Lauren through her sharing. Additionally, if he were to survive, there would be a strong possibility of him seeking them out.
For all of these reasons, Lauren knows she must end his life. Harry disagrees and refuses to give her the gun, so she uses her knife to slit the man’s throat. The three survivors
search his body and that of the other dead person for resources, finding some money and a few other items. Then Lauren sits down and tells them about her affliction. They talk for a while, and Harry agrees that they will continue on as a group, but he wants to read some of Lauren’s journal so he can understand who she truly is.
That’s when Lauren, for the first time, shares her Earthseed verses.
Along the road over the coming days, the trio rescue a young family from scavengers. The family, made up of a father, mother, and three-month-old child, join their group. The father had been little more than a slave working for a white family. The mother had been their maid. When the master of the house began harassing the mother, the three of them set out to escape.
The road also yields a middle-aged man who is pushing a cart with saddle-bags holding his supplies. His name is Bankole, and he and Lauren form an instant bond. Additionally, the group ends up rescuing two young women from the debris caused by a recent earthquake. Their last group add-on is a three-year-old child whose mother has been accidentally shot and killed.
Now traveling in this larger group, they have more people to stand watch and wield weapons. However, they are also made vulnerable by the small children, whose cries can easily give them away in the wrong set of circumstances.
With these people Lauren begins to share her Earthseed vision – and begins to acquire her first converts and disciples.
What would you do to survive? This question is asked and answered through Lauren’s experiences. Harry represents that part of ourselves that clings to civilization and doesn’t want to descend into animalistic survival. However, Lauren shows that you can survive without losing your humanity when they take in the family.
The Earthseed doctrine gets more fleshed out in this section. We learn why Lauren chooses to talk about God as capital-C Change rather than simply talking about change in general. She claims that people will remember God, but they forget ideas, so it’s best to give the idea a name. She also talks about this God as a neutral agent. It neither loves you or hates you. It has a nature, and that nature is change, and that nature is better partnered with than resisted.
This section also digs into issues of slavery. Travis and Natividad, the young couple with the baby, lived in a situation very similar to that of slaves in the nineteenth century. The idea of masters abusing their slaves is discussed. We’re asked to consider that these behaviors are related to the environment we live in. The more desperate and hungry we are, the more likely we are to retreat to more tribal behaviors, to see each other as enemies, and to become the worst versions of ourselves.
An end and a beginning
As the journey north continues, Lauren learns more about the people she’s invited into her group, and ends up adopting a few others.
One night, as they are lying low to avoid some violence on the road, a mother and daughter sneak into their group and fall asleep. When Lauren wakes up and sees them, she quickly assesses the situation. After some conversation, they decide to allow them to remain. Not long after, they meet a father and daughter who also join the group. These newcomers also happen to be sharers.
As they open up to new folks, they also grow to trust each other. Lauren tells Bankole about her religion and her sharing. In turn, Bankole confesses that he isn’t just going north – he’s going to his own patch of land, about 300 acres, in northern California. His sister and her family are currently living there.
Bankole asks Lauren to marry him and live with him there. She tells him that she intends to start a community, and if he’s willing to share his land for that purpose, then she will marry him. He agrees.
But once they arrive at Bankole’s land, instead of a house, they find a burned patch and the skulls of what they can only assume are his sister and her family.
In spite of this, they find that they have created a strong group whose members have grown to rely on each other. They’ve acquired several children in need of care. With their limited resources, they could conceivably create and protect a community on the land here.
They bury an acorn for each of their loved ones so that a grove of trees will one day grow in their honor. Then they begin setting out to raise shelter and plant seeds.
Reading the book as a coming-of-age story, we finally see Lauren as a woman. She’s fallen in love with a man much older than she, but it’s a wise choice. He is kind, a doctor, owns land, and has an optimistic vision of their future together. While she is still forming her thoughts on Earthseed, she has at last planted the seed of what will one day be a strong community.
Her choice to unite with Bankole is interesting in that she has spent the bulk of the book seeking to depart from the ways of the past. She is frustrated with people who are stuck in the past. She sees mankind’s destiny as existing among the stars.
However, the more mature version of Lauren seems to understand that a trip to the stars will still be rooted in a reality on earth. She is creating balance for herself by attaching herself to someone with ties to the way the world once was, and she’s balancing her revolution with the terrestrial needs of people for food, shelter, stability, and community.
The story concludes more with a beginning than an ending. And it ends on a note of realistic hope. They know their community won’t ever be fully safe, but they have a reasonable hope that they will be able to survive and perhaps even thrive in this new place.
Change is the most powerful force on earth. Our only hope is to shape it when we can and bend with it when we must. Lauren’s journey northward and into adulthood shows the progression of her understanding of this concept.
In the beginning, she is all about survival skills. When circumstances force her to leave her home before she’s ready, she journeys with those she is familiar with. Survival is her only priority. But as she observes and learns about life on the road, she begins to see the humanity that exists there, as well as the importance of building community. Throughout the progress northward, she and her group slowly grow, learning to work cooperatively even when they disagree, prioritizing the care of the weak.
Lauren finds unlikely love and kinship with these strangers, to the point where she’s able to plant the seeds of her new religion among them. The community they create is far from secure, but it is a place of hope.
About the Author
Octavia E. Butler
Society & Culture
Parable of the Sower: A Novel by Octavia E. Butler is a dystopian science fiction novel that explores the themes of survival, religion, social change, and human nature in a world ravaged by environmental disasters, economic collapse, and social unrest. The novel follows the journey of Lauren Olamina, a young Black woman who has a rare condition called hyperempathy, which makes her feel the pain and pleasure of others as if they were her own. Lauren lives in a gated community in Southern California, where she and her family try to maintain a semblance of normalcy amid the chaos and violence outside their walls. Lauren is also the founder of a new belief system called Earthseed, which posits that God is Change and that humanity’s destiny is to take root among the stars.
The novel is divided into three parts, each corresponding to a different stage of Lauren’s life and journey. In the first part, we witness the gradual deterioration of Lauren’s neighborhood and family, as they face threats from drug addicts, thieves, arsonists, and corrupt police. Lauren secretly writes down her Earthseed verses in a journal and shares them with her friends Harry and Joanne, who are skeptical of her ideas. When her neighborhood is finally attacked and destroyed by a group of pyromaniacs, Lauren escapes with Harry and Zahra, one of the wives of a polygamist neighbor. They decide to head north along the highway, hoping to find a safer place to live.
In the second part, we follow Lauren and her companions as they encounter various dangers and challenges on the road. They also meet other travelers who join their group, such as Travis and Natividad Douglas, a couple with an infant son; Taylor Bankole, an older doctor who owns land in Northern California; Allie and Jill Gilchrist, two sisters who escaped from a Christian cult; Justin Rohr, an orphaned toddler; Emery Solis and Tori Moss, two former slaves from a company town; and Grayson Mora and Doe Solis, Emery’s husband and daughter. Lauren gradually reveals her Earthseed beliefs to the others and tries to convince them to join her in creating a new community based on her vision. Some of them are receptive, while others are doubtful or hostile.
In the third part, we see Lauren and her followers reach Bankole’s land and begin to build their Earthseed community. They face some opposition from the local townspeople, who are suspicious of their newcomers and their strange religion. They also have to deal with internal conflicts, such as jealousy, resentment, and betrayal. Lauren struggles to balance her roles as a leader, a lover, a teacher, and a prophet. She also has to cope with the loss of some of her friends and family members along the way. The novel ends with Lauren looking forward to the future, hoping that one day Earthseed will spread across the world and beyond.
Parable of the Sower: A Novel by Octavia E. Butler is a powerful and compelling story that challenges the reader to think about the meaning of life, faith, change, and humanity in times of crisis. The novel offers a realistic and grim depiction of a possible future that is not too far from our present reality. It also presents a hopeful and inspiring vision of a new way of living that embraces diversity, creativity, adaptability, and resilience. The novel is rich in symbolism, imagery, and metaphors that enhance its thematic depth and emotional impact. The novel is also written in a clear and engaging style that captures the voice and perspective of its protagonist. The novel is highly recommended for anyone who enjoys science fiction, dystopian fiction, or social commentary.