By: Erica Quinones ’22, an English major.
The following work was created for FYS 101: Dystopia on the Page, Stage, and Screen.
Brief description: “This piece was written for the First-Year Seminar, ‘Dystopia on the Page, Stage and Screen.’ It explores the complexities of metaphor in Octavia Butler’s short story, ‘The Evening and the Morning and the Night,’ with a focus on their application to disabled women in the United States of America.”
Throughout history, systems of oppression have repeated themselves. Slavery, exploitation, and criminalization have marked the backs of racial and ethnic minorities globally. Likewise, deviance from gender roles, sexual expectations, or bodily ability have resulted in the devaluing of entire communities. This overlap in discriminatory tactics has made a broad and fluid group known as the minority. Sami Schalk’s essay, “Interpreting Disability Metaphor and Race in Octavia Butler’s ‘The Evening and the Morning and the Night,’” draws connections between the systems of oppression which affect both disabled individuals and African Americans through Butler’s short story. However, while Butler’s work comfortably fulfills the disability metaphor, when applied to racial discrimination, it does not align. Rather, Butler’s story is better applied to female ableism through its focus on reproduction.
Schalk’s exploration of the paralleled oppression suffered by both black and disabled Americans does not support Duryea-Gode disease (DGD) as a metaphor for blackness. The core of Schalk’s essay revolves around the idea that in “The Evening and the Morning and the Night” —from here on called “Evening” —“DGD operates as a disability metaphor that alludes to the parallel and overlapping forms of discrimination that have occurred for both black and disabled people” (Schalk 4). This is valid in that the oppressive tactics she names such as institutionalization, social discrimination, and internalized discrimination have been practiced in or on both communities, but it only proves there are confounding forms of oppression. Rather than focusing on similar forms of oppression, to cement DGD as a viable race metaphor, Schalk should have explored the racial coding implemented in the design of the disease or character portrayals. However, this task proves the toughest critique against DGD as a race metaphor.
DGD’s origin divorces it from race. DGD is not a natural disease, rather it is contracted through the medicine Hedeonco. This is important because it is not genetically transmitted as seen in the main character Lynn’s description of its spread. Butler writes, “If one of your parents was treated with Hedeonco and you were conceived after the treatments, you had DGD. If you had kids, you passed it on to them” (Butler 46). Because DGD is introduced through an outside source, it better resembles diseases like human immunodeficiency virus, which is connected to the parent’s condition during pregnancy or breastfeeding. Had DGD been a naturally occurring disease, this would change its plausibility as a race metaphor; however, as it is not, the metaphor does not fit comfortably. The discrepancy between physical race and DGD is further agitated by the characters Butler prioritizes in her story.
Butler’s dismissal of the only explicitly African American character further denounces its reading as a race metaphor. The only character given an ethnicity is Alan Chi. Lynn says, “I thought Chi was a Chinese name…But he told me his father was Nigerian” (Butler 40). This creates an opportunity to show the discrepancy between a disabled ethnic minority character and disabled people of the dominant ethnicity. However, Alan is not treated differently from others. He is not considered more dangerous by those around him, his sterilization is not forced, and he is given equitable treatment when visiting Dilg by its director, Beatrice. This does not mean there is no racism or that he would be treated equitably in other facilities, but by not focusing on that aspect, Butler avoids explicit racial messaging. However, there is one subgroup whose struggles she prioritizes.
The use of a female protagonist and feminine conflict shifts the focus from race to gender. Female ableism is a rare topic because disabled women in popular culture are themselves rare. Those who are depicted are often physically disabled because it is seen as romantic, the tragic heroine dependent on her lover. So, Butler’s focus on a cognitively disabled woman emphasizes those particular challenges. The most prominent of these is how women’s rights are applicable to disabled women. Shortly after meeting Alan, he and Lynn discuss sterilization. Schalk mentions this in her paper, however, she highlights Lynn’s confession to having thought about it. What she omits is Lynn’s comment that sterilization would be “like killing part of yourself” (Butler 42). As a woman, Lynn has a stronger connection to her ability to procreate than Alan because it is part of her identity.
While the second wave of feminist theory argued against reproduction as a measure of worth, that did not end its importance in female identification. Reproductive rights are women’s issues because, for many, the uterus is integral to sexual and gender identification. One does not need to have children to be a biological woman, but the ability to do so is important to female autonomy. Sterilization would, as she said, kill part of her. This theme is rampant in Butler’s short story and serves as the core conflict.
The ability to parent is depicted as the solution to Lynn’s conflict in “Evening.” As aforementioned, when “Evening” was published in 1987, the concept of women as only caregivers was mostly rejected. However, the growing presence of women in the workforce or positions of power did not change society’s expectation of women in the family. They may work, but they were still expected to be the primary caregiver. Thus, while the depiction of motherhood as the ultimate fulfillment for Butler’s female characters seems regressive, it may be forgiven. This concept is seen in Lynn’s complete character arc.
Throughout the story, Lynn’s primary conflict is that she has no role in life. She believes her destiny is solidified as seen in the opening paragraph when her parents take her to a state-run DGD ward. Lynn sees this not as a warning but a premonition, saying, “In fact, it was where I was headed no matter what” (Butler 35). This sense of helplessness is changed through Dilg. After learning that a pheromone she releases can stabilize drifted DGD patients, she decides working in clinics, not dying in them, is her destiny. In the final line, Lynn says, “For long, irrational minutes, I was convinced that somehow if I turned, I would see myself standing there, gray and old, growing small in the distance, vanishing” (Butler 68). This is the first time Lynn thinks about growing old. Her first visit to a clinic was followed by an attempted suicide, this one is followed by a vision of life. Lynn sees a future for herself, and that future is as a caregiver. She will not use the uterus that she treasures but will live out its function by helping patients. She can care for those she loves and have the family of which she was never allowed to dream without the threat of transmitting the disease she fears. She finds fulfillment in traditional femininity.
Octavia Butler’s “The Evening the Morning and the Night” is a beautiful depiction of both discrimination and the power of community, but it is not universally applicable. How societies oppress will always be similar, because the tactics work. But because the methods are similar does not mean the same for their causes. Schalk creates a strong comparison between the treatment of disabled individuals and African Americans, but it is just that, a comparison. There is no overwhelming evidence that Butler’s story should be read as a race metaphor, and as Schalk mentioned in her introduction, Butler did not mean for her writing to be primarily about race. When the author’s race trumps other defining characteristics of their characters, some interpretations are regarded as more authoritative. The experiences of the author are important in interpreting their work, but so are the protagonist’s experiences. Who they are, what they desire, and what fulfills their arc is more important to a story than who wrote it. Gender is not trumped by disability, gender is not trumped by race, rather they work together to create broken, beaten spirits like the ones in female DGD patients.
Butler, Octavia E. “The Evening and the Morning and the Night.” Bloodchild and Other Stories, 2nd ed., Seven Stories Press, 2005, pp. 33-68.
Schalk, Sami. “Interpreting Disability Metaphor and Race in Octavia Butler’s “The Evening and the Morning and the Night”.” African American Review, vol. 50, no. 2, 2017, pp. 139-151. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/afa2017.0018. Accessed 24 October 2018.
Erica Quinones ’22is a freshman at Washington College majoring in English and toeing the line of a Political Science minor. She is a Staff Writer for The Elm, a clarinetist in the Concert Band, a member of Musicians Union, a member of the Washington Interactive Gaming Society, and attended one meeting of Writers Union. Despite her more-than-abysmal attendance at club meetings, she plans on continuing her writing and hopes to improve and expand throughout her college career. She is thankful to Professor Brendon Fox for suggesting she submit her essay and for expanding her dystopic pallet beyond Orwell and Bradbury.