After finishing Dawn by Octavia Butler, I am curious to see where the next novel will take Lilith and the others- is it possible, as Lilith suggests at the end, that “a few fertile people might slip through and find one another?” (Butler 248). Only time (and more reading) will tell.
As we discussed in class, the theme of agency, and who does and does not have it, is central to this novel. We touched upon the difference between a trade and crossbreeding, highlighting the fact that in a trade, both parties give something to the other, but maintain their own individual entities, whereas with crossbreeding, two become one. This important distinction made by Lilith, but not by the Oankali, emphasizes the complete lack of agency the humans have throughout Dawn; it is not a trade between the Oankali and the humans, as Nikanj tries to tell Lilith, but is in fact crossbreeding, forever changing the human race.
The second half of the novel really developed this lack of agency on the part of the humans through the dependent relationship between the humans and their ooloi. The ooloi have an exceptional ability to stimulate the human nervous system and create intense feelings for humans; this is first shown through the somewhat unconventional sex scene between Lilith and Joseph, in which Nikanj participates. After Nikanj put one of his sensory arms on each of them, Lilith “sandwiched Nikanj’s body between her own and Joseph’s, placing it for the first time in the ooloi position between two humans” (Butler 161). Butler’s word choice of “ooloi position” implies that positioning the ooloi between two humans during sex, something that is arguably the most intimate and personal things that two human beings can do together, is a natural place for it, despite the fact that that is something completely foreign to us as readers. However, in this world, the ooloi and the humans form a three person interdependent relationship unlike any other.
This relationship comes into sharp focus when Lilith tries to touch Joseph without Nikanj there- Lilith notes that “his flesh felt wrong somehow, oddly repellant” (Butler 220). She draws away from him, “shuddering with revulsion and relief” (220). Then, Tate and Gabriel suffer the same fate, unable to touch each other, and sufficiently angered by it. In their discussion, Lilith notes that despite all of their anger over much of what has happened, none of them is able to hate the Oankali or their individual ooloi; she says that “[they’re] all a little bit co-opted” (240). The Oankali have assured their crossbreeding with humans by creating a “powerful threefold unity that was one of the most alien features of Oankali life;” even to the Oankali, this bond is unique, and it will guarantee a complete lack of agency on the part of humans in forming interspecies relationships without the presence of this alien race.
The Oankali really assure a lack of agency on the part of humans by altering their genetics so that they cannot have babies without the help of an ooloi. Nikanj tells Lilith that “human sperm and egg will not unite without [them],” making sure that humans cannot reproduce their own kind, but instead must reproduce with the ooloi. To put the literary capper on the whole situation, Lilith finds out that she has been made pregnant by Nikanj 100% without her consent. Lilith angrily reminds Nikanj that he said he wouldn’t do it until she was ready, but he verifies his actions by telling her that she is “ready now to have Joseph’s child” (Butler 246). Nikanj decided when Lilith was ready for something as important as birthing and raising a child, something quite arguably a huge burden for a woman and a choice that is not to be made hastily or lightly, and gave her no agency in making one of the most important decisions in a woman’s life. Ultimately, it is this act that solidifies the power the ooloi have over the humans, and their ability to take and create life as they please gives them the ultimate agency, not humans.