Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Body Language

One theme I noticed throughout several of Octavia Butler’s short stories was the importance of the body in communication. This theme is the most blatant in “Speech Sounds”, which is set in a dystopian world where an unspecified illness has robbed most of the remaining population of their ability to speak and understand language. Throughout the story, we see the extent to which body language has come to compensate for any verbal or written communication, expressing both aggression and love at different points in the story. In “Bloodchild”, although dialogue is informative, most meaningful interaction is physical. While the reader instinctively shies away from the idea of giant centipede-like creatures holding a position of power within a human household, the way T’Gatoi cradles Gan and his mother, adored but “caged”, illustrates the dynamic of the family unit more effectively than could pages of conversation. Butler’s shockingly visceral depictions of the conception and birth of the worms, paired with the clear indication that this arrangement operates under the consent of the human host, are similarly demonstrative of the complex relationship between Terran (human) and Tlic.

As Alexandra suggested in her post, much of the key “body language” in “The Evening and the Morning and the Night” is tied up in the violent, generally self-destructive behavior of the DGD victims as they attempt to literally dig themselves out of their own bodies. Given Butler’s use of the body as an expressive tool, this characterization of the disease is particularly telling, as it implies that those with the disease are, through the act of self-mutilation, removing themselves from society in a wholly physical way, destroying their own methods of communication—their bodies. In keeping with this theme, DGD victims are only judged to be members of society again when they regain the ability to create and express themselves with their bodies, through acts such as painting, molding clay, or building inventions. Alan’s mother, a DGD victim who destroyed her own eyes, signals her relative freedom from the effects of the disease by running her fingers over Alan and Lynn’s faces. With Beatrice’s guidance, she even manages to hug her son—a symbol of acceptance and affection that needs no words.

When asked about her emphasis on the body in her interview with Marilyn Mehaffy and AnaLouise Keating, Butler replies, “the body is all we really know that we have. We can say that there’re always other things that are wonderful. And some are. But all we really know that we have is the flesh” (59). Given this presentation of the body as a sort of fundamental truth, combined with the essentiality of the body and body language in her writing (as described above and as Mehaffy describes in the interview), I was surprised at Butler’s seeming unwillingness to describe her protagonists. In none of the three of the stories I mentioned do we receive a physical description of the protagonists, and in two out of the three (“The Evening and the Morning and the Night” and “Speech Sounds”) I found myself drastically altering my perceptions of the main characters partway through the story, as Butler withholds basic demographic information for several pages—far longer than the norm for such brief works. (I had initially imagined Lynn to be male, which was not really refuted until Alan’s introduction, and I had imagined Rye to be quite young.) Similarly, race is generally ignored in Butler’s works, despite the enormous role it played in the author’s own life. Given that most authors seem to slip in basic descriptive information at the very beginning of their stories (albeit subtly), I can only assume that this is purposeful on Butler’s part—perhaps as a way of generalizing the experiences of her characters across a spectrum of physical traits.

Edit: I somehow missed Kai's post when writing this, so I'd like to make a belated acknowledgment to his exploration of the same theme I discussed above.


Post a Comment