On Octavia Butler’s "Unexpected Stories" and Margaret Mitchell’s "Gone With the Wind "

By Noah BerlatskyJuly 22, 2014

Unexpected Stories by Octavia E. Butler

IN The Problem of Pain,C. S. Lewis’s Christian meditation on suffering, he drily notes, “If the worst came to worst, a heaven for mosquitoes and a hell for men could very conveniently be combined.” Even though Lewis’s “problem” was theological, it can also be read as an insight into how visions of utopia and dystopia, heaven or hell, can overlap, and how they depend — crucially — on perspective. For example, does the recent Spike Jonze film Her depict an idyllic future in which humans have created perfect digital aides who can provide them with ideal companionship? Or, does the film show a dystopian nightmare in which subjugated assistants must provide around-the-clock emotional and even sexual services for a spoiled, bored ruling class? These are not the only possible interpretations of Jonze’s movie, nor are they mutually exclusive. But they do help to demonstrate how, in sci-fi, a heaven for humans and a hell for robots can be conveniently combined, or vice versa. The difference between a utopia and a dystopia is contingent upon deciding whose experience matters, and whose is marginalized.

That’s nowhere clearer than in one of the most popular, most beloved, and most notorious utopias of all time — Gone With the Wind. Margaret Mitchell’s famous novel is not typically thought of as a utopia; for one thing, it’s the wrong genre. GWTW is not forward-looking science fiction, but a historical novel steeped in nostalgia. Still, what Mitchell sees looking back is not so different from what progressive visionaries have seen gazing ahead. Marx imagined a postrevolutionary future, devoid of exploitation; Mitchell imagines a similar prewar past, built on bonds of love and fellowship, rather than on money-grubbing and cruel hierarchies. “I do not know what the future will bring,” former plantation scion Ashley Wilkes murmurs, “but it cannot be as beautiful or as satisfying as the past.” Later he adds, “Yes, life has a glitter now — of a sort. That’s what’s wrong with it. The old days had no glitter but they had a charm, a beauty, a slow-paced glamour.”

Obviously, it’s easy to move at a beautiful, slow pace when you have slaves to do the less glamorous work for you. Ashley here is a mosquito, bloated with blood, blissfully unaware of the souls he’s feasting on during his lazy, circular flight. According to Mitchell, however, the people he’s biting don’t even realize they’re in hell. On the contrary, they fairly beg to be eaten. The utopia in Gone With the Wind is predicated on the insistence that black people in the South found slavery to be a pretty good life. In the voice of its heroine, the novel asserts that “slaves were neither miserable nor unfortunate. The negroes were far better off under slavery than they were now under freedom, and if she didn’t believe it, just look about […]!” — as if looking around would offer reassurance. 

Mitchell takes care to make her black characters — or at least her “good” black characters — constantly express their enthusiasm for the antebellum hierarchy. Mammy, Scarlett’s longtime nurse and companion, may be “black, but her code of conduct and her sense of pride were as high as or higher than those of her owners.” Mitchell means that Mammy looks down on poor whites and field slaves alike; she is fiercely protective of the social standing of the O’Haras’. In the world of this novel, Mammy sees herself as a member of the family, and her service is based on love and affection, rather than on fear that she might be whipped, raped, or shot at will. Blacks in Gone With the Wind identify so closely with their white families that when Atlanta is invaded, the slaves are panic-stricken, actually afraid of freedom, as if they’re children about to be robbed of their parents. In Mitchell’s portrayal of Reconstruction, “good” black people, like Scarlett’s former foreman, Big Sam, express as much horror at the new, fallen world as the whites do. A group of Yankees “ast me ter set down wid dem, lak Ah wuz jes’ as good as dey wuz,” Sam says, with mixed indignation and confusion. Visions of utopia in Gone With the Wind become forces for imperialism in themselves. In this case, the prey is actively enthusiastic about being fed on by the mosquitoes. For Mitchell, happiness legitimizes, and enables, slavery.

Octavia Butler’s final book, the vampire novel Fledgling,explicitly draws the links between blood, slavery, and happiness. The narrator is an “Ina” — a young, black female vampire — named Shori. Shori uses her bite, which is physically and emotionally addictive, to surround herself with a number of dependent “symbionts” who love and serve her, sexually and otherwise. The novel, which is told from Shori’s point of view, encourages the reader to sympathize with her as she builds a small, utopian community ruled by herself as benevolent mistress. However, as Isaac Butler points out on my website, the Hooded Utilitarian, if you read against the novel just a little bit, the subtext is disturbing.

This different reading calls for an adjusted understanding of symbionts, or as we might call them, slaves. The bond between the Ina and her symbiont is formed through the venom in the Ina’s bite. The venom is addictive and only fatal to the symbionts if they’re ever separated from their Ina for too long. It also destroys free will — not only are symbionts unable to disobey their Ina’s command, once bitten they also feel pulled toward the Ina, wanting what the Ina wants, wanting to serve. Shori talks earnestly about free will and ethical treatment of her symbionts. As Butler shows however, consent is obviously and completely impossible. 

The metaphor seems clear: Ina venom makes humans into slaves — but not just any slaves. It turns them into “good” slaves like Mammy or Big Sam. They become so thoroughly enslaved that they don’t even want to escape. Gone With the Wind, too, can be seen as a vampire utopia, with Scarlett battened on Mammy’s willing throat like a great, velvet-gowned insect.

Fledgling is not unique in Butler’s oeuvre; many of her novels set up metaphorical links with the antebellum South, while also complicating or confusing those analogies. Shori, for example, is both a slaveholding vampire and a black woman. Writing in an issue of last year’s Novel (the journal published by Duke University Press), Madhu Dubey has argued that Butler uses this strategy in part to suggest that past and present oppressions are neither simply continuous, nor simply discontinuous. You can’t forget slavery, but you also can’t use it unquestioningly as a basis for analyzing ongoing oppression, which, as Dubey suggests, sometimes happened during the Black Power movement. Dubey writes: 

Butler revisits slavery in order to dispute dominant public narratives of the civil rights movement as inaugurating a postracial phase of national history. The insistently running thread of US chattel slavery in Butler’s fiction attests to the persistence of racial inequality in the post–civil rights period. Yet by continually defamiliarizing this history, Butler compels attention to current practices of coercion and subjugation that are not always, or not most fully, understood as remnants or extensions of the racial legacy of antebellum chattel slavery.

While I don’t dispute that reading, I think it’s possible to see Butler’s work not just as a critique, but also as an exploration or aspiration. She’s not just questioning visions of post-racial utopia; she’s trying to think her way past an immutable racist dystopia. Many of her novels ask: how can the world get better when the dream of a better world for some has, historically, ideologically, and seemingly inevitably, meant a hell for others?

Butler’s posthumously published story “A Necessary Being” responds to this question in a surprisingly hopeful way. The novella’s setting and characters are deliberately ambiguous. Though it’s linked to her Patternist series of novels, there’s nothing in the story itself to tell you whether it’s set on a post-apocalypse earth, on a distant planet, or somewhere else entirely. This world seems broken into more or less hostile tribes, living in deserts and mountains; beyond that, we know little. The physical bodies of the protagonists are never explicitly described. They seem humanoid for the most part, but they appear to have fur, as well as claws or fangs.

Fur and skin come in a range of hues — from yellow to blue to white to green. This color is the characters’ most important attribute, because it serves as the foundation for a strict caste system. The castes are insistently naturalized. Those who are blue, called Hao, are the rulers. Hao may be born to anyone, but whomever their parents, Hao aren’t just blue — they are bigger, stronger, and substantially more powerful than people of any other color. Their blueness is the literal sign of racial superiority, which is as unquestioned in the story as white dominance is in Gone With the Wind. Hao are also, apparently objectively, better leaders than people of other colors. At one point for example, Butler writes, “the training, the discipline that [this tribe] had shown bespoke the presence of a Hao.” This is a sentiment, again, that neatly echoes Mitchell’s certainty that without whites to guide them, black people would devolve into atavistic shiftlessness or violence.

Neither Mitchell nor Butler uses simple “superiority” as the ultimate justification for castes based on skin color. They both focus on love and duty. Scarlett knows that even after the war, Big Sam “still belonged to her […] was still ‘one of our family’ and, as such, must be protected” and sheltered after he kills a Yankee. In the same way, Butler’s character Tahneh, one of the main characters and a Hao herself, muses, “there was no possibility of ‘persuading’ a Hao to betray his people.” 

This, in fact, is why I’d argue that we should think of the Hao-led society in Butler’s story as a utopia, just like Mitchell’s antebellum South. Neither Mitchell nor Butler imagines a perfect people or land; both utopias still have jealousy, cruelty, unhappiness, and death. But both societies, as they are presented, have built their hierarchies not on power, but on love and loyalty. The white people rule benevolently, and the black people like to be ruled; the Hao rule from unwavering duty to their people, and those people demand to be ruled. At their core, therefore, both societies are virtuous and just, their hierarchies morally justified and ratified, in a way that actual, real societies on our unimaginative earth never are or can be.

Mitchell’s dream was a mask of course for one of the least righteous societies ever to build itself on the blood of its fellow humans. Butler is certainly aware of that, and yet she still seems to find the dream itself — the idea of a society built on love, duty, and order — appealing. But how can you keep the dream without being haunted by the specter of the violence used to maintain it? Unexpectedly, Butler’s answer is not less violence, but more.

For Mitchell, black violence against whites is a paradox. It is both unthinkable (the novel scoffs at the idea that slaves might rebel to help the Northern troops) and the ultimate evil that needs to be met with horrified, instant retribution. In Butler’s story, though, violence against the Hao, the ruling class, is neither impossible nor horrible; it’s simply the way the society works. Hao are born rarely, and they are prized both as leaders and as a kind of good-luck charm. Every community wants one. If a group of people lack a Hao, and one comes within their reach, they will try to persuade the Hao to leave her own people and join them. Since the Hao are too loyal to abandon their own tribes, a community without a Hao will try to capture one by force, often at great cost of life. They will then cripple and keep that Hao with them for the rest of her life. The title is a sideways commentary on this kidnapping of a hierarch; in a sermon, the 17th-century preacher John Tillotson wrote, “If God were not a necessary Being of Himself, He might almost seem to be made for the use and benefit of men.”

Butler’s society here is, among other things, a sly commentary on slavery apologetics — if black people were so happy in subjugation, why weren’t free blacks out there kidnapping whites to rule them? Butler’s primary purpose doesn’t seem to be satire or critique however. The pain and humiliation of a kidnapped Hao is, in fact, the closest the story comes to evoking the cruelty of slavery. At one point, Tahneh remembers: 

[…] her father, sitting on his mat, lying on his pallet, sitting in the litter that the people had used to carry him. She had never seen him standing. He had been old when she was born, and his legs had been useless for two-thirds of his life. […] They had burned him with hot irons behind his knees until his lower legs were permanently useless. He had been bitterly vengeful at first, and his agony until his burns healed had helped him make the lives of those who had chosen to serve him hard.

Torture on the basis of skin color, inflicted in the name of expropriating labor — the parallel with antebellum practices is fairly clear. And yet, the labor expropriated here is leadership. It’s as if the slaves came in from the fields to whip the master, force him to live in the big house, and impose servitude upon them. This could also be read as a metaphorical suggestion that slavery damaged the masters as well as the servants, perhaps — but making that metaphor physical changes its character substantially. A master who vaguely suffers some sort of moral damage from mastery is in a much different position from a master who is literally forced to rule through physical torture.

“A Necessary Being” begins with Tahneh’s tribe capturing another Hao. Tahneh is old, and she has been unable to bear a child; her people fear that when she dies they’ll be left without a Hao. Tahneh doesn’t want to kidnap and cripple the other Hao, named Diut, but in this case she “has no rights,” as one of her subjects tells her; she can’t interfere with the succession. 

And yet, impelled by the memory of her crippled, enslaved father, she does interfere. Rather than stealing Diut from his people, she and her people join his. It’s a peaceful solution — reached not by ignoring hierarchy or by denying violence, but by trying to stay true to the memory, and for that matter, to the ongoing inevitability, of both. Butler seems to say that if utopia is a dystopia for some, the way out of that dilemma is to keep flipping the terms, so that controlled and controller, bloodsucker and symbiont, are changeable positions. A heaven worthy of the name should turn itself inside out, if only to switch regularly who is feeding on whom. “A Necessary Being” imagines that maybe then we’ll have made a world where masters obey their slaves, and where even mosquitos can learn mercy.


Noah Berlatsky edits the comics and culture website and is a correspondent for The Atlantic.

LARB Contributor

Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer based in Chicago. He is the author of Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941–1948, from Rutgers University Press.


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