The Allegory of Slavery in Bloodchild by Octavia Butler

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In Jenny Wolmark’s book, Aliens and Others, she states, “the structure of gender as a social category are shaped by the interactions of gender relations” (Wolmark, 55). Here, the gender relation is involved in multiple issues such as gender inequality. In Octavia Butler’s science fiction story, “Bloodchild”, the relations in society are similar, but it is the roles themselves that become reversed. In the story males represent traditional femininity, while the Tlic reflect traditional masculinity. This relationship is restrictive and harmful in nature as humans become slaves to the Tlics’ every command. In Gan’s relationship with T’Gatoi, it is revealed that his, “…mother promised T’Gatoi one of her children” (Butler, 8). Even before he was born into society, Gan was sold to T’Gatoi to continue her family lineage. The consent between each species was non-consensual as Gan had no say in what would become of his body. Butler utilizes the rhetorical elements of symbolism and imagery to directly examine the inequality within gender relations through representations of enslavement and reproduction.

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The theme of enslavement is demonstrated through Gan and T’Gatoi ‘s relationship. In the essay, “Would You Really Rather Die than Bear My Young?” Elyce Rae Helford writes, 'As a portrayal of a sexual relationship between dominant Tlic and disempowered human, the scene encourages a reading through the metaphor of white male slavemaster and enslaved female' (Helford, 266). Based on Butler’s description, T'Gatoi plays the part of the male slave master, while Gan plays the enslaved female. In Gan and T’Gatoi’s interactions, there are many physical exchanges between them. Although T’Gatoi is polite and gentle towards Gan and his family, when her commands are not obeyed, she coaxes them into submission. This is achieved with sterile Tlic eggs and her stinger. These narcotic eggs lull humans into a false state of happiness and symbolize a pacifying device intended to maintain Tlic authority. Her stinger, on the other hand, is used for physical acts of violence rather than mental. After Gan disobeyed T’Gatoi’s order to slaughter an animal, “She knocked [him] across the room. Her tail was an efficient weapon whether she exposed the sting or not” (Butler, 11). The exchange between Gan and T’Gatoi is similar to that of a slave master whipping their slave. Gan is not only physically abused but physically restricted from making his only choices. That is because whatever T’Gatoi says goes. He is also constrained in his life choices. Before Gan was even born, life was already planned out for him until the time he arrives until the time he dies. Fear is the one thing strong enough to advance the dominant organization of power, known as the Tlic. The pacification of Terran slaves will continue to occur as the Tlic become more domineering in power, leaving the Terran as nothing more than mere objects.

The symbolism of the Preserve and the treatment of humans as commodities continues to depict slavery within the Terran-Tlic communities. In addition to his relationship with T’Gatoi, Gan explains that on the Preserve, T’Gatoi “…parceled us out to the desperate and sold us to the rich and powerful for their political support. Thus, we were necessities, status symbols, and an independent people. It was a little frightening to know that only she stood between us and that desperation that could so easily swallow us' (Butler, 5). Like African American slaves, Terrans are traded amongst their owners and having a human, meant having status. Even though Gan claims they were an independent people, through Butler’s use of imagery, readers see the Terrans as commodities rather than human beings. The Preserve itself symbolizes the plantations in the Southern states where slaves were seen as tools for crop production. This slave-master relationship is observed between the Terrans and the Tlic through reproductive slavery and surrogacy as humans were the ones used for Tlic reproduction. Like slaves, Terrans have no ownership of their bodies and are stripped of their rights. Not only are their reproductive rights revoked, but the very right to make decisions is gone. Symbolism directly analyzes the inequality within gender relations and through imagery, Butler continues to examine this disparity between species.

Slavery is illustrated through the imagery of the horrifying Tlic birthing process. While T’Gatoi works on removing the grubs from Bram Lomas’ body, she instructs Gan to, “Go out and slaughter an animal that is at least half you size” (Butler, 11). This scene is ironic because the Tlic are substituting an animal body for Lomas’ body. The substitution is particularly symbolic because the animal he kills is a sacrificial lamb, just like Bram Lomas currently is, and soon Gan will be too. In addition, Butler subtly parallels the fact that Gan’s family raises livestock with the fact that Gan has been raised by T’Gatoi for his body’s ability to host her eggs. When Qui was a child he, ‘“…saw a man and a Tlic and the man was N’Tlic. He was in so much pain, he told her to kill him. He begged her to kill him. Finally, she did. She cut his throat. One swipe of one claw. [He] saw the grubs eat their way out, then burrow in again, still eating”’ (Butler, 20). What Qui witnessed is truly horrifying, not only because a man was eaten alive, but because his Tlic mate let him suffer to such a degree rather than risk her children. There is a parallel between Terran and real-life labor because in high-risk pregnancies, the life of the child is prioritized even at the cost of tremendous pain and death for the mother. In such cases, the baby could be seen as having a parasitic, consumptive effect on the mother. The imagery of the Tlic birthing practice emphasizes the reproductive enslavement of Terran bodies.

A Terran’s body is imagined as property that is primarily valued for Tlic labor. Gan explains that because of the effects of sterile Tlic eggs, his Father, “…had done it three times in his long life. Three clutches of eggs, three times being opened up and sewed up. How had he done it? How did anyone do it?” (Butler, 22). The human body is looked at as a machine with reproduction as its only function. If functionality is the Terran’s only purpose within the Tlic-Terran community, then they would simply reproduce until they died. In addition, Tlic eggs have the ability to rejuvenate a person, much like oil does for gears. Through this renewal, the Tlic can manipulate not only the aging process, but the minds of Terrans into doing their bidding. After Gan refuses to become T’Gatoi’s surrogate, he exclaims, ‘“You would have done it to Hoa tonight!” I accused,” she replied, “I must do it to someone tonight”’ (Butler, 27). Human beings are depicted as insignificant objects that can be easily replaced. This idea is demonstrated through T’Gatoi’s lack of hesitation when deciding to make Xuan Hoa her new host. During this exchange, the threat to impregnate Gan’s sister without her consent gives the reader an image of rape. In the essay, “Would You Really Rather Die than Bear My Young?” Elyce Rae Helford says, “The text seems to play on historical images of slavemasters who achieved sexual cooperation through threats and coercion…” (Helford, 266). T’Gatoi’s threat to rape Gan’s sister is what eventually determines his agreement to carry her eggs. However, this agreement is not consensual as there is no verbal consensus. Force and fear are what drive him to his decision, not love. Ultimately, the Terrans are treated as disposable because the Tlic do not care about whether the Terran dies or not. As long as their offspring are safe and there’s enough human hosts being created, then the Tlic know they will remain in power. In short, humans are valued for their labor, rather than their physical livelihoods. This lack of respect for human life continues to prove that Tlic life has a higher value than the birthing vessels themselves.

Even in Gan and T’Gatoi’s intimate encounters, there are moments clouded by coercion and control. In the 'Afterword' to 'Bloodchild, Butler expresses, 'It amazes me that some people have seen 'Bloodchild' as a story of slavery. It isn't…it’s a love story between two very different beings” (Butler, 30). Butler ensures readers that “Bloodchild” is not about slavery, but about love. However, there are multiple scenes where moments of compassion become shadowed by oppression. One scene that expresses this is when Gan explains, “…T'Gatoi liked the idea of choosing an infant and watching and taking part in all the phases of development. I’m told I was first caged within T’Gatoi’s many limbs only three minutes after my birth” (Butler, 8). T’Gatoi demonstrates affectionate, maternal-like tendencies towards Gan, as she becomes a mother figure in his life sworn to care and protect him. However, the values instilled in Gan as a newborn are not his own. These values stem from T’Gatoi and because of this Gan’s own ideals and principles have become limited within the “cage” set by her. The idea that Gan’s perceptions about the world have been shaped by T’Gatoi since birth, shows that even the most affectionate of moments can be obscured by oppression.

Gan and T’Gatoi’s sexual encounter even become clouded by force and authority. As T’Gatoi is starting to impregnate Gan, he says “The puncture was painless, easy. So easy going in. She undulated slowly against me, her muscles forcing the egg from her body into mine. I held on to a pair of her limbs until I remembered Lomas holding her that way” (Butler, 27). During this sexual act, some readers see two partners consenting to consummate their love, while others see it as rape of Gan’s physical body by coercion. Throughout the exchange there is an air of silence and submission in the female character Gan. While Butler tries to illustrate a romantic relationship between the two characters, it instead supports the notion that women are to be dominated and receptive of the sexual advances made by men. Gan participates in the act without question or rejection because it is expected of him from infancy. Consequently, his choice of personal freedom is taken away. Although Gan and T’Gatoi share many intimate encounters, these moments are shadowed by intimidation and domination.

In “Bloodchild,” Butler employs the rhetorical devices of symbolism and imagery to directly analyze the inequality within gender relations through portrayals of slavery and the slave master and male reproduction. As Butler describes in her interview with Stephen Potts, “So often you read novels about humans colonizing other planets and you see the story taking one of two courses. Either the aliens resist and we have to conquer them violently, or they submit and become goods servants. I don’t like either of those alternatives, and I wanted to create a new one” (Potts & Butler, 332). However, this was not the case. Instead of breaking the boundaries of typical science fiction writing, hers actually aligned with her fellow authors. This is proven through T’Gatoi’s oppressive and forceful demeanor of Gan, as he had no way of overcoming her authoritarian control. In the end, Butler’s short story became like any other science fiction work where an oppressed people become dominated by an alien race with no hope of freedom. 

Works cited

  1. Butler, Octavia. “Bloodchild.” Bloodchild and Other Stories, Seven Stories Press, 2005, pp. 3-32.
  2. Helford, Elyce Rae. “Would You Really Rather Die than Bear My Young?”: Human Nature as an Ambiguous Reality in Octavia Butler’s “Bloodchild.” Paradoxa, vol. 8, no. 1, 1993, pp. 259-268.
  3. Hooks, Bell. Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics. South End Press, 2000.
  4. Lorde, Audre. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Crossing Press, 1984.
  5. Mohanty, Chandra Talpade. “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses.” Boundary 2, vol. 12, no. 3, 1984, pp. 333-358.
  6. Smith, Sidonie. “White Mythologies: Writing History and the West.” New Literary History, vol. 23, no. 1, 1992, pp. 1-18.
  7. Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, edited by Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg, University of Illinois Press, 1988, pp. 271-313.
  8. Trinh, T. Minh-Ha. Woman, Native, Other: Writing Postcoloniality and Feminism. Indiana University Press, 1989.
  9. Wolmark, Jenny. Aliens and Others: Science Fiction, Feminism, and Postmodernism. University of Iowa Press, 1994.
  10. Young, Iris Marion. Justice and the Politics of Difference. Princeton University Press, 1990.

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