Octavia E. Butler’s Success in Creating “Speech Sounds”

Bobo Hodges
6 min readAug 8, 2020

The illness, if it was an illness, had cut even the living off from one another. As it swept over the country, people hardly had time to lay blame on the Soviets (though they were falling silent along with the rest of the world), on a new virus, a new pollutant, radiation, divine retribution…The illness was stroke-swift in the way it cut people down and stroke-like in some of its effects. But it was highly specific.” (Butler). Speech Sounds”, written by Octavia E. Butler, is a short story where the author continuously places the main characters, Rye and Obsidian, through conflicts which test their moral character. The definition of what makes a well-done short story/novel includes important character analysis, plot evolution, and obviously tensions that eventually lead to climaxes. In dealing with these conflicts, Butler employs several themes and motifs that unravel the pandemic-changed world around them, along with the consequences that derive from such. More specifically, in the face of a chaotic dystopian society, Rye and Obsidian ironically become each other’s peace in a world where a mass illness eliminates regular human functions such as verbal communication. Due to Octavia’s ability to make a complex story flow naturally, she has been nominated for awards including the Locus Award and she even wins the Hugo Award for best short story. In brief, the text is ultimately successful in becoming a very well-written short story due to its ability to provide its audience with negative conflicts that require the characters to evolve (positively or negatively) throughout.

One of the primary conflicts which showcases Butler’s ability to navigate her audience through a complex story line is how the main character, Valerie Rye, deals with the loss of language and its different effects. Butler opens the story by addressing the theme and correlation between violence and miscommunication. After the pandemic hit all verbal communication disappeared. In place of languages, the people of California resorted to using gestures and hand motions to communicate with each other. In one case while Rye was riding a bus trying to get to Pasadena, a fight broke out between two men on a bus due to “a disagreement of some kind, or, more likely, a misunderstanding” (Butler 2). Quickly following, the situation escalates as other men on the bus become involved, turning the fight into a brawl. In the midst of this, Rye explains how people who were the least affected by the pandemic “let those with less control scream and jump around. It was as though they felt it beneath them to be as touchy as the less comprehending” (Butler 4). And as a result of this “superiority” (Butler 4) complex, the ones with less control were “frequently punished by beatings, even by death” (Butler 4). This shows how violence here is almost a normal way to solve nearly any type of altercation; which employs irony because people typically try to steer away from violence as much as possible. In these circumstances, Butler intertwines the themes of violence and communication by implying that without a language for people to speak, people inevitably become violent and chaotic. In another case, Rye deals with violence within herself often. After losing her kids and majority of her family members due to the pandemic, Rye battles with constant feelings of “loneliness and hopelessness” (Butler 1). She even contemplates on taking her own life multiple times throughout the novel. When meeting Obsidian, Rye realizes that he is able to read and “probably write, too” (Butler 7). She quickly becomes envious of him due to her past life of being a teacher at UCLA. In a matter of a few years, she had gone from doing “freelance writing” (Butler 6) to “not even [being able] to read her own manuscripts” (Butler 6). Here Butler uses strong diction to help the audience understand the point to which “She felt sick to her stomach with hatred, frustration, and jealously” (Butler 7). However, she ultimately succeeds in the long run due to her ability to break the new normal of not being able to connect with others as she develops a relationship with Obsidian.

As stated previously, an organized and well-written story line includes several themes that characters throughout the text battle most likely on a day-to-day basis. Another significant theme that Butler focuses on several times throughout “Speech Sounds” is the theme of isolation and how some of Rye’s relationships help her overcome her lonesomeness. The protagonist eventually being able to either overcome or fall subsequently to the negative consequences From the beginning of the story Butler makes it very evident that since her husband and kids passed, she more than likely has not communicated, let alone formed a bond with another human for at least three years. This clearly can be detrimental in many different ways, mostly psychologically. Rye’s lonely thoughts often cause her to think suicidal thoughts even, but after meeting Obsidian, her sad feelings convert to those of “forgetfulness and pleasure” (Butler 8). This is important because it emphasizes not only the concept of Rye not having to be alone for the first time in three years, but also how she succeeds in conquering her previous emotions. Another relationship that gave Rye another reason to live was the children that she found after Obsidian and their parents were killed in front of her. After the murder of Obsidian and the two parents Rye accidentally discovers that the children know how to speak. From that moment on, a feeling of hope takes over as Butler uses a series of questions and exclamations to showcase how excited Rye is to find toddlers that can actually speak a language that she thought had been wiped out due to the pandemic. After finding the kids and dedicating her life to supporting them, she realizes that maybe “Obsidian had been the protector, [and] had chosen that role for who knew what reason. Perhaps putting on an obsolete uniform… had been what he did instead putting a gun into his mouth” (Butler 11). This is significant because this is where Valerie Rye recognizes that she has found something to keep her alive and ultimately, is why she and the story is successful.

Butler uses specific character analysis, diction, and themes to give protagonist-like attributes to Valerie Rye which is important in determining her successfulness at the end of the short story. All while doing this, Octavia E. Butler employs several story elements such as an intriguing plot, characters, and conflicts which makes the story interesting and ultimately difficult to put down. Along with this, Butler also employs irony, symbols, paradoxes, and inevitable character flaws that help the audience establish relationships between the characters, even though the story is fiction. Including all of these elements (and even more that were not mentioned) can be a very difficult subject to tackle for a writer, especially doing so in no more than fifteen pages. To top it all off, ironically, the short story that was written in 1983 almost acts as a prefix to the world today as the coronavirus has caused a series of hardships and deaths for people around the world.

Even in being written almost four decades ago, other than the predominant issue of communication, the science fictional story and world today share a lot of similarities that nobody could have predicted before. This is another element that gives this short story a level of suspense and intriguingness over others. In the story, Butler talks about how the pandemic wipes out a large amount of the population and leaves the society in a somewhat discombobulated manner. One of the final factors that may dictate or separate a well-written story from a poorly written one is how the short story ends. Here specifically, instead of leaving the reader with a cliff-hanger or a disappointed ending, Butler decides to leave the audience with a gleam of hope for her and possibly others in the midst of living in the dystopian society for so long. Even throughout all of the hardships, including the mysterious pandemic that wiped out her family and verbal communication, Rye still chooses to put her faith in something she feels may be the beginning of a change towards the better, which she has not been able to do for a long time.

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