New Criticism

Fear Evokes Change

Fear Evokes Change

by jessica Mejia

Octavia Butler’s short story “Speech Sounds,” tells a story about a woman by the name of Rye. Rye is living in a community that has been affected by an illness that affects your ability to speak. Because of that change in the community, it has filled the community with violence. Rye is left alone, so she embarks on a journey to possibly find her only relatives left, her brother and his two children. As she tries to find her way to Pasadena, a fight breaks out on the bus that she was hoping would take her to where her brother lived. “People screamed or squawked in fear. Those nearby scrambled to get out of way”, (Butler, Speech Sounds). Because of the fight, the bus had to be emptied. Once she gets off the bus she meets a man, whom she starts to call Obsidian. Obsidian stares at Rye and signals her to get in his car with him, but something stops Rye. Finally, she decides to ride with him to Pasadena but on their way there, they run into a woman being chased by a man whose goal is to kill her. Obsidian gets off the car to help the woman but also ends up getting killed by the man. Rye then kills the man and finds two children who can talk. Then, Rye takes the children and all three rides away together. In Octavia Butler’s story “Speech Sounds”, there is a unifying theme of fear caused by violence and wanting to be safe from that violence.

First, the main character Rye feels the need to go find her family. Butler states, “She had put off going until the loneliness and hopelessness drove her out,” (Butler, 1). Rye knew that her journey was going to be dangerous, so she waited until she felt like she had to go. In a community that was taken over by illness, violence grows because no one likes the idea of things changing so quickly. Because Rye was lonelier than ever, that loneliness made her fear for her safety because around her there was nothing but violence. In the article “Theorizing Fear: Octavia Butler and the Realist Utopia”, by Claire P. Curtis, she analyzes how humans come to terms with fear. Curtis states, “It is not fear of what is unknown, but fear of what is known: the capacity of humans purposefully to harm one another,” (Curtis). From the beginning, the main character realizes that she might not make it to Pasadena, due to the violence that could break out at any moment. She does not know anyone in the city, and nonetheless, she does not know their intentions. If a fight broke out because someone looked at someone for too long on the bus, how can the main character of this story know when they are safe? People try to pick a fight with anyone even if that person is not wanting to pick a fight. In a community where people’s physical abilities have been impacted by an illness that has left them impaired, it is easier for violence to arise between others because of misunderstandings. Rye’s fear comes from what is happening around her. Her loneliness makes her fear for her safety.

Secondly, Rye meets a man dressed in a Los Angeles Police Department uniform but instead of feeling safe, Rye was shocked to see someone dressed like this. The story states “Rye took another step back from him. There was no more LAPD, no more any large organization, governmental or private,” (Butler, 2). Instead of feeling safe around someone in a police uniform, she felt afraid because they no longer existed. In another section of her article, Curtis states “Political authority is often the source of insecurity, not the guarantor of peace,” (Curtis). In societies where authority isn’t present when authority arrives, it can cause more violence to rise because of the fear of change. How can someone be under the law after they have been without a law for so long just like in Speech Sounds?

The theme of fear of violence balances out with the theme of wanting to be safe from violence when Rye decides to go with this man that she later starts to call Obsidian. The story states, “He had removed his service revolver, holster, and all. He beckoned again, both hand empty… Maybe he was all right”, (Butler, 5). Even though Rye was still unsure about going with this man she felt safer with him than being in her community. Her loneliness had made her also made her think that he was perhaps also lonely. The story then goes on to state, “If he was willing to go where she directed, perhaps he was safe”, (Butler, 5). Rye is slowly starting to feel safe with Obsidian. In her article, Curtis states that “in a lot of Butler’s stories, the female protagonists work through and with fear modeling a particularly feminist and a particularly compelling way of acting in relation to the unknown,” (Curtis). Most people wouldn’t go with just anyone, especially after an illness has wiped out most of the community. But in Rye’s situation, she is acting this way in her interest. Perhaps the man would take her closer to where her brother is. It could be because of how long she has been lonely that she goes with Obsidian after only seeing him for a few moments. As we keep on reading, we start to see Rye’s fear of violence change to a fear for her safety that causes her to journey to Pasadena with a stranger.

In a similar way, Rye develops feelings for Obsidian that she had not felt in a long time, she begins to feel safe. This makes her want to stay with him, no longer afraid of being alone, “She pointed back southwest-back toward home. Now she did not have to go to Pasadena,” (Butler, 9). Rye had started to feel things other than fear, which lead her to think that she finally found what she was looking for. With obsidian, she would not be lonely anymore. In the article “Diversity, Change, Violence: Octavia Butler’s Pedagogical Philosophy”, Sarah Outterson, states “the process of encountering difference and allowing yourself to change in response to it (even to build more intimately connected communities) is a much more violating experience than we often sentimentalize it to be,” (Outterson). Rye was experiencing things all over again that felt new to her. Because she was feeling all things emotions she starts to forget about the fear and asks Obsidian to go back home with her, even though she had only known him for a few hours. Her fear of the violence around her starts to disappear because she has found that safety with Obsidian.

At the end of the story, Rye is left without Obsidian but with two toddlers. The story states “Two very small children came out of the house from which the man and women had a run-a boy and a girl perhaps three years old. Holding hands, they crossed and street toward Rye,” (Butler, 10). Obsidian was shot by a man that Rye believes could have been these children’s father. These two children are now fearing the same thing that Rye was at the beginning of the story, violence, and fear for their safety. Not to mention they are also now lonely just as Rye was. In her article Outterson states “Butler also seems to intend the continuous violence, physical harm and suffering in the novels to reveal to us our inherent violence as humans,” (Outterson). The children’s father killed what could have been their mother. Violence and suffering are what led both Rye and the children to be alone. Rye takes these children into her care because she knows how it feels to be left in a world full of violence. Rye’s fear has expired and has turned into care for these children.

In conclusion, the short story Speech Sounds by Octavia Butler has a unifying point of fear of violence versus fear of someone else’s safety. The main character, Rye tries to find a way to reach her brother but knows that her journey will have violence. She starts here fearing the possible violence that could break out at any moment. She later meets Obsidian. She lets her guard down because he reintroduces her to some forgotten emotions. He helps turn her fear into finally feeling safe in this post-apocalyptic world. Together they start to experience emotions Rye had not felt in a while. The Obsidian, unfortunately, gets shot and dies. This leaves Rye where she started. Rye then takes into her care two toddlers, because she was once like they were fearful of the things around them. Rye’s fear has turned into caring for these children. Throughout the works of Octavia Butler, there are themes of violence and how violence affects our world. Violence causes fear but through that fear, it can also create change. Change for better things.


Works Cited

Butler, Octavia. “Speech Sounds”

Curtis, Claire P. “Theorizing Fear: Octavia Butler and the Realist Utopia.” Utopian Studies, vol. 19, no. 3, 2008, pp. 411–31. JSTOR, Accessed 6 Dec. 2022.

Outterson, Sarah. “Diversity, Change, Violence: Octavia Butler’s Pedagogical Philosophy.” Utopian Studies, vol. 19, no. 3, 2008, pp. 433–56. JSTOR, Accessed 6 Dec. 2022.


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