Agency and Reproductive Rights in The Evening, and the Morning, and the Night
An essential part of humanity is touch. It is used to comfort others and express our ideas, show emotion, and share passion. What happens if touch goes from an intimate act that brings comfort and happiness to a dangerous action that instills fear and anger in both people involved? Octavia Butler’s The Evening, and the Morning, and the Night depicts touch through agency in order to critique reproductive rights in a modern dystopic society.
The Evening, and the Morning, and the Night explains a society where the citizens are constantly afraid of “drifting” – a side effect of Duryea-Gode disease. This disease, colloquially called DGD, is a genetic disease caused by a drug that cures cancer. The drug was the solution to one problem, but started another terrifying and destructive disease. The victims of DGD “notice themselves beginning to drift – or their relatives notice – and they make arrangements with their chosen institution” (Butler, 35). Once a person has drifted, they become self destructive, using forms of self-mutilation to harm themselves and others, sometimes even leading to death. The narrator of the story, Lynn, is the daughter of two DGD parents, inevitably giving her the gene as well. She is constantly scared of both touch and the idea of procreation. After she found out her father killed her mother by skinning her and then killed himself, it is expected she would have fears about touch and having children of her own in the future.
The idea of reproductive rights and procreation is a strong theme and topic in Butler’s short story. In a conversation between Lynn and her male protagonist, Alan, Lynn asks, “Do you want someone else telling you what to do with your body?” (Butler, 42), to which Alan responds with saying he had himself sterilized as soon as it was physically possible to prevent spreading on his unfortunate genetic makeup. This simple exchange brings up two important topics; agency and reproductive rights. Alan felt he had the free will to sterilize himself, but was it because he felt forced by both himself and society to have the procedure done to ensure the betterment of a future society and hopefully eliminate DGD.
When discussing touch and agency together, there are usually negative connotations. Most people think of problems such as sexual assault or other forms of inappropriate sexual interactions. These are constructs of a modern world, but in a world where DGD is a horrifying fear and a disease that manipulates human interaction, the connotations change. Touch still has a negative relationship, but instead of problems like assault, it evokes feelings of anger, hatred, and defense. Lynn describes an interaction of a hand on her arm by saying, “I backed away from her, out of her reach, repelled by her touch…The violence of the urge amazed me” (Butler, 50-51). This encounter has no sexual or destructive motivations, but it still has the power to give a physical reaction.
Another form of physical reactions is in the form of reproduction. At a very basic level, two human cells bind together to create new life. But what happens when people alter their bodies to deny this physical reaction? Reproductive rights can include anything from simply the ability and freedom to procreate, to the decision to abort. Other examples of reproductive rights are the right to maintain legal, effective, and affordable birth control, sterilization, care for both the mother and child in the prenatal stage, and honest and complete information about pregnancy and overall reproductive health (“Our Issues”). In The Evening, and the Morning, and the Night, reproductive rights are critiqued in a way that allows the reader to understand the moral and emotional disparity the individual in this situation feel.
After a conversation about sterilization with Alan, Lynn reflects on what he had just said. She thinks to herself, saying, “That would be like killing part of yourself even though it wasn’t a part you intended to use. Killing part of yourself when so much of you was already dead” (Butler, 42). This statement addresses not only the idea of reproductive rights, but also agency. If agency is the right to act with free will for either an individual or community, how does the relationship with reproductive rights change? Are there times when agency is not always positive and the only choice to make is one that is painful? Butler wants these questions answered, and it is likely she sees fault in both agency and reproductive rights.
Agency and its missing components are explored further than just reproductive rights in The Evening, and the Morning, and the Night. Lynn majored in Biology, explaining, “Our disease makes us good at the sciences – genetics, molecular biology, biochemistry…That something was terror. Terror and a kind of driving hopelessness” (Butler, 37). Her choice of a major was not driven by agency, but instead by social expectations of what she is good at and how she should be using her talents. This lack of agency is a reoccurring theme for Lynn – she later learns more about her disease and the powers it has that prevent her from having agency of her own.
Lynn has a complete loss of agency. She does not have the free will to decide who she will be friends with, with whom or how she will be romantically involved, and even how to have human interactions. While at the DGD ward called Dilg, Lynn and Alan are warned – “Most DGDs have the sense not to marry each other and produce children. I hope you two aren’t planning to have any” (Butler, 61). In this statement, a stranger is warning them of the dangers of touching each other, removing agency from their relationship and their reproductive rights.
Returning to the Dilg ward was important for Lynn. She retold the story of the woman she saw many years ago attacking herself, giving gruesome details of the self-mutilation, and then says the patients “try so hard, fight to hard to get out…[of] their restraints, their disease, the ward, their bodies” (Butler, 53). Remembering this event before meeting Alan’s mother was both beneficial and devastating. It prepared her to be in close proximity with the mutilated woman, but reminded her of the harm of touch and the lack of control DGD patients possess over themselves.
The victims of DGD are at a constant risk of harming themselves and others. When reflecting on this probability, Lynn says, “It was the act of self-mutilation that scared me. It was something attacking her own arm as though it were a wild animal. It was something who had torn at himself and been restrained or drugged off an on for so long that he barely had a recognizable human feature left, but he was still trying with what he did have to dig into his own flesh” (Butler, 50). Realizing that from a simple touch, she could cause this much destruction to herself or those around her scares Lynn and shows her she has no agency over her life and choices.
The story does not explain what triggers drifting, or the actual attack. However, it can be assumed from Lynn’s strong reactions to touch, that one wrong touch can set off a reaction. Without touch, there is an important aspect of human interaction missing. Without touch, it is impossible to be intimate with another person, therefore making reproduction from sexual intercourse impossible. Lynn’s pheromone removes the necessity for touch, because she can control people without any form of foreplay or touch. This power both gives and removes her agency with touch. She can keep relationships or lose them without intending to, therefore impacting her reproductive capabilities and rights.
Butler wrote a complex story with seemingly absurdities, but in reality, these topics are very real in modern society. Every day women are being denied reproductive rights or not getting them to the full extent. Agency is something that not everyone believes in anymore, questioning the possibilities of predetermined futures, chance, and fate. Touch has been and likely always will remain a part of human interaction even in times of extreme fear and disease. The dystopic society highlights these problems, and gives the reader a setting to understand how important these topics are and the criticality of finding solutions and justice.
Butler, Octavia E. "The Evening, and the Morning, and the Night." Blood Child. New York: Seven Stories, 1996. 35-68. Print.
"Our Issues." Center for Reproductive Rights. N.p., 2002-2013. Web. 25 Jan. 2013.