Knowledge of the Future Leads to the Loss of Agency
in “The Evening and the Morning and the Night”
Olivia Butler in “The Evening and the Morning and the Night” serves parallel with contemporary society by incorporating the common themes in human relations such as discrimination, free will, love, doubt, and limitation. To a greater extent, the short story is a critique of the established health care system and the issue of human rights, especially reproductive rights. The author manipulates two elements of fiction and science to better emphasize these themes. She combines three actual diseases, Huntington, phenylketonuria, and Lesch-Nyhan, to create a fictional Duryea-Gode disease. This fictional disease is hereditary and makes its patient self-destructive, thus losing their self-control and their agency. Agency refers to the subjective awareness that one is initiating, executing, and controlling one's own volitional actions in the world. It is the pre-reflective awareness or implicit sense that it is oneselfwho is presently executing bodily movement or thinking thoughts. In “The Evening and the Morning and the Night", Butler rather emphasizes the repetition of the horrifying scene of mutilation to show that knowledge of the future caused Duryea-Gode Disease (DGD) patients’ loss of agency.
The story opens with a classic flashback sentence (When I was…) that describes Lynn’s past when her parents send her to DGD ward: “They wanted me to see, they said, where I was headed if I wasn’t careful. In fact, it was where I was headed no matter what. It was only a matter of when: now or later” (35). By using these sentences, Butler implies that Lynn’s fate is pre-determined. By using “no matter what”, the author creates a sense of limitation that DGD patients have throughout their lives. Moreover the next sentence tells the audience that the there is a period of time which the DGD patients spend waiting for something to come. In this case it is the sign of DGD: drift.
Butler portrays the struggle of pre-determined fate when Lynn tries to end her life: “I cut my wrists. I did a thorough job of it” (35). She knows that she will soon drift and lose control of herself. She is also aware that there is nothing she can do to fix it, yet she refuse to surrender to fate. Both DGD and suicide lead to death, yet Lynn chooses to live shorter and end it. There is a struggle for power in her life. If finally Lynn has to die, she wants to be the one who decides the timing to prove that she—her own self—is more powerful than DGD. Suicide is not simply an act of desperation but rather Butler’s embodiment of the struggle for power.
However, the struggle for power stops as soon as Lynn’s father breaks into the bathroom. The next scenes show the horrifying mutilation that keeps being repeated in the story. “Dad had killed Mom, then skinned her completely…He broke some of her ribs, damaged her heart. Digging” (36). This is not just a mutilation scene, but even a more sadistic one. By using the words “skinned her” and “digging” and further describing that it is an act committed by a husband to his wife, the audience becomes aware of the severity of DGD. Even worse, the author continues: “Then he began tearing at himself, through skin and bone, digging” (36). “Digging” plays a major role in the mutilation narrative. Biologically, human nerves are so sensitive that they will response unconsciously to slight pain. Yet, DGD patients seem to ignore the pain and continue to destroy and to tear themselves. Thus, this event foreshadows Lynn’s future. She is traumatized by her parents’ tragic death and start to relate her own self to death and mutilation. She begins to accept that one day her life will turn to the life of uncontrolled DGD patients and that she will not have power to fight against it.
The theme of surrendering continues as the story progresses: “My parents put me on it after my suicide, but chances were, I’d be dead by the time my name came up” (37). The realization of death becomes clear in this part. Lynn’s parents put her on Dilg, the DGD ward list, when she is fifteen. This is such a young age, yet, there is no time even to wait until she gets in. The audience realizes that Lynn thinks that her body will start to drift soon. She believes that she has little time left thus there is no point in living her current life. Whatever she does or intends to do will have to stop once she starts drifting. It forces her to accept her fate.
Butler also leads the audience to deeper understand the characters’ struggle with DGD by incorporating the sense of hopelessness: “I was just marking time. Whatever I did was just marking time,’ (37). School is a learning institution people usually enroll in to gain knowledge for a better future opportunity. Yet, for Lynn, school does not serve a foundational purpose for her life. People go to school to gain knowledge so they will have more opportunities in their futures. Lynn’s opinion of school is different. For her, school is a merely waiting place and studying is a merely waiting act. Due to her knowledge of the future, Lynn refuses to contribute to her current life in any way. She does whatever she can to mark the time, as she later implies: Even though her housemates (all DGD positive) have dreams and goals to pursue, they eventually will never be able to achieve them, because death will come along.
Lynn also mentions that the feeling of hopelessness also comes from pressure that the society put on them: “Non-DGDs say something about our disease makes us good at the sciences—genetics… That something was terror. Terror and a kind of driving hopelessness. Some of us went bad and became destructive before we had too” (37). Here, Butler is critiquing our contemporary society that keeps holding on to stereotypes even though stereotypes can be a powerful tool to oppress the subjects. This is not the only scene in which Lynn needs to deal with social pressure. For instance her special diet and her emblem expose her to the stereotypes about DGD patients because then everyone knows that Lynn has DGD. Here Butler creates complexity of the theme of the loss of agency in “The Evening and the Morning and the Night”. The cause of the loss of agency in DGD patients is not solely a single reason.
The knowledge of the future however plays dominant role in the loss of agency of the characters. “We probably wouldn’t last very long, anyway. These days, most DGDs make it to forty at least. But then, most of them don’t have two DGD parents” (43). The characters believe that even their ages are already fated. The way Butler writes it even more interesting because it gives the feeling of easiness to the audience: “We wouldn’t last long, anyway” implies that easiness as if it is not a big deal to die. Butler also adds the fact that Lynn and Alan (her boyfriend), have two DGD parents, and this fact does nothing but emphasizes their great loss of agency. They cannot fight the disease or the time.
In conclusion, Butler serves the theme of the loss of agency in “The Evening and the Morning and the Night”. With a rather dark setting, Butler takes the audience into the world of Lynn, a DGD patient that struggle with the fact that she is positive for having the disease. Butler further describes the disease through several scenes of self-mutilation and suicide from which the patients can usually never escape. Butler uses these horrifying mutilation and suicide to give a reason for the characters’ acts and the way they live. It is true that the disease itself caused the limited choices that DGD patients have. However it is their knowledge of the future—their knowledge that one day they will become self-destructive, and that they will have a short live—that cause the loss of agency in the characters. This is proven at the end of the story when Lynn finds out that she is special, that she has special ability to control other DGD patients. Her behaviors change completely and she starts reconsidering new options. If Lynn had found out about it earlier, she might not have been so pessimistic about her future.
Butler, Olivia. "The Evening and the Morning and the Night." Blood Child and Other Stories. New York: Seven Stories Press, 2005. Print.
Wikipedia. Sense of Agency. Wikipedia. Spetember 23. 2012. Web. January 27. 2013. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sense_of_agency>.