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Agency in The Evening and the Morning and the Night

In Octavia Butler’s short science fiction story The Evening and the Morning and the Night, she creates a world in which something called Duryea-Gode disease is wreaking havoc on many people’s lives. Duryea-Gode disease, or DGD is caused by a wonder drug that cured most types of cancer. These people were fine, but the drug permanently altered DNA it came into contact to and was thus passed down to their children. This next generation was the first to see the effects of DGD. Around the time they are middle aged, people with DGD will “drift”. This means they brutally mutilate themselves until they die. Even before it causes insanity and self-harm, the means used to control DGD limit the characters’ agency with regard to their fates, their position in society and how they relate to other people. Butler uses mechanisms of controlling diseased bodies, such as diet, pheromones, and marking to show how the diagnosis of disease and disability limit people’s agency in the real world today.

Even before symptoms of DGD become obvious, diet is used to control the disease, and therefore those who have it. People living with controlled DGD know they will become psychologically cut off from the world, and attempt to tear themselves out of their own bodies. Their only option is to put it off as long as possible. The best way to control DGD is by eating a strict diet made up of specially designed nutritional biscuits, often called “dog biscuits”. As a fifteen year old, Lynn wanted to have the agency to eat what she wanted. Her parents tried to show her what would happen if she did by taking her to a DGD ward in the hospital. “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” (Butler 35). People living with DGD don’t have many options, their agency with regard to their future is limited to three possibilities: they can either let the disease take over and face a slow death by self mutilation, put off the inevitable as long as they can by eating nothing but the special biscuits, or commit suicide before they go crazy and rip themselves to shreds. No matter how much they limit themselves from indulging in delicious food, they have almost no control of the final outcome of their lives.

In addition to being denied the pleasures of real food, eating special biscuits is just one way bodies with DGD are marked and forced to live outside normal society. There is nothing physically wrong or different about someone living with DGD until it makes them sick. Yet even before they drift it is difficult for one with the disease to live a normal life. People with DGD are supposed to wear an emblem so if they get sick, medical personnel won’t treat them with anything that could set off symptoms. Like the special diet, it is necessary for keeping the disease under control, but it clearly marks them as outsiders. As Lynn describes how those with DGD stand out, “People who don’t eat in public, who drink nothing more interesting than water, who smoke nothing at all-people like that are suspicious…I wore my emblem. And one way or another, people got a look at it or got the word from someone who had. ‘She is!’ Yeah” (38-89). People are naturally afraid of DGD, it is a horrific condition, and these markers make it clear to everyone who has it and who doesn’t, leaving those who do as outcasts.

Lynn discovers that she has special pheromones unique to women with two DGD parents; this pheromone causes other people with DGD to feel drawn to her and compelled to do whatever she says. This is true while the disease is under control as well as after the sufferer loses his or her mind. Through limiting the free will of others, this “gift” limits Lynn’s own agency. She doesn’t have the choice of whether or not to use this ability; she has been unconsciously doing so in the house full of her DGD friends, getting them to do their share of housework. The only way she could avoid influencing the people around her would be to avoid with DGD. Unfortunately, that is not really an option, as the rest of society treats people with the disease as outcasts or lepers. Due to DGD she doesn’t really have the option of finding a community of people who she can’t control because no one else will accept her. She could be alone, or have uncontrollable influence over everyone around her. She feels like no matter what she does, she will end up running a DGD ward if she remains around people with DGD. She never felt like it was worth trying to make the world a better place, she knows her time is limited and never had big plans for how to spend it. She describes her reasons for going to college as, “just marking time” (37). Now that she knows she has this gift her agency is limited by her ability to make things better. Now she has to. She describes driving away from Dilg, the first DGD facility to be run by people with controlled DGD, and seeing her future set out before her, “I was convinced that somehow if I turned, I would see myself standing there, gray and old, growing small in the distance, vanishing” (68). She will almost certainly end up like Beatrice, who, like Lynn, has the special pheromone. Lynn feels like her choice to be like Beatrice is nonexistent. She will be no matter what.

Another side effect of knowing that she has this gift is that Lynn’s relationship is likely to suffer. It is dangerous and unhealthy to be in a romantic relationship in which the power dynamics are dramatically skewed. Alan is not wild about the idea that he is not an equal part in his relationship with Lynn. However, he cannot deny that he is still attracted to and in love with her. Lynn wonders if the only reason he feels this way is because of her pheromone. She asks Beatrice:

           “He never really had a chance, did he?”

She looked surprised. “That’s up to you. You can keep him or drive him away. I assure you, you can drive him away.”

“How?”

“By imagining that he doesn’t have a chance.” (68)

Beatrice explains to her that she does have agency in this case after all. By believing that Alan only loves her because of her influence over him, she would cause him to not love her anymore. If she believes that he doesn’t love her for herself, only for her smell, she will begin to love him less. If she loves him less and doesn’t want his love anymore, he will leave because he really can’t help doing what she wants. Agency in this case is ambiguous. Usually the first step to enacting agency is to accept agency. In this case, it’s the opposite. If Lynn believes she has complete agency in her relationship, it will fail and she won’t. If she sees Alan as having his own, equal agency, their relationship will thrive.  

If they didn’t know they had DGD, those who had it wouldn’t take care of themselves in a way to put off drifting, but they would not be living with the knowledge their inevitable fate. The fear, dread and separation from the rest of society would be gone. Similarly, if Lynn did not know that she had special pheromones, her agency in her career and relationships would not be limited in the same way. This is comparable to people in our real world living with HIV. They know at some point their immune systems will give. By knowing this, they can be careful to avoid infections and get treatment to keep their disease in check as long as possible. However, knowing their fate changes their current lives as well, limiting their agency, options and control. 

Works Cited

Butler, Octavia E. "The Evening and the Morning and the Night." Bloodchild and Other

            Stories. Second ed. New York: Seven Stories, 1996. 35-68. Print.

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