Reading Utopian Narratives in a Dystopian Time

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Taylor, Deborah
Donawerth, Jane L
This dissertation is a feminist study of the reading process of contemporary utopian novels by women: Ursula K. Le Guin, Octavia Butler, and Toni Morrison. These novels are not utopias, in the sense of place, since they are set in dystopian times. Instead, this study explores the reading process as a part of a text's presentation of utopian desire. The first chapter focuses on Le Guin's 1985 <em>Always Coming Home</em>, set in a future United States polluted by environmental toxins and divided between a patriarchal Condor nation, and a communal, matrilineal, and non-hierarchical Kesh culture. Le Guin uses a made-up language, constructed without hierarchies, concepts from Native American story-telling and Taoist philosophy, and multiple narrators to encourage a collaborative reading process where readers weave a utopian vision from the pieces of Kesh culture, balanced against the Condor. The second chapter examines Butler's <em>Parable of the Sower </em>(1993) and <em>Parable of the Talents </em> (1997). In this future, California has disintegrated into anarchy and violence, and Lauren Olamina survives the razing of her walled community, creates Earthseed - a new philosophy-religion, and founds a utopian settlement that is destroyed by Christian fundamentalists. Butler parodies false utopias--gated communities, company towns, and the Christian Right--and presents Lauren's religion, Earthseed, built on the idea of "God is Change," as a utopian alternative. Butler merges the genres of diary, scripture, jeremiad, and slave narrative to offer a collaborative reading experience. False utopian ideals of exclusivity, security, and institutionalized religion are resisted by meditating on Earthseed Scriptures. The third chapter considers Morrison's <em>Paradise</em> (1998), set in western United States, and recounts the story of an all-black town, Ruby, and its destruction of an all-women "convent" near the town. Because Morrison tells her story with non-chronological fragments and multiple viewpoints, the reader must become the point of view character, constructing a coherent narrative and image of paradise from conflicting accounts. Morrison explores spiritual connectedness and healing by drawing on the history of all-black townships and all-women communities. The narrative strategies of these novels--defamiliarzation, polyvocalism, fragmented structure, and meditation--encourage readers to collaborate in exploring utopian desire.