Octavia E. Butler


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Dawn Summary & Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 79-page guide for “Dawn” by Octavia E. Butler includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 40 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like Otherness and The Role of Women and People of Color in a New Human Society.

Plot Summary

Dawn, a 1987 science fiction novel by Octavia Butler, is the first installment in the Lilith’s Brood trilogy. The story takes place in a near-future, post-apocalyptic world. The protagonist, Lilith Iyapo, is one of the few human survivors left after a nuclear war.

Lilith wakes in a featureless room, as she has many times before. Each time she has Awakened, she has been unable to determine where she is or why she is being confined. Food is provided for her; a disembodied voice asks her questions, but then refuses to answer her questions in return.

During this latest Awakening, Lilith meets an alien being with tentacles all over its body. It introduces itself as Jdahya, and is a member of a race called the Oankali. The Oankali come from very far away from Earth and their ship, which is where Lilith has been kept for over 250 years, is a living organism. The tentacles covering Jdahya are sensory organs with functions that go beyond human understanding. Lilith is so repulsed by Jdahya’s appearance that she can barely look at him. Jdahya is a male Oankali.

The humans that the Oankali have saved from Earth have mostly been held in suspended animation, with intermittent Awakenings. Some humans were not kept asleep and the Oankali learned much about their species from these humans. The Oankali have three genders, male, female, and ooloi, who are the Oankali that have developed the strongest connections to humans.

Jdahya releases Lilith from her room. He explains the role that Lilith will play in the resettlement of the Earth. Lilith will be trained to survive in conditions like those of Earth in its current wild state, with only simple tools. In turn, she will Awaken and train the first humans to be taken out of suspended animation, so that they may be returned to the Earth. Lilith will also be responsible for helping her human group accept and become accustomed to the appearance and difference of the Oankali, so that the two races may live together. Lilith is overwhelmed by the idea of this; Jdahya reassures her that she is best suited for the task out of all the humans that the Oankali saved.

Jdahya further explains that humans and Oankali will “trade” genetic material, creating offspring with elements of both. This is how the Oankali have evolved over millennia, by traveling through space and adopting traits of other species. It is necessary to their survival to constantly change and adapt. Lilith is horrified at the prospect of having half-Oankali children and says she cannot accept this fate.

Lilith meets Tediin (female) and Kahguyaht (ooloi), Jdahya’s mates. She also meets Nikanj, their ooloi child, who has almost reached maturity. Nikanj will be Lilith’s guide and they will teach each other the language and customs of their respective species. Lilith has trouble learning Oankali, so Nikanj alters her genetic makeup to enable her to remember things easily. Nikanj goes through its maturity metamorphosis and shows Lilith how the Oankali mate through neural connection. Nikanj also enhances Lilith’s strength and ability to heal, to protect her during her work with the other humans who will be Awakened.

Lilith spends a year in the training area the Oankali have created on the ship to simulate Earth’s tropical forest—the part of the planet the humans will be sent back to. Lilith is then sent to a huge room where she will Awaken the other humans, having studied dossiers of their histories and personalities. First she chooses Tate, a woman who proves a calming influence on the newly Awakened. Lilith also Awakens Joseph, who is analytical and logical, and they become romantically involved. Nikanj joins all three of them in a sexual experience like that of an Oankali mated trio, which Joseph enjoys but ultimately rejects.

Others that are Awakened, such as Curt and Peter, show hostility towards Lilith and challenge her role as leader of the group. She is viewed with great suspicion by many of the humans, who think she is lying about their captors being alien and about them being held aboard a spaceship. Even Lilith’s allies, such as Gabriel and Leah, are suspicious of exactly how Lilith is connected to the Oankali.

There is a great deal of conflict among the human group and Lilith is forced to reveal that she has enhanced strength, which makes the others reject her even further. Peter assists another man named Gregory in an attempted rape, and Lilith injures them while trying to save their target, Allison. Lilith worries that Joseph will be attacked by others in the group and asks Nikanj to give him enhanced strength also. Nikanj says he cannot do that, but he does alter Joseph to give him enhanced healing abilities.

The other humans are introduced to the Oankali, who drug them so they will not react badly and attack them at first sight. Each human pair is bonded to one ooloi and they engage in the Oankali sexual connection. Once he is not as highly drugged, Peter attacks his ooloi and is accidentally killed by it.

Having bonded with their ooloi, the human group is brought to the training area, which seems so Earth-like that most cannot believe they are not on Earth. Some people run away from the settlement, thinking they can escape the Oankali. Lilith’s friends, including Tate and Joseph, wish to run away as well, and want her to come along. Despite knowing it’s futile, Lilith agrees, in order to stay with Joseph.

Curt’s group finds Lilith’s group. Lilith is knocked unconscious. When she wakes up, Nikanj is there and takes her to where Joseph has been murdered. Curt saw Joseph’s wounds healing and killed him, thinking he was not human. Lilith, Nikanj, and the other ooloi go to Curt’s camp and the humans attack them. Many are injured, and the humans are drugged and subdued. Curt almost hacks off Nikanj’s sensory arm. Lilith helps to heal Nikanj and they find that her genetic predisposition towards cancer can be used to promote healing powers never before seen by the Oankali.

The humans return to their settlement and Lilith is viewed as suspect again because she had helped save Nikanj. Lilith is left behind when the humans are returned to Earth, because the Oankali fear that she would be killed, which devastates Lilith. Nikanj tells her that she’s pregnant with Joseph’s child, a daughter that also possesses the genes of Nikanj and his mates. Lilith is horrified by the thought of having a “monster” hybrid, but Nikanj says she will have the best attributes of both species. Lilith will stay on the ship and train the next group of Awakened humans.

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