Dawn Symbols, Allegory and Motifs

Food as Comfort (Symbol)

Food is a symbol for comfort throughout Dawn. When Lilith is in solitary confinement, the food the Oankali give her is bland and tasteless. It is very far from the food that she loved eating on Earth: "It was the usual lumpy cereal or stew, of no recognizable flavor, contained in an edible bowl that would disintegrate if she emptied it and did not eat it" (4). This food is as foreign to Lilith as her surroundings. She can derive no pleasure from this meal.

While Jdhaya spends time in Lilith's room in an attempt to acclimate her to his presence, he offers her human food two different times. The pleasure that Lilith gets from eating a banana and an orange puts her at ease in Jdhaya's presence. When she finally shares a bit of her orange with Jdhaya, he decides it is time for her to leave her room: "Sometime later he brought her an orange. Out of curiosity, she broke the fruit and offered to share it with him. He accepted a piece of it from her hand and sat down beside her to eat it. . . 'We'll go out now,' he said. 'My family will be relieved to see us. And you—you have a great deal to learn'" (27).

When Lilith finally sits down at Jdhaya's family's table and has her first meal with them, she is offered an incredible array of human foods: "Food and pleasure so sharp and sweet it cleared everything else from her mind. There were whole bananas, dishes of sliced pineapple, whole figs, shelled nuts of several kinds, bread and honey, a vegetable stew filled with corn, peppers, tomatoes, potatoes, onions, mushrooms, herbs, and spices. Where had all this been, Lilith wondered. Surely they could have given her a little of this instead of keeping her for so long on a diet that made eating a chore" (45).

The Oankali use food, which is inherently tied to Lilith's drive for survival and her feelings of homesickness of belonging, as a kind of reward for Lilith's growing comfort in the Oankali world. Once Lilith is given more power and is tasked with Awakening a group of humans in Part 3, "Nursery," she will be the one who is in charge of the food. This speaks to the power difference between Lilith and the group of humans she is meant to lead. Additionally, it shows Lilith's growing comfort in the Oankali world as she accepts what they want her to do and changes herself in order to further the Oankali mission.

Body Language (Motif)

Lilith pays attention to body language throughout Dawn and uses it to learn more about those around her. At first, body language is a useful tool for communicating with and understanding Oankali as she is immersed in their world. However, she cannot depend on body language in the same way that a human traveler in a foreign land might. The Oankali have their own set of gestures that she must learn the meaning of, in the same way that they must decipher the meaning of her unspoken gestures themselves.

There is much room for misunderstandings when it comes to this kind of communication. The Oankali can speak English fluently, but that does not mean that they understand human body language. When Lilith has an altercation with Nikanj in "Family," she shrugs and Nikanj does not register her movement. In the end, she does not care "whether it missed the gesture or failed to understand it" (72). Additionally, when Lilith is exploring the ship, she often has a hard time communicating with the Oankali that do not speak English: "Most of the time she wound up resorting to gestures—which did not work very well—and feeling impenetrably stupid" (62). The Oankali and humans have different bodies. It follows logically that they would have different body languages.

The first Oankali body language that Lilith learns is a demonstration of pleasure. When Oankali are happy, they smooth their tentacles. Jdhaya does this in Lilith's room in "Womb" after he discovers that she has a drive to live: "His tentacles seemed to solidify into a second skin—dark patches on his face and neck, a dark, smooth-looking mass on his head" (23). The Oankali's tentacles tell Lilith a lot about what they are thinking and where their mind is. Their tentacles move of their own accord and will point towards stimuli in the room whether they like it or not. When Oankali are concentrating or insistent, their tentacles will point sharply in the direction of whatever it is that is consuming their thoughts. Additionally, when they are feeling uncomfortable, their tentacles bunch up into "irregular, raised knots" (69). Though these knots seem ugly to Lilith and put her off, she can understand their meaning and thus learn more about the situation she is in. As Lilith learns the Oankali language and assimilates to their way of life, learning to understand Oankali body language is an effective tool.

Later, Lilith will read the body language of the humans she Awakens in order to gauge what they are thinking and how much danger she is in. For example, in "The Training Floor," Lilith can tell that the group is feeling hostile towards her by the way they position themselves: "Lilith went aside to relieve herself and when she stepped clear of the tree that had concealed her, every eye was on her. Then abruptly everyone found something else to notice—one another, a tree, a piece of food, their fingernails" (214). Lilith correctly infers through their body language that they had been talking about her while she was gone.

Lies as Lilith's Power (Symbol)

Lilith becomes caught up with the thought of Oankali lies. As she learns more about the Oankali mission and her place in it, she also learns that she has very little power to decide her own fate. The Oankalis' ability to lie to her touches on her lack of power. They have so much power that they have no reason to lie. Lilith muses, "[m]aybe they had not lied about anything. Why should they bother to lie? They owned the Earth and all that was left of the human species" (57).

This thought causes Lilith to come up with two desires. The first is to make contact with another human being. The second is to catch an Oankali in a lie: "Any Oankali. Any lie" (58). Soon, however, she realizes that this is easier said than done: "[T]he closest she came to catching the Oankali lying was to catch them in half-truths—though they were honest even about this. They freely admitted that they would tell her only part of what she wanted to know. Beyond this, the Oankali seemed to tell the truth as they perceived it, always" (58). Lilith's inability to catch an Oankali in a lie leaves her "with an almost intolerable sense of hopelessness and helplessness" (58).

For Lilith, lies have begun to symbolize her own power. If the Oankali have reason to lie to and deceive her, it means that there is a chance they are worried that she will not do what they want her to do. However, the Oankali have no reason to lie to Lilith. They are forthright, or at least forthright about their omissions of truth, because she does not have the power to decide her own fate either way. Lilith wishes to catch them in a lie because "catching them in lies would make them vulnerable" (58). However, the Oankali are not vulnerable. They are incredibly powerful.

The Suspended Animation Plants (Symbol)

The humans aboard the Oankali ship have been there for almost 250 years. When they are not awake, they are sleeping in suspended animation inside of a plant. In "Family," Lilith sees Sharad's head peek out of one of these plants. However, it was not yet time for him to Awaken, so the Oankali put him back in his plant to continue sleeping.

The process by which humans are removed from these plants is a symbol for rebirth. When Lilith Awakens the humans in "Nursery," she is welcoming them into their new life. The plant's shape evokes the shape of the womb. The language that Butler uses to describe the process uses imagery that is often linked with pregnancy and childbirth. When Lilith brings the plants out of the wall, they begin with a "bulge" which resembles a pregnant belly (127). When Lilith opens the plant, they leave it head-first, similarly to how a baby leaves their mother's body during birth. Their bodies are naked, "wet, and slippery" (127). All of this imagery confirms the idea that Lilith is playing the role of these humans' "mother" in this new world. Some reject this idea, such as the group of humans that is led by Curt. Others, like Tate, Leah, and Joseph, accept her guidance and use her wisdom to make their way through their new world.

Illusion (Motif)

Among the humans aboard the Oankali ship, suspicion abounds. First, in "Nursery," they do not believe Lilith when she tells them that they have been kidnapped by aliens. Later, once the Oankali release them out into the training floor, they do not believe they are aboard the ship and instead believe they are transported to Earth. Throughout these scenes, the illusion of Earth and normalcy confuses the humans, giving them false hope that they might be able to escape their captors.

The forest in "The Training Floor" is designed to look like Earth: "The training room was brown and green and blue. . . Across the wide river, there was the illusion of a line of trees on the opposite bank" (199). The illusion of Earth is so convincing that even Lilith is confused throughout this part of the novel: "A wild thought struck her: What if they were right? What if they somehow were on Earth?. . . Where had the doubt come from?" (207).

Why would the Oankali make the training room so convincingly similar to Earth? As it turns out, it is so the humans will try to escape of their own accord and can put their survival skills to the test. That the humans would fall for the illusion was all part of the Oankali plan. Lilith picks this up eventually and tells the others that their time in the forest is their "final tests" (214). However, no one believes her, and instead she is accused of believing whatever she wants to believe: "'Lilith knows this is a ship no matter what the truth is. So what's she doing here?'" (215).

The illusion of the Earth-like habitat aboard the ship is not the only illusion in Dawn. The Oankali are consistently giving the humans, including Lilith, one thing that is disguised as another. The humans mate with the Oankali, not knowing that it will make them unable to touch each other. The ooloi offer the illusion of consent while actually doing whatever they like with the humans' bodies. Nikanj tells Lilith that she will lead the group of newly-Awakened humans, without telling her that she will be unable to leave the ship. Nikanj tells Lilith that she is carrying its "daughter," leaving it up to her to infer that she is carrying a half-Oankali, half-human hybrid. In the end, the Oankali use illusion to manipulate the humans, knowing that human psychology will cause them to play into their trap.