Dawn Themes

Knowledge and Power

The Oankali are stronger, more perceptive, and larger in population than the humans aboard their ship. All of these factors contribute to the fact that the Oankali have much more power than the humans in their "care." However, the largest force that augments Oankali power and decreases human power is something that appears harmless on the surface: knowledge.

While the humans sleep for centuries aboard the Oankali ship, the Oankali use that time to learn as much as they can about the human race. They cut open their human captives to learn how their bodies work, they learn from the first generation of humans who have never left the ship, they travel to Earth to study human ruins, and they study human language, literature, and history. All of this knowledge gives them the ability, according to the Oankali, to understand humans better than they know themselves. As Jdhaya tells Lilith, "'We've studied your bodies, your thinking, your literature, your historical records, your many cultures. . . We know more of what you're capable of than you do'" (31).

When Lilith is Awakened and starts living with and learning about the Oankali in turn, her knowledge acquisition is at a disadvantage. First, because Lilth's memory does not have the same capacity as Oankali memory and this puts her at a disadvantage when learning the Oankali language or learning to differentiate between Oankali individuals. More importantly, however, the Oankali will simply not provide an answer that they do not want Lilith to know. Some of this knowledge would give Lilith power the Oankali perceive as dangerous. For example, during her first meal at Jdhaya's house, Lilith asks whether human food can poison any Oankalis. Kahguyaht responds that vulnerable individuals—the elderly and the young—would respond negatively to certain human foods. Lilith asks which foods in particular, which angers Kahguyaht. It asks Lilith, "'Why do you ask, Lilith? What would you do if I told you? Poison a child?'" Lilith responds that she would never hurt a child to which Kahguyaht replies, "'You just haven't learned yet not to ask dangerous questions'" (48). The "dangerous knowledge" that Lilith would acquire in this situation would give her the power to decide whether a certain Oankali lives or dies; clearly, only the Oankali want to hold that power for themselves. To close the conversation, Kahguyaht tells Lilith, "'within reason, we want you to know us'" (48). Evidently, Lilith's "reasonable" knowledge of the Oankali does not include anything that augments her power. They intend to keep her (and the rest of humanity) subjugated, and therefore dependent on them.

Lilith's lack of knowledge about the Oankali initially causes her anxiety. See, for example, the long passage in "Family" in which she obsesses over everything she does not know: "What had they modified to get their ship? And what useful tools would they modify human beings into? Did they know yet, or were they planning more experiments? Did they care? How would they make their changes? Or had they made them already—done a little extra tampering with her while they took care of her tumor? Had she ever had a tumor? . . . Why should they bother to lie? They owned the Earth and all that was left of the human species" (57). The long list of questions in this passage demonstrates Lilith's existential uncertainty as she tries to understand her captors. They have intentionally left Lilith in the "dark" about many of their operations, which increases her uncertainty and causes her to distrust them. The fact that she cannot confidently say whether or not they have changed her genetics, beyond removing her propensity to form cancers, releases a primal fear in Lilith. She has no control over her source of knowledge and is therefore powerless, with no bodily autonomy and no certainty.

The Oankali want to keep Lilith in a subjugated position through lack of knowledge. They also want to remove any of the knowledge-making tools that Lilith used while she was still on Earth. For example, when Lilith requests tools for writing and reading, she is swiftly denied. She tells Nikanj that having tools to write with "'isn't anything dangerous'" (60). However, Nikanj informs her that "'[i]t is not allowed. The people have decided that it should not be allowed'" (61). Nikanj never explains to Lilith why she is not allowed to read or write. However, the answer is obvious—the Oankali benefit when Lilith has as little power as possible. They want her to perform an essential function for them—train humans so that they can return to Earth and give birth to half-Oankali, half-human hybrids. Without her compliance, they would have to find and train a different human. It is easier to make her to comply if has as little power as possible.

Eventually, the Oankali modify Lilith's memory so that she can more easily learn the Oankali language. They also modify her body chemistry so that she can open and close doors at will. They make these changes with Lilith's consent, though they tell her that if she does not consent they will surprise her with them. Lilith soon becomes the human with the most power aboard the Oankali ship. This power stems from the fact that she is the human with the most knowledge about their Oankali captors. This difference in power causes huge rifts between her and the humans that she is meant to train. Her knowledge makes her powerful and dangerous. It also makes her a target in the eyes of the dissenters, such as Curt.


The theme of agency in Dawn is closely linked to the theme of consent. The humans aboard the Oankali ship are unable to or do not give their consent to many of the things that the Oankali give to them. This is indicative of a larger truth about their life: they have no agency to decide what they do with their own lives. Lilith muses that they are treated more like animals than like equals by the Oankali. This leaves her feeling first like a "pet" and later like an "experimental animal": "She was intended to live and reproduce, not to die. Experimental animal, parent to domestic animals? Or. . . nearly extinct animal, part of a captive breeding program? Human biologists had done that before the war—used a few captive members of an endangered animal species to breed more for the wild population. Was that what she was headed for?" (58).

A striking example of Lilith's (and every human's) lack of agency aboard the Oankali ship appears in the middle of "Family." Nikanj reveals to Lilith that it is about to undergo puberty and that before it does so it wants to complete a procedure that will improve her memory so that she can learn to speak Oankali. At first, Lilith is adamantly against being changed more than she already has been by the Oankali. She knows that they have removed cancer from her body and changed her genetics so that she will no longer grow cancer. She also knows that they have kept her alive and young for over two centuries aboard their ship. She also is soon to learn that they have made her infertile without her wishes—a procedure that they will revert when they deem her ready for childbirth. She is terrified at what they have done to her without her knowledge while she was asleep. Lilith's initial reaction to Nikanj's suggestion that it change her memory is adamant. Despite this, Nikanj gives her little choice in the matter. It spells out Lilith's situation for her: either she can let Nikanj change her brain chemistry, or Kahguyaht will "surprise" her with the procedure at a later date. Therefore, when Lilith finally consents to this procedure, she is not truly giving consent. She has been backed into a corner. Her real choice would be to not be changed at all.

Apparently, the Oankali disagree as to whether or not the humans should be treated as if they have agency. According to Nikanj, Kahguyaht believes that humans can and should be forced to submit, no matter their consent. It tells Lilith, "'Ooan says humans—any new trade partner species—can't be treated the way we must treat each other'" (80). In Kahguyaht's eyes, humans and Oankali are not equals even though both species are intelligent. Even though Oankali are called to treat each other with equity and respect, the Oankali can treat humans however they wish. Tellingly, Nikanj agrees with its parent: '"It's right up to a point'" (80). Nikanj, however, wants to "work with" humans and find a middle ground. Its middle ground is lacking in Lilith's eyes, and she calls it something else: "'Coercion,' she said bitterly. 'That's the way you've found'" (80).

As Lilith remembers, humans used to perform operations and procedures on animals without their consent "for a higher good" (58). The Oankali do the same with the humans. Their "higher good," however, only serves their own interests—they are biologically compelled to complete a gene trade with another species and humans are next on their list. The fact that the Oankali follow a tradition that is built into their genes in their relations with other species complicates the idea that humans are the only ones without agency in Butler's world. Every Oankali that Lilith interacts with is not self-interested and instead always acts according to a higher plan that benefits the entirety of the species. At first, Nikanj appeals to Lilith because it seems like it does not have any choice in what it is commanded to do with her: "Nikanj was appealing—probably because it was a child. It was no more responsible for the thing that was to happen to the remnants of humanity than she was. It was simply doing—or trying to do—what the adults around it said should be done" (70). However, as Lilith very quickly discovers, Nikanj's perceived lack of agency does not keep her from harm. It coerces her to submit to an invasive procedure that improves her memory but that she initially fought against. Later, it admits, "'I don't like what I had to do to you'" (78). The fact that Nikanj felt like it "had" to complete this procedure according to a higher power does not mean that it is innocent. It is still capable of causing Lilith harm.

In the end, those with power (the Oankali) have many choices and those without power (the humans) have extremely limited choices, if any at all. Lilith understands the truth of this when the Oankali tell her that Paul made the choice to stay on their ship rather than return to Earth. She muses, "'What kind of choice had they given him? Probably the same kind they had given her'" (83). That kind of choice is not really a choice at all.

Human Violence

While the Oankali extend their absolute power over the humans, there are very few examples of Oankali-on-human violence (not counting the times that the Oankali violate the humans' bodily autonomy without their consent). The Oankali likewise never are violent towards each other and purport that they are completely non-hierarchical. Despite these facts, Dawn is full of violence—violence committed by humans towards other humans.

In Butler's world, it seems like humans are genetically wired towards committing violence against one another. The Oankali pick up the humans in the first place because humanity has almost completely destroyed itself through a nuclear war. We learn in "Nursery" that after the war, humanity descended into chaos and riots. Curt's wife was killed in this tumult: "[she] had been killed in one of the riots that began shortly after the last missile exchange. Thousands had been killed even before it began to get cold. Thousands had simply trampled one another or torn one another apart in panic" (123). This passage suggests that there is something primordial about human violence; when the comforts of society fall apart, they resort to panicked brutality.

Lilith learns that being among the Oankali will not save her from the threat of human violence during her meeting with Paul Titus. He gets angry when she does not give in to his sexual advances and begins to hit her. He would have raped Lilith if she hadn't started goading him about his female family members. Throughout "Nursery" and "Training Floor," there are countless instances of violence. Lilith is prepared for the Awakened humans to be suspicious of her but nevertheless fears how they will react to her seeming closeness with the Oankali. For this reason, she is careful about who she Awakens first, choosing three women before Awakening any men. Nikanj's mates warn Lilith about what she might face when she is alone with those she Awakens: "[Nikanj's] mates, Dichaan and Ahajas, told her to seal herself in if people started attacking her. They had both spent time interrogating isolated humans and they seemed more worried about her than Nikanj did" (125).

As the humans she Awakens become more suspicious of Lilith and her allegiance with the Oankali, a lot of that violence is directed toward her. Leah's first reaction upon being Awakened is to attack Lilith: "When that was done, she turned, meaning to sit down with Leah and Celine and answer their questions. Instead, she was suddenly staggered by Leah's weight as the woman leaped onto her back and began strangling her" (137). Later, a woman named Jean attacks Lilith because she blames Lilith for the lack of meat: "Jean lunged at Lilith, punching, kicking, obviously intending to overwhelm at once" (146). The Oankali, predicting that Lilith would be in danger among these Awakened humans, gave her superior strength and faster healing abilities. As a result, Lilith is not completely disarmed by the violence. Nevertheless, she worries about what might be coming for her down the line.

Along with directing their hostility toward Lilith, the people Lilith Awakens start to clash with each other, especially as they have little else to do within the room besides speak to one another: "But as the number of people grew, so did the potential for disagreement. There were several short, vicious fist-fights. Lilith tried to keep out of them, allowing people to sort things out for themselves" (145). When the humans start pairing off into heterosexual mating groups, there is also intense fighting: "That caused some of the most savage fights. An increasing number of bored, caged humans could not help finding destructive things to do" (148). As the trapped humans reckon with their situation, they direct their anger towards Lilith and themselves. Rather than come together in solidarity, they enact violence on each other, seemingly unable to help it.

Lilith's encounter with Paul Titus speaks to an important truth: a lot of the human-on-human violence that we see in Dawn has gendered undertones. Despite the fact that Lilith "did deliberately Awaken a few more women than men in the hope of minimizing violence," there are several instances of gender-based violence within the second half of Dawn. As Lilith Awakens more people in "Nursery," the potential for violence increases. She tasks Leah with Awakening a man that almost immediately attempts to sexually assault her: "Leah's charge, a small blond man, grabbed her, hung on, and might have raped her if he had been bigger or she smaller" (171). Soon after, Peter and six other men pin down Lilith so that they can steal food from the pantry. Later, Peter and Gregory grab a newly Awakened woman and try to take advantage of her: "She screamed Lilith's name when Peter and the new man, Gregory Sebastes, stopped arguing with her and decided to drag her off to Gregory's room" (176). Lilith sees these moments of gender-based violence as a regression, calling the men "cavemen" and "fools" (177). While she declares that "there will be no rape here," it is unclear whether the violence would have ended if the Oankali did not soon after bring the humans to the training floor.

Human Solidarity

In "Nursery," for the first time, Lilith is surrounded by other humans rather than isolated among the Oankali. Her goal is for the group to "become a community"; if they fail to do so, "nothing else they did would matter" (126). The theme of human solidarity emerges on these pages. The humans choose who to side with depending on their personal outlook and organizations of power aboard the ship. Instead of forming a cohesive unit, they split into groups. Nevertheless, groups of humans band together in order to provide each other comfort and strength. Their collectivity is eventually destroyed by the ooloi, who drug them and cause them to turn away from other humans.

Everyone, including Lilith, enjoys the opportunity to be with others after having been in isolation for so long. Lilith allows herself to enjoy the sensation of being in Tate's company, calling the few minutes "worth a great deal of trouble" (130). The humans find comfort in collective actions, such as eating together: "People sat on the floor, eating from edible dishes. There was comfort in eating together—one of their few comforts" (166). As a result, the newly-Awakened humans "care very much" about the social ties that they make aboard the ship, and the communities they make hold power over their decisions. In Lilith's ideal world, these humans will come together into a "coherent unit" that can work together (175). That way, they can survive the training floor and rebuild humanity once they return to Earth.

Unfortunately for Lilith, the humans aboard the ship do not create one cohesive unit and instead their social order is split into two different groups: those who follow Lilith and those who follow Peter (and later, Curt). The sides that people choose accord with their temperament and how they think the humans should be solving the problem of being trapped among the Oankali: "People who favored action sided with Peter. People like Leah and Wray, Tate and Gabriel who were biding their time, waiting for more information or a real chance to escape sided with Lilith" (176). The sides that people choose also have to do with power; people choose to follow Peter or Lilith according to who they think holds the most weight and can offer the most protection. These groups are not set in stone; there is a "shuffling of people" after Lilith breaks Peter's arm, which causes people to both leave and join her side (181). She notices that people choose to either side with Lilith or reject her according to their understanding of her power: "There was a shuffling of people. Some avoided Lilith because they were afraid of her—afraid she was not human, or not human enough. Others came to her because they believed that she would win. . . [T]hey thought it would be better to be with her than to have her as an enemy" (181).

In Butler's novel, the human race almost entirely kills itself off because of a global war where human collectives (nations) fought each other rather than uniting in harmony. Likewise, on the ship, the opposing groups of humans see each other as "enemies," while individuals within a single group are seen as "allies" (174). Lilith thinks it is ridiculous that humans are organizing themselves similarly to how they did on Earth. She tells her group, "'So stupid, isn't it. It's like 'Let's play Americans against the Russians. Again'" (175). Nevertheless, there is tension aboard the ship; rather than work together cohesively, the humans choose who to ally themselves with, creating a culture of "us" vs "them."

In order to fully control humanity, the Oankali exploit and then redirect the human tendency to form communities. When the Oankali enter the scene, they use human solidarity for their own benefit. First, they drug the humans so that they are docile, which lessens their propensity for violence and brings them together. Before they enter the room, their drugs lend a calming atmosphere: "Now men and women had begun to hold hands, to sit closer to one another. They slipped arms around one another and sat together probably feeling better than they had since they had been Awakened" (183). The Oankali do this, as Nikanj explains, because they want to "dull [humans'] natural fear of strangers and of difference," so that they do not hurt the Oankali or themselves (183).

However, the ooloi eventually cut against the effect of the drugs, because, after the humans have mated with them, they turn the humans against themselves. Rather than have solidarity with their human group, each pair of humans instead feels solidarity with their mates (human and Oankali). For example, when Peter's ooloi accidentally kills him, Jean is inconsolable and will not let anyone touch her. Lilith notes, "All of the humans who had been kept heavily drugged were this way—unable to tolerate the nearness of anyone except their human mate and the ooloi who had drugged them" (196).

Ultimately, the Oankali have absolute power over the humans, because their kinship is no longer with each other and instead is with the Oankali. The rest of the humans watch in shock as Jean follows the "chemical affinity" she feels for her ooloi and its mates and turns her back on her human group: "No words had been spoken. Strangers of a different species had been accepted as family. A human friend and ally had been rejected" (196). As the Oankali designed, their influence over humans is stronger than human solidarity.


As the novel progresses, the Oankali make several genetic modifications to Lilith. In "Family," Nikanj changes Lilith's genetics so that she can understand the Oankali language. Before the beginning of "Nursery," it also makes Lilith physically stronger and gives her the ability to open Oankali walls and control the suspended-animation plants. These transformations change not only her physical body but also her personality and behavior. As Nancy Jesser explains in her article "Blood, genes and gender in Octavia Butler's Kindred and Dawn," Lilith's physical and social transformation suggests a link between the body's makeup (genotype) and lived experience (phenotype): "Because the Oankali are expert readers of the human genome as well as its manipulators, Butler uses them to explore the mechanisms and limits of the effects of genotype manipulations and the experiences of lived bodies."

It is clear that Lilith's genetic makeup has significantly changed. As the novel progresses, she is allowed to inhabit Oankali spaces with more ease, and her heightened abilities allow her a bit more freedom aboard the ship. Her relationship with the ship itself also improves, as she notes that the suspended-animation plant, which tried to swallow her in "Family," will leave her alone now because of how she smells: "She would be no more palatable to it now than Nikanj would" (127). The language in this passage suggests an equivalency between Lilith and Nikanj; according to the ship, their chemical signatures are similar enough that its directive to keep humans in suspended animation no longer applies to her. Lilith's genetic changes offer her new abilities that she did not know she had. She does not realize her own strength, for example, until she knocks Jean unconscious. It upsets Lilith that "she no longer knew her own strength" and "could kill someone by accident" (146). Lilith's later spats with other humans are never started by her, but that does not stop her from viciously and quickly putting an end to them, for example when she breaks Peter's arm.

As Lilith's body changes, her behavior changes with it in subtle ways. This becomes most apparent in "Nursery," when she is surrounded by humans who have not been acclimated to the Oankali way of life. Lilith begins to use Oankali strategies, such as standing in silence when Joseph is upset and waiting for him to come to his senses: "Once she understood this, she sat with him to wait. She had not Awakened him when she came back to the room, had sealed the room and slept beside him until his movements woke her" (168). Think about how Lilith's behavior mirrors Jdhaya's behavior early in the novel, as he waits for Lilith to acclimate to his presence: "These things, whatever they were, were incredibly good at waiting. She made this one wait for several minutes, and not only was it silent, it never moved a muscle" (11). More than a hundred and fifty pages later, after two years aboard the Oankali ship, Lilith takes up Jdhaya's position for another, waiting for Joseph to acclimate to the new world around him. Later, Lilith pairs a couple of humans, thinking they would be a good "match." She notes that she "had matched them as well as Nikanj had matched her with Joseph" (172). Again, Lilith unconsciously mirrors the behavior of the Oankali, playing the role in others' lives that the Oankali had previously played in hers.

Nancy Jesser argues that Lilith's behavioral changes are part of a larger Oankali project of "improving" the human race. She writes, "[i]n Butler's plot, it is the Oankali's modification of the human genome that will accomplish what centuries of civilization, getting burnt in the hot fire of human stupidity, failed to do." In other words, Oankali modification of human genetics will change human behavior, and humanity will be less likely to destroy the earth with nuclear war. However, in the end, humans will no longer be human. Joseph understands this when he declares, at the end of "Nursery," that at least Peter "'died human'" (196). He wonders what they will be like once they finally make it to Earth: "'Will we want to by then? What will we be, I wonder? Not human. Not anymore'" (196).


After the ooloi mate with the human pairs, they feel ownership over those humans. This is in part because the humans begin to give off that ooloi's "particular scent" (206). As Lililth and Nikanj bond, Nikanj feels more and more ownership over Lilith's body. For example, it insists on curing all of Lilith's bug bites: "It did not like her to conceal small injuries. It considered her health very much its business, and looked after her insect bites—especially her mosquito bites—at the end of each day" (201). Nikanj considering Lilith's health "its business" speaks to an overarching theme about the relationship between the Oankali and the humans: ownership.

When humans own other humans, it is referred to as slavery. Lilith does not describe Oankali "ownership" of the humans as such, but she does allude to slavery in "The Training Floor." Lilith notes: "Now it was time for them to begin planting their own crops. And, perhaps, now it was time for the Oankali to begin to see what they would harvest in their human crop" (205). The use of the term "human crop" shows how distanced the Oankali are from the humans—they do not see them as equals and instead see them as experimental animals, as Lilith attests early in the novel.

The use of "human crop" to describe Oankali attitudes towards humans also brings to mind the history of slavery in the United States. This opens the possibility that Dawn is an allegory for slavery, wherein the slave-owners are the Oankali and the slaves are the humans.

Because Nikanj feels as if it owns Lilith, it also feels free to use Lilith's body. For example, it uses Lilith to heal itself after Curt injures it. Lilith describes the sensation: "It was like being abruptly used as a pincushion. She gasped, but managed not to pull away" (232). Later, when Nikanj impregnates Lilith without her consent, Butler draws on the history of coerced miscegenation in the United States, in which slave-owners sexually assaulted slaves who then gave birth to mixed-race children. In "Dialogic Origins and Alien Identities in Butler's Xenogenesis," Cathy Peppers argues that Lilith's pregnancy is a direct allusion of this history: "This re-creation of the black woman's 'choice' under slavery—that is, the non-choice of being permanently 'available' to the sexual desires of the slave owners—reminds us not only that of any historically accurate geneaology of African-Americans must acknowledge the spectre of coerced miscegenation at its origins."