Fledgling and the Theory of Cognitive Dissonance

While reading Fledgling by Octavia E. Butler, I have been challenged by many controversial plot developments. Being that this novel is a construct of the sci-fi/fantasy genre, I immediately began to think of my education classes with Dr. Keegan. Dr. Keegan introduced my English education class to a theory called Cognitive Dissonance created by Leon Festinger in 1957 (for more click here), that suggests that when humans encounter values and beliefs that come into direct conflict with their own, they wrestle with these new ideas until they can integrate old convictions with the new notions and therefore restore a cognitive balance. This is often done with works of science fiction and fantasy due to the “literary world” that, through being removed from our own world and sense of reality, can create a virtual workshop for readers to experiment and put their beliefs to the test. Due to the fact that the fictional literary world is removed from our own, the experimentation with morality and values is non-threatening to one’s existence and consequently does not send the reader into an existential crisis but rather gives them a platform to explore and develop convictions safely.

One such belief and previous conception that I have held is the concept that age and maturity is both physical, mental and emotional. The end of Fledgling’s Chapter 2 as well as chapter 3 have therefore caused a dilemma due to the sexual exploitation of the main, female character, Shori, that seems to be physically and mentally immature. Similar to Liam’s entry about how an autonomy dictated by language in the form of laws can bring people together, I hold the shared conviction that children are not to be touched or exploited in a sexual manner and that, as an adult, it is one’s responsibility to protect children from exploitation and harm. Every fiber of my being says “this is wrong” as Wright Hamlin and Shori, then known as Renee, become intimate in a sexual manner. Furthermore, even Wright knows it’s wrong and states that Shori is “way too young[…]Jailbait. Super jailbait” (12). And even later on he asks Shori “Why’d you let me undress you like that?” So it is clear to the reader that Wright holds the same beliefs that children are not to be taken advantage of in a sexual manner.

This belief is complicated by Shori’s solicitation of sex in Chapter 3 and her desire to pleasure Wright. Under any other circumstances, it would seem that Shori and Wright were in a consenting, sexual relationship.

To the reader’s surprise, Shori and Wright eventually discover that Shori is in fact fifty-three years old. However, she’s still known as a child among her people because she’s not old enough to bear children due to the maturation process of her species. And there is also the factor of her lost memory that could deem Shori, furthermore, a child.

A series of further confusions occurred when I eventually began to ease into the idea of Wright and Shori being together intimately. This brought up some concerning questions about my previous convictions: Is Wright’s relationship with Shori moral, or does their circumstance lie outside of realm of human morality? Is age best valued as merely the passing of time or as a measurement of experience? Can mutual consent ever be deemed “un-mutual” by an outside party due to a participants physical appearance or perceived cognitive age? Does the symbiotic value of Shori and Wright’s relationship and Shori’s inherently predatory existence create a power-play that can be deemed “fair,” “just,” and “right?”

These are questions that I’m still grappling with as I read, and I’m still not convinced that there will be an ultimate answer for them. I do believe, however, that Butler’s writing creates a case of cognitive dissonance where a reader must put on trial their previous reservations and understandings in order to restore a balance to their beliefs.

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