The Fifth Season

The Fifth Season

by

N. K. Jemisin

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Hierarchy, Oppression, and Prejudice Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Hierarchy, Oppression, and Prejudice Theme Icon
Disaster, Violence, and Survival Theme Icon
Freedom Theme Icon
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History, Storytelling, and Knowledge Theme Icon
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LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Fifth Season, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Hierarchy, Oppression, and Prejudice Theme Icon

N.K. Jemisin’s science fantasy novel The Fifth Season takes place in a world that often experiences apocalyptic periods called Fifth Seasons. These “Seasons” can be separated by hundreds or even thousands of years, and most are extended winters caused by massive seismic activity of some kind. The inhabitants of this volatile and dangerous world live on a single massive continent called the Stillness, which is ruled by the remnants of the Sanzed Empire and is rigidly divided into various “use-castes” and other systems of ranking. Among these divisions are the people called orogenes, who have the power to affect seismic activity by manipulating energy, yet are also officially considered non-human and harshly discriminated against. Throughout The Fifth Season, Jemisin shows that such rigid hierarchical systems have negative effects on everyone that takes part in them, ultimately leading to oppression, prejudice, and the denial of other people’s humanity.

In the Stillness, privileged groups perpetuate the hierarchies and divisions that keep them in power, most notably through the example of non-orogenes treating orogenes as less than human. Stonelore, the ancient laws that are indoctrinated into every child in the Stillness as a means of preparing them for Fifth Seasons, holds that orogenes are monsters to be feared and despised, the children of “Father Earth” who hates humanity and punishes the Stillness with earthquakes and volcanoes. Because orogenes are classified as technically non-human, other people feel no compunction about mistreating and even killing them. The Guardians are also an order specifically formed to keep orogenes in check. As soon as young orogenes are discovered, Guardians teach them that they are dangers to society and that the Guardians have the right to hurt or kill them if it will protect others from the orogenes’ power. It is a rite of passage for a Guardian to break a young orogene’s hand as a test of how well they can control themselves, as the Guardian Schaffa does to the young orogene Damaya. Yet orogenes are obviously human, as Alabaster reminds his mentee Syenite—the fact that they are classified as non-human is just an excuse for their power to be exploited by others.

Even beyond the distinction between orogene and human, the Sanzed use racial classifications to keep the populace divided and rank each other in terms of value and desirability. Essun frequently judges people based on their physical characteristics when she meets them, and she always notes how they would seem to the average “Equatorial” (someone from the ruling cities near the continent’s equator). As Essun notes to herself, “everyone is measured by their standard deviations from the Sanzed mean,” meaning that the physical qualities ascribed to the Sanzed are seen as ideal, and any difference from those is seen as inferior. However, Alabaster reveals that it was only when the Sanzeds first took power that they started to elevate their own race above others, and they justified this with the idea that Sanzed traits are better suited to surviving Seasons. This worldview keeps the members of the general populace competing with each other rather than questioning why certain racial qualities are considered superior and others inferior.

Despite being presented as traditional and necessary, this stratification of people is directly connected to murder, rape, and genocide. Jija, Essun’s husband, kills their young son Uche as soon as he finds out that Uche is an orogene. Many orogenic children meet similar fates, Schaffa tells Damaya, and she is lucky to survive when everyone considers her kind to be dangerous monsters. Alabaster also reveals the source of the present-day idolization of Sanze: Sanze used to conquer other comms (towns), cannibalize them, and spread their own genes throughout the continent via rape, all while referring to others as lesser races deserving of their fate. In the novel’s present day, these racial hierarchies are seen as commonplace and natural, but they are rooted in systemic violence. Similarly the word “rogga” is commonly used as a slur for orogenes, but its dehumanizing nature is based in a system that tacitly condones the murder of orogenes like Uche.

As in the real world, in The Fifth Season these issues must be dealt with on both an individual and structural level. Alabaster and Syenite must make arguments for their humanity in the city of Allia, noting how they are treated far differently from other guests even though they are there to save the city’s livelihood by clearing its harbor. The deputy governor who first meets them even calls Syenite a “rogga,” exposing her own deep-seated personal prejudice beneath the veneer of a diplomatic meeting. While the orogenes eventually do get some of the respect that they fight for in Allia, the novel suggests that more drastic changes need to be made to society, as well. Alabaster tells Syenite that stonelore itself has been changed over the centuries, as history and law are written by those in power and thus could be rewritten once more. This kind of drastic change often requires massive upheaval, such as changing laws and traditions like stonelore or the political hierarchies that keep Guardians in total control of orogenes. Alabaster’s “Rifting” of the continent is the most extreme possible example of this kind of upheaval. He tears the land in two and sends the capital city of Yumenes plunging into magma, literally overturning all the hierarchies that Sanze has built up over thousands of years. Though this action leads to the deaths of millions of people, the novel also questions whether or not the destruction of a fundamentally evil society is a tragedy or not.

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Hierarchy, Oppression, and Prejudice Quotes in The Fifth Season

Below you will find the important quotes in The Fifth Season related to the theme of Hierarchy, Oppression, and Prejudice.
Prologue Quotes

And then he reaches forth with all the fine control that the world has brainwashed and backstabbed and brutalized out of him, and all the sensitivity that his masters have bred into him through generations of rape and coercion and highly unnatural selection. His fingers spread and twitch as he feels several reverberating points on the map of his awareness: his fellow slaves. […]

So he reaches deep and takes hold of the humming tapping bustling reverberating rippling vastness of the city, and the quieter bedrock beneath it, and the roiling churn of heat and pressure beneath that. Then he reaches wide, taking hold of the great sliding-puzzle piece of earthshell on which the continent sits.

Lastly, he reaches up. For power.

He takes all that, the strata and the magma and the people and the power, in his imaginary hands. Everything. He holds it. He is not alone. The earth is with him.

Then he breaks it.

Related Characters: Alabaster
Related Symbols: The Obelisks
Page Number: 6
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 4 Quotes

If the problem is that ferals are not predictable…well, orogenes have to prove themselves reliable. The Fulcrum has a reputation to maintain; that’s part of this. So’s the training, and the uniform, and the endless rules they must follow, but the breeding is part of it too, or why is she here?

It's somewhat flattering to think that despite her feral status, they actually want something of her infused into their breeding lines. Then she wonders why a part of her is trying to find value in degradation.

Related Characters: Essun/Damaya/Syenite, Alabaster
Page Number: 73
Explanation and Analysis:

But this is what it means to be civilized—doing what her betters say she should, for the ostensible good of all. […] With the experience and boost to her reputation, she’ll be that much closer to her fifth ring. That means her own apartment; no more roommates. Better missions, longer leave, more say in her own life. That’s worth it. Earthfire yes, it’s worth it.

She tells herself this all the way back to her room. Then she packs to leave, tidies up so she’ll come home to order and neatness, and takes a shower, methodically scrubbing every bit of flesh she can reach until her skin burns.

Related Characters: Essun/Damaya/Syenite, Alabaster
Page Number: 75
Explanation and Analysis:

“Tell them they can be great someday, like us. Tell them they belong among us, no matter how we treat them. Tell them they must earn the respect which everyone else receives by default. Tell them there is a standard for acceptance; that standard is simply perfection. Kill those who scoff at these contradictions, and tell the rest that the dead deserved annihilation for their weakness and doubt. Then they’ll break themselves trying for what they’ll never achieve.”

Related Symbols: Stonelore
Page Number: 76
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 5 Quotes

Because everyone’s starting to realize what the shake and the redglow and the clouded sky all mean, and to be on the outside of a community’s gates at a time like this is—in the long run—a death sentence, except for a handful who are willing to become brutal enough or depraved enough to do what they must. Even those only have a chance at survival.

None of the people at the roadhouse wanted to believe they had that in them, you saw as you looked around, assessing faces and clothes and bodies and threats.

Related Characters: Essun/Damaya/Syenite
Page Number: 79
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 6 Quotes

Never say no to me,” he says. The words are hot against her skin. He has bent to murmur them into her ear. “Orogenes have no right to say no. I am your Guardian. I will break every bone in your hand, every bone in your body, if I deem it necessary to make the world safe from you.”

Related Characters: Schaffa Guardian Warrant (speaker), Essun/Damaya/Syenite
Page Number: 99
Explanation and Analysis:

“I have to do what you say or you’ll hurt me.”

“And?”

She closes her eyes tighter. In dreams, that makes the bad creatures go away.

“And,” she adds, “you’ll hurt me even when I do obey. If you think you should.”

“Yes.” She can actually hear his smile. He nudges a stray braid away from her cheek, letting the backs of his fingers brush her skin. “What I do is not random, Damaya. It’s about control. Give me no reason to doubt yours, and I will never hurt you again. Do you understand?”

Related Characters: Essun/Damaya/Syenite (speaker), Schaffa Guardian Warrant (speaker)
Page Number: 102
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 7 Quotes

He’s not just small but stocky, as if his people are built for a different kind of sturdiness than the ideal that Old Sanze has spent millennia cultivating. Maybe his race are all this white, then, whoever they are.

But none of this makes sense. Every race in the world these days is part Sanzed. They did rule the Stillness for centuries, after all, and they continue to do so in many ways. And they weren’t always peaceful about it, so even the most insular races bear the Sanzed stamp whether their ancestors wanted the admixture or not. Everyone is measured by their standard deviations from the Sanzed mean.

Related Characters: Essun/Damaya/Syenite, Hoa
Page Number: 111
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 8 Quotes

“They kill us because they’ve got stonelore telling them at every turn that we’re born evil—some kind of agents of Father Earth, monsters that barely qualify as human.”

“Yes, but you can’t change stonelore.”

“Stonelore changes all the time, Syenite.” He doesn’t say her name often, either. It gets her attention. “Every civilization adds to it; parts that don’t matter to the people of the time are forgotten. There’s a reason Tablet Two is so damaged: someone, somewhere back in time, decided that it wasn’t important or was wrong, and didn’t bother to take care of it. Or maybe they even deliberately tried to obliterate it, which is why so many of the early copies are damaged in exactly the same way.”

Related Characters: Essun/Damaya/Syenite (speaker), Alabaster (speaker)
Related Symbols: Stonelore
Page Number: 124
Explanation and Analysis:

“You think you matter?” All at once he smiles. It’s an ugly thing, cold as the vapor that curls off ice. “You think any of us matter beyond what we can do for them? Whether we obey or not.” He jerks his head toward the body of the abused, murdered child. “You think he mattered, after what they did to him? The only reason they don’t do this to all of us is because we’re more versatile, more useful, if we control ourselves. But each of us is just another weapon, to them. Just a useful monster, just a bit of new blood to add to the breeding lines. Just another fucking rogga.”

She has never heard so much hate put into one word before.

Related Characters: Alabaster (speaker), Essun/Damaya/Syenite, The Node Maintainer
Page Number: 143
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 9 Quotes

Alabaster smiles, though the muscles of his jaw flex repeatedly. “I would’ve thought you’d like being treated like a human being for a change.”

“I do. But what difference does it make? Even if you pull rank now, it won’t change how they feel about us—”

“No, it won’t. And I don’t care how they feel. They don’t have to rusting like us. What matters is what they do.”

Related Characters: Essun/Damaya/Syenite (speaker), Alabaster (speaker), Asael Leadership Allia
Page Number: 159-160
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 10 Quotes

You think, maybe, you need to be someone else.

You’re not sure who. Previous yous have been stronger and colder, or warmer and weaker; either set of qualities is better suited to getting you through the mess you’re in. Right now you’re cold and weak, and that helps no one.

You could become someone new, maybe. You’ve done that before; it’s surprisingly easy. A new name, a new focus, then try on the sleeves and slacks of a new personality to find the perfect fit. A few days and you’ll feel like you’ve never been anyone else.

But. Only one you is Nassun’s mother. That’s what’s forestalled you so far, and ultimately it’s the deciding factor. At the end of all this, when Jija is dead and it’s finally safe to mourn your son…if she still lives, Nassun will need the mother she’s known all her life.

Related Characters: Essun/Damaya/Syenite, Nassun, Jija, Uche
Page Number: 172
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 11 Quotes

You are representatives of us all, the instructors say, if any grit dares to protest this treatment. When you’re dirty, all orogenes are dirty. When you’re lazy, we’re all lazy. We hurt you so you’ll do the rest of us no harm.

Once Damaya would have protested the unfairness of such judgments. The children of the Fulcrum are all different: different ages, different colors, different shapes. […] One cannot reasonably expect sameness out of so much difference, and it makes no sense for Damaya to be judged by the behavior of children who share nothing save the curse of orogeny with her.

But Damaya understands now that the world is not fair. They are orogenes, the Misalems of the world, born cursed and terrible. This is what is necessary to make them safe.

Related Characters: Essun/Damaya/Syenite, Misalem
Page Number: 192
Explanation and Analysis:

What Damaya sees in them is something she does not understand at first, though she wants it with a desperation that surprises and unnerves her. As those first weeks pass into months and she grows familiar with the routine, she begins to understand what it is that the older orogenes display: control. They have mastered their power. […]

If to achieve this Damaya must endure a few broken bones, or a few years in a place where no one loves her or even likes her, that is a small price to pay.

Related Characters: Essun/Damaya/Syenite
Page Number: 196
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 12 Quotes

“What do you want? An apology? Then I apologize. You must remember, though, that most normal people have never seen an orogene, let alone had to do business with one and—” She spreads her hands. “Isn’t it understandable that we might be…uncomfortable?”

“Discomfort is understandable. It’s the rudeness that isn’t.” Rust this. This woman doesn’t deserve the effort of her explanation. Syen decides to save that for someone who matters. “And that’s a really shitty apology. ‘I’m sorry you’re so abnormal that I can’t manage to treat you like a human being.’”

“You’re a rogga,” Asael snaps, and then has the gall to look surprised at herself.

“Well.” Syenite makes herself smile. “At least that’s out in the open.”

Related Characters: Essun/Damaya/Syenite (speaker), Asael Leadership Allia (speaker)
Page Number: 216
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 13 Quotes

The young man has a sash around his waist that is soft and peach colored and there solely for decoration, as far as you can tell.

Except it’s not really decoration. You notice how they look at you when you walk up: a sweep of the eyes, an inspection of your wrists or neck or ankles, a frown as you are found wanting. The impractical cloth has one very practical use: It is the marker of a new tribe in the process of being born. A tribe to which you do not belong.

Related Characters: Essun/Damaya/Syenite
Page Number: 236
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 14 Quotes

She scrambles backward again, tries to get to her feet again, tries again to reach for power, and fails in all three efforts. Even if she could succeed, though—he’s a Guardian. It’s her duty to obey. It’s her duty to die, if he wills it.

This is not right.

“You need not understand,” he says, with perfect kindness. “You need do only one thing.” And then he lunges, aiming the poniard at her chest.

Related Characters: Edki Guardian Warrant (speaker), Essun/Damaya/Syenite
Page Number: 261
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 15 Quotes

You’ve always known better. How dare you expect anything else? You’re just another filthy, rusty-souled rogga, just another agent of the Evil Earth, just another mistake of sensible breeding practices, just another mislaid tool. You should never have had children in the first place, and you shouldn’t have expected to keep them once you did […]

Related Characters: Essun/Damaya/Syenite, Nassun, Uche
Page Number: 271
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 16 Quotes

There’re so many ways to die in this place. But they know about all of them—seriously—and as far as I can tell, they don’t care. At least they’ll die free, they say.”

“Free of what? Living?”

“Sanze.” Alabaster grins when Syen’s mouth falls open.

Related Characters: Essun/Damaya/Syenite (speaker), Alabaster (speaker)
Page Number: 294
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 17 Quotes

(Friends do not exist. The Fulcrum is not a school. Grits are not children. Orogenes are not people. Weapons have no need of friends.)

Related Characters: Essun/Damaya/Syenite
Page Number: 297
Explanation and Analysis:

He does understand. She bites her lip and feels fresh tears threaten. It isn’t right that she loves him, but many things in the world are not right. So she fights off the tears, and makes her decision. Crying is weakness. Crying was a thing Damaya did. Syenite will be stronger.

“I’ll do it,” Syenite says, softly. “I’ll pass the test for you, Schaffa. I promise.”

“My good girl,” Schaffa says, and smiles, holding her close.

Related Characters: Essun/Damaya/Syenite (speaker), Schaffa Guardian Warrant (speaker)
Page Number: 331
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 20 Quotes

And what do they even call this? It’s not a threesome, or a love triangle. It’s a two-and-a-half-some, an affection dihedron. (And, well, maybe it’s love.) She should worry about another pregnancy, maybe from Alabaster again given how messy things get between the three of them, but she can’t bring herself to worry because it doesn’t matter. Someone will love her children no matter what. Just as she doesn’t think overmuch about what she does with her bed time or how this thing between them works; no one in Meov will care, no matter what. That’s another turn-on, probably: the utter lack of fear. Imagine that.

Page Number: 372
Explanation and Analysis:

“Heh.” Innon sounds odd, and Syenite glances at him in surprise to see an almost regretful look on his face. “Sometimes, when I see what you and he can do, I wish I had gone to this Fulcrum of yours.”

“No, you don’t.” She doesn’t even want to think about what he would be like if he had grown up in captivity with the rest of them. Innon, but without his booming laugh or vivacious hedonism or cheerful confidence. Innon, with his graceful strong hands weaker and clumsier for having been broken. Not Innon.

Related Characters: Essun/Damaya/Syenite (speaker), Innon Resistant Meov (speaker), Alabaster
Page Number: 386
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 22 Quotes

“All the accounts differ on the details, but they agree on one thing: Misalem was the only survivor when his family was taken in a raid. Supposedly his children were slaughtered for Anafumeth’s own table, though I suspect that’s a bit of dramatic embellishment.” Alabaster sighs. “Regardless, they died, and it was Anafumeth’s fault, and he wanted Anafumeth dead for it. Like any man would.”

But a rogga is not any man. Roggas have no right to get angry, to want justice, to protect what they love. For his presumption, Shemshena had killed him—and became a hero for doing it.

Page Number: 418
Explanation and Analysis:

“Freedom means we get to control what we do now. No one else.”

“Yes. But now that I can think about what I want…” He shrugs as if nonchalant, but there’s an intensity in his gaze at he looks at Innon and Coru. “I’ve never wanted much from life. Just to be able to live it, really. I’m not like you, Syen. I don’t need to prove myself. I don’t want to change the world, or help people, or be anything great. I just want…this.”

Related Characters: Essun/Damaya/Syenite (speaker), Alabaster (speaker), Corundum, Innon Resistant Meov
Page Number: 422
Explanation and Analysis:

Promise, Alabaster had said.

Do whatever you have to, Innon had tried to say.

And Syenite says: “No, you fucker.”

Coru is crying. She puts her hand over his mouth and nose, to silence him, to comfort him. She will keep him safe. She will not let them take him, enslave him, turn his body into a tool and his mind into a weapon and his life into a travesty of freedom.

[…]

Better that a child never have lived at all than live as a slave.

Better that he die.

Better that she die. Alabaster will hate her for this, for leaving him alone, but Alabaster is not here, and survival is not the same thing as living.

Related Characters: Essun/Damaya/Syenite (speaker), Alabaster (speaker), Innon Resistant Meov (speaker), Corundum, Schaffa Guardian Warrant
Page Number: 76
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 23 Quotes

“After Meov. I was…” You’re not sure how to say it. There are griefs too deep to be borne, and yet you have borne them again and again. “I needed to be different.”

It makes no sense. Alabaster makes a soft affirmative sound, though, as if he understands. “You stayed free, at least.”

If hiding everything you are is free. “Yes.”

[…]

“I understand why you killed Corundum,” Alabaster says, very softly. And then, while you sway in your crouch, literally reeling from the blow of that sentence, he finishes you. “But I’ll never forgive you for doing it.”

Related Characters: Essun/Damaya/Syenite (speaker), Alabaster (speaker), Corundum
Page Number: 446
Explanation and Analysis: