Study Guide

Kindred

by Octavia Butler

Kindred Summary

Summary (Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Kindred traces the emotional and physical dilemmas Dana Franklin faces as a twentieth century African American woman periodically transported back to the antebellum South. In portraying the experiences of a 1976 woman who must readjust to life during the slavery era, Butler dramatizes important themes: the continuing relevance of the past to the present; the horrors of slavery, which have lost their reality for many, including Dana and her white husband, Kevin; and the ways in which the development of racist attitudes and behavior are a product of societal conditioning.

Dana’s time-travel experiences begin, ironically, in 1976, the year of the American Bicentennial, a celebration of American freedom and independence. Dana’s fantastic experiences begin on an ordinary day: While Dana and Kevin are unpacking cartons in their new home in Los Angeles, she is overcome by nausea and dizziness. She then finds herself at a riverbank at which she hears the cries of a drowning white child. After reviving him by giving him artificial respiration, she is attacked by the boy’s mother, who thinks she has tried to kill him. As a man points a gun at Dana, she once again feels sick and faints. Dana immediately finds herself back at home in Los Angeles, yet she is covered with the mud of the riverbank. This episode contains elements that recur when Dana is transported to the past and then back to the present: She is sent back to the past when the life of Rufus Weylin, the son of a slave owner, is in danger, and she is transported back to the present when her own life is in danger.

As a result of her second trip to the past, Dana learns more about the significance of the past to her own life. She learns that Rufus is an ancestor of hers who must live long enough to father a child named Hagar with a slave named Alice. Without the birth of Hagar, who initiates Dana’s family line, Dana will not exist. Dana must, therefore, ensure the survival of Rufus, who has a tendency to find himself in life-threatening situations, in order to ensure her own existence. In addition, Dana takes an emotional interest in Rufus: From her second meeting with him, she wants to try to prevent him from accepting and practicing the racism that is a part both of his family and of the antebellum South. Thus, Dana feels that she needs to protect Rufus on both physical and psychological levels.

Dana is transported back to the past by any danger to Rufus’s life, ensuring his physical survival. Her ability to ensure his moral survival, however, is undermined by the dual time level of the past and the present. During Dana’s trips to the past, only a few minutes or hours go by in 1976; yet these short time spans can equal months in the alternative time of the antebellum South. The result is that when Dana returns to her life in the present for even a short time, years go by for Rufus. Consequently, Dana is gone from Rufus’s life for too long for her to have a lasting influence on his racist attitudes.

Another central element of the plot arises as Dana’s husband, Kevin, is transported back to the plantation with her after he holds her as she is called back to the past. The initial gap between Kevin’s and Dana’s perceptions of the antebellum South is central. At first, Kevin does not realize how badly slaves are treated. Also, he initially thinks that the nineteenth century would be a fascinating era during which to live. However, after Kevin and Dana become separated and he spends five years in the antebellum South, Kevin’s involvement in the lives of slaves makes the antebellum South appear as cruel and unjust to him as it does to Dana.

Meanwhile, Dana becomes more involved in the lives of the Weylin slaves and especially of Alice, to whom Rufus becomes more and more attracted as the years go by. Dana points out that Rufus’s attitudes toward Alice make it obvious that she has failed to prevent Rufus from becoming an abusive bigot. Rufus’s assertion to Dana that he will have no qualms about raping Alice if she does not willingly become involved with him brings home to Dana that Rufus has internalized the racist and sexist attitudes of his family and of white society. His decision to rape and impregnate Alice both affirms his power and, ironically, ensures the birth of Hagar, who will initiate Dana’s family line and ensure Dana’s existence.

The climax of the action of the book comes when Dana is called back to the past on July 4, 1976, the day of the American Bicentennial. Dana finds that Alice has killed herself as a result of Rufus’s threat to sell their children (a threat he makes to force Alice to stay with him). Moreover, Rufus makes clear his intention to rape Dana. Consequently, both Dana and Rufus are in danger, which reminds readers that danger to Rufus makes Dana stay in the past and that danger to Dana transports her back to the present. Thus, the result of Dana’s stabbing Rufus as he attacks her has an appropriate, though disfiguring, complication: She loses her left arm—it is literally lost in the past as Rufus clings to her—as she is transported for the final time to the present. The epilogue affirms that Dana and Kevin, reunited permanently in the present, can be free of Rufus. However, they will always retain the knowledge of the personal meaning of the past to their lives.

Kindred Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Dana and Kevin are moving into their new home in suburban Los Angeles in 1976 when Dana suddenly disappears for a few seconds. She experiences a few hours in an unidentified time and place, where she saves a small boy from drowning, only to have the boy’s father aim a gun at her. She feels disoriented and then finds herself back in her apartment, wet and muddy. Kevin has seen her vanish and reappear across the room, and yet he finds it hard to believe that she has traveled elsewhere.

A second incident allows Dana to better understand what is happening to her. Once again, she vanishes from her California home and finds herself rescuing the same boy, now a few years older and this time in danger from a fire. She learns that she is in Maryland and it is 1815, so the color of her skin marks her as a slave, since she has no free papers. Dana also realizes that the boy, Rufus, and his free black neighbor, Alice, are her ancestors, as she has read their names in her family bible. As night falls, Dana seeks refuge at Alice’s house, only to witness the brutal beating of a black slave man visiting his free black wife, Alice’s mother, without permission. The man’s white assailants are Patrollers, forebears of the Ku Klux Klan, and one of them attacks Dana, ultimately sending her back to twentieth century Los Angeles.

Dana and Kevin make preparations after the first two voyages, having determined that Rufus somehow calls Dana to him whenever his life is in danger and that Dana returns home when she feels grave danger to herself. The next time Dana feels herself losing consciousness, Kevin holds onto her and is thus transported with her to Maryland. The year is 1819, and Rufus has become a difficult twelve-year-old who enjoys Dana’s company but shows streaks of his emotionally distant father. Dana must pretend to be Kevin’s slave, and she is astonished by how easily both manage their roles. They remain for about two months, until Rufus’s father, Tom Weylin, catches Dana teaching two slave children to read and attacks her. Her life in danger, Dana returns to Los Angeles.

Dana finds herself alone, her white husband trapped in the past in his role as slave owner. Eight days later in 1976, and five years later in antebellum Maryland, Dana returns to find Rufus being severely beaten in a fistfight with a black man. Rufus’s opponent is Isaac, Alice’s slave husband, and he is nearly killing Rufus for raping his wife and trying to sell him down the river. Dana saves Rufus’s life and nurses him back to health with the help of some modern over-the-counter medicines she has brought back with her. Dana’s fourth journey into the past lasts two months and is full of reflections on the nature of slavery.

Kevin has gone north, so, without his protection, Dana becomes a house slave on the Weylin plantation, although Rufus promises to mail a letter to Kevin informing him of her return. Dana learns how slaves are made when she finds her letter unmailed and runs away. Quickly caught, Dana receives a horrific beating, but she is unable to time travel because she knows her life is not in real danger. Beaten and subdued, Dana begins to lose touch with her identity as a twentieth century African American writer and to experience the subtleties of oppression built into the system of slavery.

Dana observes her ancestors, Rufus and Alice, and even becomes involved in their relationship when Rufus asks Dana to convince Alice not to resist his advances, since he will possess her sexually with or without her consent. Dana watches as Alice, who received a beating far worse than Dana’s when she was caught as a runaway, becomes her owner’s sexual slave. After two months, Kevin returns to the plantation, and he and Dana are leaving when they encounter Rufus. Rufus points a gun at them and when he means to use it, the two travel back to 1976.

Dana’s fifth trip to antebellum Maryland finds Rufus laying face down in a puddle, drunk and ill. Dana treats his illness with Excedrin but is unable to help his father, who dies of what appears to be a heart attack. In a rage because he believes Dana allowed Tom Weylin to die, Rufus sentences Dana to fieldwork, where she briefly experiences the physical brutality practiced on field slaves. Dana soon returns to the house, but, when Rufus sells a slave specifically because he has spoken to Dana, she takes matters into her own hands and cuts her wrists, returning herself to Los Angeles.

Dana’s final voyage occurs on July 4, 1976, America’s bicentennial. For the first time, Rufus does not appear to be in immediate danger when she finds him, although the fact that Dana has time-traveled suggests that he is considering suicide. He immediately takes Dana to see Alice, who has hanged herself because she believed that Rufus had sold her children, whom he actually secreted with family in order to further subdue Alice. When Rufus, desperately lonely, attempts to rape Dana, she briefly thinks how easy it would be to allow herself to become a victim before stabbing Rufus repeatedly. Rufus fights back, and this time, when Dana returns to twentieth century California, she is without her left arm, which has remained in the space between Rufus’s desperate grasp at her arm and the wall of her home.

Kindred Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

Kindred is a historical novel which explores slavery in the nineteenth century United States. The novel is classed as fantasy because of its use of time travel, which allows the protagonist to be transported by unspecific means between two centuries.

Dana, a twentieth century California writer who works at menial jobs assigned by a temporary employment agency, is married to Kevin, a white man. In her first time-travel experience Dana is unwittingly transported in time and space to a plantation in nineteenth century Maryland, arriving just in time to save the life of Rufus, the son of the plantation owner. She is sent back there five more times when Rufus’s life is endangered. She returns to her own time and place when her life in the nineteenth century is threatened. During Dana’s journeys into the past, Rufus grows from a young child to adulthood; however, elapsed time in Dana’s twentieth century life ranges only from a few seconds to eight days.

Dana learns, through genealogical research, that Rufus is her ancestor, and unless she assures his survival to father the child who will be known as Hagar, Dana herself will never be born. The plot is driven by Dana’s urgent need to protect the life of Rufus, a self-indulgent, accident-prone child and eventually an impulsively cruel adult. Dana also hopes to influence his character and to mitigate the evils of slavery. The carefully researched details of plantation life in the slaveholding South are graphically portrayed. As Dana notes, while being forced to watch the master whipping a slave, the sensory details of this brutality come alive in ways that cannot be felt by television and film viewers in later centuries.

Dana’s predicament is complicated by the author’s insight into the psychological conflict among, and within, her characters. As a twentieth century feminist, Dana is at first critical of the slaves’ submission to their white master. For instance, Dana judges Sarah, the family cook, harshly as the stereotypical “Mammy” who appeases the master. However, Dana comes to understand that Sarah’s submissive behavior assures the survival of her family, several of whom have already been sold down river to certain death from overwork.

On one journey into the past, Dana’s white husband, Kevin, accompanies her. She must pretend to be his slave mistress in order to save her life; her attempts to act out this role are nearly her undoing. An unpleasant revelation is Kevin’s obvious pleasure in his role as a nineteenth century adventurer, free to travel as he pleases, while Dana is confined to her quarters on the plantation.

Finally Dana must arrange for the young slave Alice to agree to a sexual liaison with Rufus, the event that will lead to the birth of Hagar, Dana’s ancestor. This choice is abhorrent to Dana, a twentieth-century feminist. She acknowledges that she herself has become the hated “Mammy” figure, submitting to the master’s wishes in order to assure her own survival.

At the conclusion, Alice, the slave mother of Rufus’s children (including Hagar), hangs herself when Rufus tells her that he has sold her children. This is a cruel ruse, however, intended to demonstrate his power. He turns his attention to Dana, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Alice. During his attempted rape, Dana stabs Rufus to death. Having assured her own survival, Dana returns to the twentieth century but not unscathed. She bears the scars of two beatings and has lost part of her arm during her violent transport.

Kindred, written in the tradition of the slave narrative, is a study of power and its abuses. In the author’s hierarchical world, unusual strength of character is required to overcome the hatred that leads to violence, whether the person is the victim or the oppressor. Some feminists have criticized the author’s female characters who, like Dana, are “mothering” figures. However, a recurring motif in Butler’s fiction is the agonizing trade-off that circumstances force upon strong women in their quests for survival.

Kindred Summary

The River
On her twenty-sixth birthday, Dana, the protagonist of Kindred, is overcome by nausea and finds herself on the...

(The entire section is 929 words.)

Kindred Summary and Analysis

Prologue, The River, and The Fire: Summary and Analysis

New Characters
Edana (called Dana throughout the novel): A 26-year-old African American woman, the first-person narrator of the novel.

Kevin Franklin: The narrator’s husband, who is later revealed to be Caucasian and 15 years older than Dana.

Rufus Weylin: A red-headed boy who lives in the world that Dana disappears to, who Dana will later realize is her ancestor.

Alice: A free black who lives on the edge of the Weylin property, also Dana’s ancestor.

Summary
“I lost an arm on my last trip home. My left arm,” the narrator, Dana, states to open the novel’s prologue. She goes on to explain that she does not understand how her arm...

(The entire section is 1966 words.)

The Fall: Summary and Analysis

New Characters
Tom Weylin: The father of Rufus, a white slave-owner.

Luke: A black slave; he is the overseer for Tom Weylin’s field slaves.

Nigel: A slave boy belonging to the Weylins, who is the same age as Rufus.

Sarah: A slave woman, the main cook for the Weylin household.

Carrie: A mute slave in the Weylin’s household, Sarah’s daughter.

Margaret Weylin: Rufus’ mother and Tom Weylin’s wife.

Summary
Dana’s narrative flashes back to the beginning of her relationship with Kevin. They meet while Dana is working for a temp service, giving her time to work on her novel and short stories during the night....

(The entire section is 2364 words.)

The Fight: Summary and Analysis

New Characters
Isaac Jackson: Alice Greenwood’s husband, a slave belonging to a neighbor of the Weylins.

Liza: a slave belonging to Tom Weylin, who betrays Dana.

Summary
Dana’s narrative flashes back to the moment that she and Kevin decided to get married. Dana is concerned that Kevin’s sister—his only surviving family—will not accept him marrying a black woman. Although Kevin initially believes that his sister will accept Dana, the sister ends up telling him that she won’t allow either of them in her house, much to Kevin’s surprise and hurt. Dana’s family—the aunt and uncle who raised her—also refuse to accept her marriage to a white man. Her...

(The entire section is 2754 words.)

The Storm: Summary and Analysis

New Characters
Joe: The son of Rufus Weylin and Alice Greenwood

Evan Fowler: A new white overseer who works for Tom Weylin

Summary
Kevin and Dana return home. While Dana has been away for two months, Kevin has been gone for five years, and he is somewhat shocked at returning to the present. He tells Dana little about what he had done during those five years: he traveled through the cities of the Northeast; he supported himself as a teacher; he had helped slaves escape when he could; he was almost killed by a mob of whites who crushed a slave rebellion. Once, he had seen a pregnant slave woman beaten until the baby fell out of her body. Dana compares the sadistic...

(The entire section is 1286 words.)

The Rope: Summary and Analysis

Summary
Dana is home with Kevin for two weeks before she is transported back to Rufus. During the time she is with Kevin, they discuss their time in the South, and Kevin finally manages to ask Dana if Rufus had ever raped her. Dana explains to Kevin that Rufus never approached her sexually, that was the one thing she would never allow him to do. When Kevin reminds her that her own ancestors had made the opposite choice in order to survive, she still believes that she does not have their endurance.

Dana is transported back to Rufus on the Fourth of July. When she arrives, she find Rufus in the barn with the body of a woman hanging from the rafters. It is Alice. She has hung herself. Although Rufus...

(The entire section is 1305 words.)