Study Guide

Kindred

by Octavia Butler

Kindred Essay - Critical Essays

Analysis

Initially, because she underestimates her own courage, which has never been properly tested, Dana doubts that she has sufficient fortitude to survive in the nineteenth century. As Kindred unfolds, it becomes clear that she does, indeed, have abundant courage and stamina. Butler effectively utilizes a common technique in fiction whereby an individual becomes heroic by transcending his or her base humanity by drawing on hidden inner resources. Dana is tested in her second trip to the past when she is nearly raped by a white man who is part of a patrol—the forerunner to the Ku Klux Klan. Never before having experienced physical abuse, initially Dana is reluctant to act. She fails to disable him by gouging his eyes, thereby losing her only chance for escape. She learns from the experience, however, knowing that in the future she will be ready and willing to harm or kill if necessary. Ultimately, she frees herself from the past by killing Rufus with a concealed knife as he attempts to rape her.

While Dana is discovering her own strength of character, she learns of the various forms that courage assumes among the plantation slaves. Sarah, whose own children—with the exception of the mute Carrie—have all been sold, nevertheless protects and loves other children of the plantation. She refrains from attempting escape for the sake of Carrie, but she does so with dignity and with anger. Although marriages between slaves are not legally sanctioned, slaves have developed their own rituals of union. Nigel, a carpenter, uses his craft and his slightly privileged position with Rufus to work for hire in his spare time. Rufus receives a percentage of Nigel’s wages, but Nigel, with his share, builds a relatively substantial house for his wife and three children. Dana learns that, despite the omnipresent fear of separation, slaves establish and maintain families.

Dana also discerns the manifestations of slave resistance. She overhears, for example, Luke telling his son Nigel how to behave. Nigel is to refrain from arguing or admitting anger; instead, he must visibly acquiesce to his master’s order and then do as he pleases when no one is watching. Eventually, Luke is sold when his master tires of his attitude, but Dana successfully acts on his advice. In a similar vein, she learns from a field hand to work slowly so that the overseer believes she is working to capacity. Once he sees her working quickly, he will always expect a high output from her.

From the other slaves, Dana learns endurance. In order to protect themselves, their families, and their communities from retaliation, few attempt escape. The punishment—attack by dog pack, sometimes mutilation, beating, and often sale to the deadly sugar, rice, or cotton plantations of the deep South—is perceived as too great a risk for most. Instead, they learn to live and to adapt as slaves and in so doing evolve and maintain unique cultural traditions.

In Kindred, Butler explores the nature of power in the form of interracial relationships, particularly those between black women and white men, and in the broader relationships of males and females. Dana and Kevin’s marriage is clearly a marriage of equals. As orphans, they shared a similar upbringing, and as young adults, both worked menial and often demeaning jobs before becoming moderately successful authors. Jointly, they weather racial prejudice when their relatives are angered by their proposed interracial marriage. They know that their relationship would not have been tolerated in the previous century, and they discover that their marriage still elicits notice even in late twentieth century Maryland, where they travel when their ordeal is completed. Yet Dana worries about the changes that might occur in Kevin if he is forced to remain for long in the antebellum South. Even after a separation of five years, however, longer even than the couple had been married in the present, their relationship is intact. Kevin does not succumb to racist or sexist influences, and in his absence from Dana he symbolically moves farther and farther north until Dana hears upon her return that he was last living in Maine. Kevin’s tolerance is deeply ingrained, and Butler’s message is optimistic. Although race relations continue to be strained, the improvement from the early nineteenth to the late twentieth century is obvious.