Study Guide

Kindred

by Octavia Butler

Kindred Analysis

Form and Content (Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

In Kindred, a young black woman is mysteriously transported to the antebellum American South, where she must adapt to a society in which the vast majority of black people are slaves and where she too confronts enslavement. In order to survive, she must acquire basic skills that, as a modern woman, she has never learned, including cooking on an open hearth, sewing, and doctoring without the benefit of modern medicines or antisepsis. She must also determine whether she has the strength of character required for survival in a world that is rough and crude, in which black people are believed to be subhuman and are kept as chattel, and where physical and psychological punishments are daily tribulations.

On an elemental level, Kindred questions whether a modern person is equal to the challenge of living in a preindustrial world and whether modernization has resulted in fundamental losses of resiliency and strength. Because Dana is a black woman, there are racial dimensions to her struggle. Through Dana, Butler explores the nature of slavery and slave-master relations, the special strengths or weaknesses of character that allow slaves to survive as chattel, and the relationships between white men and black women both in the present (1976) and in the past.

The reader is first introduced to Dana in her hospital room after she has returned, injured and mutilated both psychologically and physically, from her final voyage to the past. In a series of flashbacks, Dana describes the six different trips in which she was called, against her will, to an antebellum Maryland plantation. After her first two excursions, Dana understands the purpose, if not the method, by which she returns to the past. In order to ensure her own birth, she must protect the life of her accident-prone great-great-great-grandfather Rufus, whom she first meets as she rescues him from drowning when he is a young boy. She quickly discovers that she can return to her present only when her life appears to be threatened. With each trip to the past, several years have passed for Rufus, while only a few hours or, occasionally, days have passed in Dana’s time. Because Dana cannot safely return home at will, she must endure lengthy intervals, often months, with Rufus.

As they realize that she is about to be transported on her third trip, Kevin embraces Dana, thereby traveling with her to the past. His presence enables her to feign the role of his slave and grants her time to learn the techniques necessary for her own survival. She must prepare a place for herself against the expectation of later trips to Rufus’ future. Although it eases her way in the past, Kevin’s presence worries Dana. She fears the effects that the antebellum South will have on her tolerant and compassionate husband. In order to survive, he will have to tolerate, if not condone, life in the nineteenth century. Her fears seemingly realized, Dana’s life is again threatened, and she returns home without Kevin. He remains for five years until she is newly summoned to Rufus’ aid.

Kindred Context (Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

As is the case in many of Butler’s novels, Kindred’s protagonist is an able black woman. Yet Dana, like others among Butler’s characters, is not designed exclusively to carry a feminist or antiracist message. Instead, Kindred is a story of the universal striving of human beings to transcend their base humanity in the face of adversity. Using a familiar science fiction technique in which a character develops strategies for survival in an alien environment—in this case, the slave-holding South—Butler chronicles Dana’s developing inner strengths. In the process, she examines the nature of power and the dynamics of racial and sexual relations. Butler’s characters are multidimensional, and no group, either racial or sexual, has a monopoly on strength, courage, or goodness. Her worlds are multiracial, sometimes multispecies, and, at least among some human individuals and in her alien worlds, tolerant of gender differences.

Through her several successful novels, including those of the “Patternist” series—Patternmaster (1978), Mind of My Mind (1977), Survivor (1978), Wild Seed (1980)—and others, such as her trilogy Xenogenesis (1987, 1988, 1989) and Kindred, her only book to be published in the general market, Butler has developed an extensive readership as well as a cult following among black women. In a genre that traditionally has been nearly exclusively populated by white male authors and white male characters, Butler is a pioneer black woman writer. Her work has received acclaim from a broad readership as well as from critics and other writers. She has won science fiction’s highest awards: the Nebula, voted by other science fiction writers, in 1984 and 1985; the Hugo, voted by readers, in 1985; and the Locus award from Locus magazine.

In many ways, Butler’s life parallels that of Dana. Her father died when she was a baby, and Butler was reared by her mother, who had worked as a maid from age ten, and her Louisiana-born grandmother, who had endured a life of hardship on sugarcane plantations. At age twelve, Butler began writing science fiction as a means of shielding herself from the meanness of her family’s existence by creating her own stimulating intellectual world. At Pasadena City College and at the University of California at Los Angeles during 1968 and 1969, Butler studied anthropology, an interest that enriches her writing. After spending several early years working in menial jobs, chronicled in Kindred, Butler succeeded as an author. As a pioneer woman writer who has broadened the scope of a predominantly male genre and as a black woman among predominantly white writers, Butler is clearly a role model for women, both black and white.

Kindred Historical Context

The Missouri Compromise
The Missouri Compromise marked the first serious debate over the status of slavery in the growing United...

(The entire section is 845 words.)

Kindred Quizzes

Prologue, The River, and The Fire: Questions and Answers

Questions
1. Where do Kevin and Dana live?

2. What day do all of Dana’s “trouble” start?

3. How does Dana realize that Rufus is her ancestor?

4. What does Dana see when she tries to find the Greenwood house in the middle of the night?

5. Who are the men who attack the Greenwood home?

Answers
1. Kevin and Dana live in the town of Altadena, just outside of Los Angeles.

2. Dana’s troubles start on her 26th birthday, June 9, 1976.

3. When Rufus tells her that his last name is Weylin, she recognizes his name from the family Bible that had been handed down to her.

4. Dana sees a troop of...

(The entire section is 177 words.)

The Fall: Questions and Answers

Questions
1.Where do Kevin and Dana originally meet?

2. What has happened to Rufus when Dana is called back in this chapter?

3. Who is Carrie?

4. Why does Margaret Weylin dislike Dana?

5. Why does Tom Weylin whip Dana?

Answers
1. Kevin and Dana originally meet while they are both working at an auto parts warehouse.

2. Rufus has broken his leg.

3. Carrie is a mute slave belonging to the Weylins. She is Sarah’s daughter.

4. Margaret Weylin dislikes Dana because Dana seems to be more educated than Margaret, because Rufus has an emotional attachment to her, and because she is jealous of her...

(The entire section is 118 words.)

The Fight: Questions and Answers

Questions
1. Who is Isaac Jackson?

2. Why do Alice and Isaac run away?

3. Why is Margaret Weylin no longer living at the Weylin house?

4. What motivates Dana to try to escape?

5. How do Tom Weylin and Rufus learn that Dana has escaped?

Answers
1. Isaac Jackson is a slave belonging to one of the Weylins’ neighbors; he is Alice’s husband.

2. Isaac and Alice run away because Isaac has beaten Rufus for trying to rape Alice, and because he has attacked a white man, his life is in danger.

3. Margaret Weylin went crazy after her twin babies died in infancy; she went to live with her sister in Baltimore, who...

(The entire section is 146 words.)

The Storm: Questions and Answers

Questions
1. How does Tom Weylin die?

2. What does Rufus do to punish Dana for his father’s death?

3. How many children has Alice had with Rufus?

4. What does Rufus threaten to do if Dana disobeys him?

5. Why does Rufus sell Sam?

Answers
1. Tom Weylin dies of a heart attack.

2. Rufus blames Dana for his father’s death, and he sends her to work in the cornfields as a punishment.

3. Rufus and Alice have had three children together; Hagar will be their fourth child.

4. Rufus threatens to send Dana back into the fields if she disobeys him.

5. Rufus sells Sam because he shows an...

(The entire section is 110 words.)

The Rope and Epilogue: Questions and Answers

Questions
1. What day in the present is Dana called back to the past for the last time?

2. Why does Alice kill herself?

3. What does Rufus want Dana to do after he loses Alice?

4. How does Rufus die?

5. When Kevin and Dana visit Maryland during the present, they find historical newspapers discussing Rufus Weylin’s death. What do the newspapers say about his death?

Answers
1. Dana is called back on The Fourth of July, 1976, which is the bicentennial of the United States.

2. Alice kills herself because her attempt to run away from Rufus failed, and because she believes that Rufus sold her children to punish her for...

(The entire section is 144 words.)