Form and Content (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
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...
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Context (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
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...
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The Missouri Compromise
The Missouri Compromise marked the first serious debate over the status of slavery in the growing United States, and provides an interesting look at how slavery was perceived at the time. In 1819 the territory of Missouri applied for admission to the Union. During the review process, Representative James Tallmadge of New York added an amendment that would outlaw slavery in Missouri. The House and Senate were divided over the amendment.
Eventually a compromise was reached: Missouri would be admitted as a slave state; Maine would be admitted as a free state; and slavery would be prohibited in the remaining portions of the Louisiana territory north of latitude 36 degrees 30 minutes north.
The debate over slavery was an important turning point in American history. Not because Northerners wanted to eliminate slavery—they were more concerned with limiting it than with eradicating it. Instead, it was the Southern attitude that showed a marked change from previous debates on the issue. In previous years, Southerners were defensive about the institution, and seemed only to tolerate it as a necessary evil.
However, during the debate over the Missouri Compromise, Southerners began to justify and even glorify slavery as a moral system. Attacks on it were considered attacks on the South itself. Attempts to limit slavery were similarly considered attacks on the sovereignty of Southern states.
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Prologue, The River, and The Fire: Questions and Answers
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?
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 white patrollers break into the Greenwood home and assault Alice’s father, who is a slave owned by Tom Weylin. They tie him to a tree and whip him, then drag him back to the property behind their horses.
5. They are a troop of white patrollers, whose job is to patrol the roads and woods at night to capture runaway slaves and track down slaves who are about without their papers.
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The Fall: Questions and Answers
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?
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 relationship with Kevin Franklin.
5. Tom Weylin whips Dana because he catches her with a book stolen from his library.
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The Fight: Questions and Answers
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?
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 is taking care of her.
4. Dana tries to escape when she learns that Rufus has not sent any of her letters to Kevin.
5. Liza, one of the slaves who dislikes Dana, tells them that she has run away.
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The Storm: Questions and Answers
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?
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 interest in Dana, and Rufus becomes jealous.
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The Rope and Epilogue: Questions and Answers
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?
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 running away.
3. Rufus wants Dana to replace Alice as caretaker of his children, and as his lover.
4. Dana stabs Rufus when he attempts to rape her.
5. The newspapers say that Rufus died in a fire at his home.
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Narrator/Point of View
Kindred uses a first-person narrator, which means that Dana is telling her story from her own perspective. She relates her own thoughts, feelings, perceptions, and experiences. Other characters—such as Rufus, Alice, and Kevin—are known to the reader only through her perceptions of them.
An advantage of first-person narration is that the reader can really identify with Dana. In addition, much of the plot is comprised of Dana's attempts to understand the society and the people of the past. Her perspective is paramount; in fact, if the reader did not know her thoughts and feelings, it could be difficult to perceive this type of "action."
Another important advantage of a first-person narrator is that it makes the story resemble the historical slave narratives of the past. In creating her own version of the slave narrative, Dana is echoing and extending these historical stories.
A flashback is a literary device used to relate events that occurred before the beginning of the story. After a brief prologue, the main action of the story begins with Dana's first journey back into the past. The first two chapters are used to reveal the basic plot of the novel: Dana is being called back in time to rescue her ancestor.
The third and fourth chapters, however, open with a flashback to Dana and Kevin's courtship. This helps flesh out Kevin's character, as well as Dana...
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Kindred is narrated in the first person, Dana's, and employs the science fiction trope of time travel. However, no attempt is made to explain the physics of the time-travel effect. Indeed, Butler supplies quite precise calendar and clock time to the reader, in order to make it clear that neither clock time nor historical calendar time can explain the time travel. The reader is thus forced to attend rather to the substance of the social issues and moral forces the novel extracts from real history where the past and the present are superimposed. In practice, Butler's story is set in about thirty years of the past, and spends most of its energy depicting the events of the Weylin slave plantation past. Anchored in 1976, the story tells almost nothing about 1976, and spends only about a fifth of its text reporting the present. A second principle element of the novel is that it is essentially a fictional slave narrative. Dana is born free (as her African ancestors may be presumed to have been born), but is compelled into slavery with the threat of her own destruction, and finally is free again once the brutal energies of the Weylin slaveholding family end with the death of Rufus. Even so, Dana is physically mutilated and scarred, and psychologically marked. The novel, in this last construction, is in some degree a Bildungsroman — without reporting Dana's childhood — written as a memoir that reveals Dana's translation of herself from the island of the...
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Ideas for Group Discussions
The most obvious topic of discussion raised by Kindred can be the attempt to determine the measure of guilt Americans in the late twentieth century should shoulder for the crimes committed in past United States society against not only African Americans, but Native Americans, as well as all other racial and ethnic minorities.
1. Why is Dana's husband Kevin Caucasian?
2. What does the novel suggest can be a wholesome understanding of the slavery culture in the U. S.?
3. Why is there clearly no equation that can measure Dana's time in the past with the relatively short time that she has passed in the present to which she finally returns?
4. How many moods are expressed in the title Kindred? Respect? Compassion? Anger? Hate?
5. Episodes wherein a person is tied and flogged are virtually always present in real and fictional slave narratives. Kindred presents at least three. What are the meanings of such episodes?
6. What sort of story would Kindred tell if Dana was a man rather than a woman?
7. What power do the women in the novel possess? Comment on the women in slavery, Weylin's wives, as well as Dana.
8. Is the relationship of Dana and Kevin convincingly depicted?
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In Kindred Octavia Butler addresses the historic tension between the antebellum and 1970s postbellum status of African Americans. There is a freedom and a right-to-privacy status in the 1970s Los Angeles home of Dana. But the society is profoundly impersonal. The first three decades of nineteenth-century American slavery culture is fictionally recreated in Kindred. The obscene irony is that this culture was deeply personal, evoked especially poignantly in the mixed-race children of the forced miscegenation of white slave-holders and the African women they enslaved and raped.
In an additional irony, African American Dana, who is the great-great granddaughter of the white slaveholder Rufus Weylin, has herself used her free citizen status to enjoy a voluntarily miscegenated marriage with a white husband, Kevin, although she has no children with Kevin at the novel's end. Both Dana and her husband are aspiring authors, would-be practitioners of perhaps the most intrinsically powerful of all freedoms — the freedom of the press. By the novel's end Kevin has had at least three novels and one book of nonfiction published. Dana has had a story accepted by the Atlantic. Pertinently, Dana has kept a journal of her life in slave-era Maryland from which she can certainly write a magically authentic slave narrative — her own.
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Topics for Further Study
- Write a short story in which you travel to the future. Describe this world. What has changed? Does racism still exist in this society?
- Read an original slave narrative of the 1800s, such as Frederick Douglass's Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845) or Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861). Use the details of slave life to write a mock diary entry describing a typical day in the life of a slave.
- As an interracial couple, Kevin and Dana Franklin face legal obstacles to their marriage in the nineteenth century and social opposition in the twentieth. Do some research into interracial marriages: trace the history of miscegenation laws (laws regulating interracial relationships) and look up statistics. Are interracial marriages on the increase? Are they more or less likely to end in divorce? Write an essay discussing your findings.
- The Missouri Compromise of 1820 established a precedent for how the United States would deal with the issue of slavery. Research the history of laws and Supreme Court decisions concerning slavery between 1820 and 1860. Create a timeline tracing these developments, and accompany it with a map illustrating the addition of new slave and free states during the same period.
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The novel combines at least three species of story. The first and least remarkable are its elements of the Bildungsroman or initiation story: The excellent adventure in which one is put to extraordinary tests and is able to survive them, especially morally intact is a version of literary fantasy such as J. R. R. Tolkien's Hobbit (1939) and Ursula LeGuin's Wizard of Earthsea (1968), as well as James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) and Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn (1884). The second story type is the time travel paradox, perhaps most famously concocted by H. G. Wells in The Time Machine (1894) and Mark Twain in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889), but practiced as well in historical novels. The most important story type in Kindred is the fictional slave narrative. Antecedents for the fictional slave narrative are available both in other fiction examples, as well as in the real historical slave narrative works upon which the fictional ones are based. Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1851-1852), Margaret Walker's Jubilee (1966), and Alex Haley's Roots (1976) are well-known examples of fictional slave narrative. Works by Nat Turner, William Wells Brown, Harriet Tubman, and Frederick Douglas are authentic slave narratives. Butler was fully aware of and influenced to some degree by all of these works.
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What Do I Read Next?
- The five novels in Octavia Butler's "Patternmaster" series explore the history of the Patternists, human mutants with telepathic powers. In the first novel of the series, Patternmaster (1976), the Patternists battle the "Clayarks" and each other for control of the world.
- Butler's "Xenogenesis" trilogy, like Kindred, is a complex exploration of the relationship between rulers and subjugated. After a nuclear holocaust, Earth's few surviving humans are offered rescue by a race of alien traders in exchange for their genetic material. The moral questions that are faced by both humans and first-and second-generation hybrids are related in Dawn: Xenogenesis (1987), Adulthood Rites (1988), and Imago (1989).
- Butler's recent "Earthseed" series is set in a violent America of the early twenty-first century. Lauren Oya Olamina is a young African-American teen with the ability to feel other people's pain. She "discovers" her own religion, called Earthseed, and begins to gather followers. Lauren's story begins in Parable of the Sower (1993) and continued in Parable of the Talents (1998).
- Gayl Jones's Corregidora (1975) is another tale of the psychological effects of slavery on a modern woman. Blues singer Ursa Corregidora comes from a line of women sexually abused by a Portuguese slaveholder named Corregidora—the father of both Ursa's mother and grandmother. The novel relates...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Robert Crossley, in an introduction to Kindred, by Octavia Butler, Beacon Press, 1988, pp. ix-xxvii.
Beverly Friend, "Time Travel as a Feminist Didactic in Works by Phyllis Eisenstein, Marlys Millhiser, and Octavia Butler," in Extrapolation, Vol. 23, No. 1, Spring, 1982, pp. 50-5.
Adam McKible, “’These Are the Facts of the Darky's History': Thinking History and Reading Names in Four African American Texts," in African American Review, Vol. 28, No. 2, 1994, pp. 223-35.
Margaret Anne O'Connor, "Octavia E. Butler," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 33: Afro-American Fiction Writers After 1955, edited by Thadious M. Davis and Trudier Harris, Gale Research Company, 1984, pp. 36-40.
John R. Pfeiffer, "Latest Butler a Delicious Confection," in Fantasy Review, Vol. 7, No. 6, July, 1984, p. 44.
Joanna Russ, in Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Vol. 58, No. 2, February, 1980, pp. 96-7.
Thelma J. Shinn, "The Wise Witches: Black Women Mentors in the Fiction of Octavia E. Butler," in Conjuring: Black Women, Fiction, and Literary Tradition, edited by Marjorie Pryse and Hortense J. Spillers, Indiana University Press, 1985, pp. 203-15.
Frances M. Beal, "Black Women and the Science Fiction Genre: Interview with Octavia M. Butler," in Black Scholar, Vol. 17, March-April,...
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Bibliography (Masterplots II: African American Literature, Revised Edition)
Beal, Frances M. “Black Women and the Science Fiction Genre: Interview with Octavia Butler.” The Black Scholar: Journal of Black Studies and Research 17 (March-April, 1986): 14-18. In this interview, Butler discusses Kindred and the difficulty she had in publishing it. It was not considered science fiction, yet it did not fit readily into any other category. Butler discusses her intentions in writing Kindred and talks about her childhood experiences.
Butler, Octavia. “Black Women and the Science Fiction Genre: Interview with Octavia Butler.” Interview by Frances M. Beal. Black Scholar 17 (March/April, 1986): 14-18. An interview that gives insights into Butler’s beliefs as a science-fiction writer and her thoughts on the relevance of the genre to the African American experience.
Crossley, Robert. Introduction to Kindred. Boston: Beacon Press, 1988. Crossley describes Kindred as a modern slave narrative. He provides context for Kindred in his history of the science fiction genre, in which very few writers are blacks or women.
Foster, Frances Smith. “Octavia Butler’s Black Female Future Fiction.” Extrapola-tion 23 (Spring, 1982): 37-49. Although her article is not specifically about Kindred, Smith analyzes the strong female characters...
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