Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: African American Literature, Revised Edition)
Butler’s portrayal of the two main characters, Dana and Rufus, conveys many of the novel’s complex themes. The depth of the characterizations is contingent upon the narrative technique: By making Dana the first-person narrator, Butler makes readers not only understand but also empathize with her psychological and physical dilemmas as she lives in the slavery era. Moreover, the empathy that Dana has for the slaves marks her narration, enhancing readers’ knowledge of the brutality they suffered.
One of Kindred’s central themes is the role of environment in shaping people’s attitudes and personalities. Moreover, Butler makes clear her belief that environment and training shape one’s self-image and, thus, one’s feelings toward one’s own and others’ power or powerlessness. Butler’s principal concern regarding these themes is the development and acceptance of racism. Similar to the main plot of Mark Twain’s The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson (1894), these themes are enacted in Rufus’s development, for Dana realizes that from childhood Rufus is being steadily trained to assume both his position as master and the related racist attitudes and behaviors. Kevin sums up this theme when he discusses Dana’s hopes to prevent Rufus from becoming more racist as he grows up:After all, his environment will be influencing him every day you’re gone. And from what I’ve heard, it’s common in this time for the master’s children...
(The entire section is 462 words.)
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As Dana's arm is trapped in the wall of her home in the final episode of her time-traveling experiences between antebellum Maryland and 1970s Los Angeles, literally, we are trapped in history. There is no escape. Indeed, some of us do not even survive — worse, arguably, than being an amputee. Put another way, we are mutilated by history.
On the other hand, history infuses us with the energy which splits into desire and anger that directs our lives and gives them force. For people who inherit the particular past that was slavery in America, the effects of that agonizing social condition reach us and determine us, regardless of our racial identity, but especially African-American and Caucasian persons.
America's slave system has destructive effects that must be resolved in every American's life in every generation following. These effects will never disappear. These crimes cannot be undone. A big question is, is it possible to contrive that these crimes not be repeated — since lots of people want to repeat them, have not ceased to commit them, want, for example, to keep the largest part of earth's population in slavery — the agenda of all resolute forms of capitalism. Moreover, particularly infuriating is that the status of women in the late twentieth century is still not equal to that of men.
(The entire section is 217 words.)
As Dana soon discovers, the reality of slavery is even more disturbing than its portrayal in books, movies, and television programs. Before her journey into the past, Dana called the temp agency where she worked a "slave market," even though "the people who ran it couldn't have cared less whether or not you showed up to do the work they offered."
This turns out to be an ironic contrast to life at the Weylin plantation, where a slave who visits his wife without his master's permission is brutally whipped. Perhaps a more painful realization for Dana is how this cruel treatment oppresses the mind. "Slavery of any kind fostered strange relationships," she notes, for all the slaves feel the same strange combination of fear, contempt, and affection toward Rufus that she does.
At first she has difficulty comprehending Sarah's patience with a master who has sold off three of her children. Likewise, she observes that Isaac Greenwood "was like Sarah, holding himself back, not killing in spite of anger I could only imagine. A lifetime of conditioning could be overcome, but not easily."
"After being beaten following her attempt to run away, however, Dana is tormented by doubts about her own resistance: "Why was I so frightened now—frightened sick at the thought that sooner or later, I would have to run again? … I tried to get away from my thoughts, but they still came. See how easily slaves are made?...
(The entire section is 1221 words.)