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 to be on nearly equal terms with the slaves. But maturity is supposed to put both in their “places.”
Another central theme is the relation of both race and gender roles to privilege and power. This theme is especially striking when one compares Rufus’s and Kevin’s experiences with Dana’s and Alice’s. Rufus asserts more and more boldly that racial superiority and abuse of African Americans, including his sexual abuse of Alice, are a part of his power and privilege as a white man. In comparison, Kevin’s initial belief that it would be fun to live during the slavery era shows the racial naïveté and insensitivity afforded by his position as a white man who has lived free from oppression. In contrast, Butler portrays the sexism, sexual exploitation, and abuse that are symbolized especially by Alice’s treatment at the hands of Rufus. Factors of race and gender are central to the oppression and exploitation Dana experiences, again mostly at the hands of Rufus.
Thus, while Butler does not underestimate mistreatment and exploitation of African American males, Dana’s experiences in the antebellum South particularly make clear that the gender and racial privilege enjoyed by such vastly different white men as Rufus and Kevin negatively affects both the characters of these men and the lives of African American women.