In the final moments of the main narrative in Octavia Butler’s Kindred, the protagonist , Dana, kills her ancestor and adversary, Rufus. Throughout the novel, Dana is forcibly pulled back through time, from her life in 1976 California to a plantation in the antebellum South. Each of these...
In the final moments of the main narrative in Octavia Butler’s Kindred, the protagonist, Dana, kills her ancestor and adversary, Rufus. Throughout the novel, Dana is forcibly pulled back through time, from her life in 1976 California to a plantation in the antebellum South. Each of these unwanted experiences of time travel occur when Rufus, a young white boy and the son of the plantation’s owner, is in danger. Over the course of the novel, Dana, who is black, watches as the young boy she repeatedly saves grows into a young man who enslaves and rapes the woman who will give birth to Dana’s own ancestor. In a complicated exploration of history, trauma, and guilt, Dana realizes that the survival of her own ancestral line depends upon keeping Rufus alive even while he commits violence against her distant family and, eventually, against Dana herself.
The scene of Rufus’s death is foreshadowed in the opening lines of the novel: “I lost an arm on my last trip home.” During that last trip, with which the novel ends, Rufus attempts to rape Dana, who throughout the novel is said to bear a striking physical similarity to Alice, Dana’s enslaved ancestor and the long-term recipient of Rufus’s physical and sexual violence. During the attack, Dana questions the limits of her willingness to forgive Rufus for what he has done and whether that forgiveness could ever include rape or enslavement:
No. I could feel the knife in my hand, still slippery with perspiration. A slave was a slave. Anything could be done to her. [. . .] I could accept [Rufus] as my ancestor, my younger brother, my friend, but not as my master, and not as my lover. He had understood that once.
As he dies, Rufus holds tight to Dana’s arm and she, unexpectedly, begins to travel in time to her own century once more. In the transit through time, her arm remains in Rufus’s grasp, and she emerges in her living room with that same arm being crushed within a wall of the house.
In the epilogue, Dana and her husband travel to some of the historical locations connected with Rufus and his family. They learn that Rufus’s house was partially destroyed in a fire that was presumed to have also killed Rufus, and Dana suspects that one of the enslaved men she befriended had set the fire to cover Dana’s killing of Rufus.
She briefly describes the event of Rufus’s death to her husband, who, understanding the emotional difficulty of those final moments, gives the subject respectful distance. Thereafter, when Rufus’s death comes up, Dana simply describes it as “self-defense.” The physical scars of her visits to the past echo the emotional scars, not only of her own experience, but of the broader legacy of racial violence and its impact on contemporary life in the United States.