Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2364
Tom Weylin: The father of Rufus, a white slave-owner.
Luke: A black slave; he is the overseer for Tom Weylin’s field slaves.
Nigel: A slave boy belonging to the Weylins, who is the same age as Rufus.
Sarah: A slave woman, the main cook for the Weylin household.
Carrie: A mute slave in the Weylin’s household, Sarah’s daughter.
Margaret Weylin: Rufus’ mother and Tom Weylin’s wife.
Dana’s narrative flashes back to the beginning of her relationship with Kevin. They meet while Dana is working for a temp service, giving her time to work on her novel and short stories during the night. They meet at an auto-parts warehouse where Kevin was a regular employee, and Dana was a temp doing inventory, and they immediately strike up a friendship based on writing. Kevin had just sold his first novel and was in his last days of work at the warehouse. After only a week of working together, they form a fast friendship. For the first time in many years, Dana does not feel lonely. She and Kevin share not only a passion and ambition for writing, but they are also disconnected from their families: Kevin’s parents are dead; we learn that Dana was raised by her aunt and uncle, to whom she is no longer very close.
The narrative returns to the present: Dana has tied a canvas bag to herself filled with essentials in case she is transported again. She is afraid to leave the house for fear she will disappear in public, or while driving a car. It is two days since her last disappearance when she is called back in time: this time, because Kevin is holding her, he is transported with her. They find Rufus, now about 12 years old, with his leg broken and accompanied by a black boy named Nigel. They send Nigel to fetch Rufus’ father. Kevin unthinkingly tells Rufus that he is Dana’s husband. Rufus is astonished because it is against the law for blacks and whites to marry and doesn’t understand how they can be husband and wife. Dana and Kevin then are forced to explain to Rufus that they are from the future. Dana and Kevin quickly conspire to outwardly pretend that they are master and slave, rather than husband and wife.
Rufus father, Tom Weylin, shows up with a wagon and takes the company back to the house. From what Dana had learned of Tom Weylin on her previous visit, she knows he is a man prone to cruelty and violence. She thinks about Rufus growing up to perhaps be like his father, and she thinks that maybe she can, through her visits to him, somehow influence him to be better than his father: “The boy was literally growing up as I watched—growing up because I watched and because I helped to keep him safe. I was the worst possible guardian for him—a black to watch over him in a society that considered blacks subhuman, a woman to watch over him in a society that considered women perennial children.”
When they reach the house, Margaret Weylin, Rufus mother, smothers him with overprotective hysterical concern for his broken leg, while Tom treats the boy with utter indifference. Margaret looks at Dana and, to Dana’s astonishment, says that she recognizes her. She clearly does not like Dana, and she yells at her to go to the cookhouse to get something to eat. At the cookhouse Dana encounters a mute slave named Carrie, and the cook, Sarah, who is Carrie’s mother. Dana eventually learns that Sarah’s other children had been sold off, and that her husband is dead. Sarah is clearly bitter about this. She also openly expresses her hatred of Margaret Weylin, calling her a “bitch.” From the openness of talk in the cookhouse, Dana comes to understand that the cookhouse is somewhat like a safe zone for the slaves, where they can congregate—albeit briefly—and talk. Sarah, Luke, and Carrie warn Dana that she isn’t liked much by the Weylins because she seems too educated, and they don’t want educated blacks around their slaves, giving them ideas of freedom. She eats boiled cornmeal for dinner, longing for the meat stew that Sarah is cooking for the white family.
Kevin and Dana finally get a chance to speak alone. She warns him that he might be trapped in the past if he is not near her when she returns home. Secretly, she fears that Kevin will survive living in the antebellum South only by becoming a white who learns to tolerate the slaveholding society, that “the place, the time would either kill him outright or mark him somehow.” Kevin told Tom Weylin that he is a writer from the North researching a book on the South, and that he has taught Dana how to read and write. Tom Weylin has offered Kevin a job as Rufus’ tutor while he recovers from his broken leg. Dana will have to work in the household as a slave while they’re there.
While Dana works as a house slave, Margaret Weylin becomes her greatest trial. As a housewife in a house full of slaves, she is left with little to do but complain. She is prone to hysterical outbursts, and she often takes out her frustrations on Dana, whom she greatly dislikes and feels somewhat threatened by because of her apparent education.
As a slave, Dana is made to sleep in the attic with the other slaves. She hates being separated from Kevin and especially fears that she will disappear in the night, leaving him stranded in the past. Finally one night Kevin insists that she come to his room, not only for safety but to keep Margaret Weylin away from him. They have noticed several mixed-race children on the plantation and figure that Tom Weylin, who obviously has sex with his slaves, will turn a blind eye to Kevin taking Dana to bed with him. In the meantime, Dana asks Kevin that he try to influence Rufus as much as possible towards a more liberal mode of thinking while he tutors him. Although Margaret purposefully keeps Dana away from Rufus, Rufus insists that she come to his room and read to him when his mother is away. Rufus seems to have a special attachment to Dana—another reason that Margaret is clearly jealous of her. When Tom Weylin finds Dana reading to Rufus one day, he questions her harshly about her background and her education. When she tells him that Mr. Franklin (Kevin) has taught her, he says he would like to buy her to be Rufus’ permanent tutor. She says it would be up to her master, but that she would probably stay with him. Weylin suggests that she’s making a mistake by banking on Kevin: it is not wise for a black woman to trust the white man for whom she is a concubine.
One day Margaret catches Dana sleeping in Kevin’s room and screams at her that she is disgracing her Christian household with her immoral behavior. Sarah eventually explains to Dana that she is sure that Margaret does not like her because she is better educated and because she is jealous for Kevin. She advises that Dana return to the attic for her own sake, saying that she could make Kevin do what she wants while she is still young and beautiful: “Girl . . . I see you and him together sometimes when you think nobody’s looking. You can make him do just about anything you want him to do.” Sarah does not think that the relationship between Kevin and Dana is unusual or unnatural, but she does know that this relationship in the antebellum South is not an equal one. Her words are words of caution to Dana against placing too much trust in her white slave-owner’s feelings toward her. Dana has the feeling that Sarah, in the past, had placed too much trust in a white man and got hurt in the process. Nevertheless, Dana instead decides to take some “cookhouse advice” she’d heard from Luke: “Don’t argue with white folks . . . . Don’t tell them ‘no.’ Don’t let them see you mad, Just say ‘yes, sir.’ Then go ‘head and do what you want to do. Might have to take a whippin’ for it later on, but if you want it bad enough, the whippin’ won’t matter much.” Luke went about his business as he pleased—he was the overseer of the fields. So, Dana decides to keep sleeping in Kevin’s room and ignore Margaret’s orders. Since Tom Weylin seems to have given his unspoken approval, the arrangement goes on.
In the meantime, Nigel has asked Dana to teach him how to read. She agrees, and they undertake secret lessons in the cookhouse, with books that Dana steals from the Weylin library.
Dana and Kevin have a brief moment to spend alone, and they talk about the experiences they’ve had. Kevin is surprised that he has not seen as much brutality as he thought, but Dana reminds him that “you don’t have to beat people to treat them brutally”—even though Tom Weylin has been known to beat his slaves, and his young son, as well. She reminds Kevin that the slaves have only “dirt floors to sleep on, food so inadequate they’d all be sick if they didn’t keep gardens in what’s supposed to be their leisure time and steal from the cookhouse when Sarah lets them. And no rights and the possibility of being mistreated or sold away from their families for any reason—or no reason.(100)” Dana is determined to try to help the slaves as much as possible and tells Kevin that she’s started tutoring Nigel in secret. Dana tutors Nigel in the cookhouse, choosing this location because it has so far proven to be a safe location from the Weylins. The safety of the cookhouse is not guaranteed, however. One day Tom Weylin catches Dana coming out of the cookhouse with a stolen book in her hand. He does not catch her teaching Nigel, but he had commanded her not to touch his books except for reading to Rufus. Incensed at her blatant disobedience, and notwithstanding the fact that Dana is not his property, he knocks her to the floor and begins whipping her with a horsewhip. Dana believes she is going to die, and she is transported back home, but without Kevin.
The longer Dana spends in the antebellum South, the more she understands firsthand how easily human beings can enslave other human beings. She says to Kevin, “The ease seems so frightening . . . now I see why . . . I never realized how easily people could be trained to accept slavery.” Blacks, and black slaves especially, have no legislated rights. They are treated as property and are therefore helpless and absolutely subject to the whims of not only their masters, but of whites in general. Dana’s whipping from Tom Weylin is, by modern standards, clearly assault; but since Dana has no rights as a human being, she has absolutely no recourse.
The Weylin’s cook, Sarah, has had to stand by and watch her children be sold, and she knows that Tom Weylin has kept her last child, Carrie, as leverage to be able to control Sarah: she will always fear that Weylin will sell Carrie if she makes one false move, and thus Weylin is able to control her this way.
Dana also sees, through the evidence of mixed race children on the plantation, that Tom Weylin regularly rapes the slave women he owns. These children he treats not as his own, but as property, and he sells them off just as he would any other slaves of his.
While Kindred’s primary focus is on the experience of slavery in the United States, Butler also briefly explores the experience of being a white woman in the 1800s as well, through the character of Margaret Weylin. White women, although of course much better off than black women, slave or free, were treated as “perennial children,” as Dana noted, and had no rights to education, employment, or independence of any kind. Margaret Weylin, even though she is utterly unlikable and a villain in this novel, is nevertheless a product of her time. Butler portrays her as uneducated, bored, frustrated, and hysterical. Her lack of education is no doubt because she simply did not have the resources of a good education available to her; her boredom and effective frustration are simply a result of a lack of having a meaningful occupation. In a household of slaves, Margaret has absolutely no work to tend to. On top of everything, her husband is openly unfaithful to her in the sexual liberties he takes with his slaves. It is clear that these frustrations conspire to make Margaret into the hysterical character that she is. Her hysterical outbursts against Dana and the other slaves are the only way in which she can exert any power; she is otherwise powerless in her own life, and towards her own happiness. As a woman, she has no right to own land and little or no opportunity for employment or independent living. Thus, she has the choice to either accept the unhappiness of her marriage, or leave Tom Weylin and face destitution. Margaret Weylin, a woman of the 1800s, is a sharp contrast to Dana, whose education and independence are as much enabled by American society in 1976 as by her own strength of character.
On the other hand, it is clearly acceptable in the antebellum American South for Tom Weylin, a white male slave-owner, to take as much sexual liberty outside of his marriage as he sees fit. His tacit approval of Dana sleeping in Kevin’s room, even though Margaret is against it, is an approval that is given because it is understood in this society that men have the liberty to see to their sexual needs, with whomever he sees fit.
Unlock This Study Guide Now
Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.
- 30,000+ book summaries
- 20% study tools discount
- Ad-free content
- PDF downloads
- 300,000+ answers
- 5-star customer support