Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 638

Although Butler's Kindred was only her fourth novel, published a mere three years after her 1976 debut, it did not take long for critics to praise its unusual qualities. In an early review of the novel, Joanna Russ asserted in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction that "Kindred is more polished than [Butler's] earlier work but still has the author's stubborn, idiosyncratic gift for realism." In particular, Russ hailed how the author "makes new and eloquent use" of the time-travel idea, and pointed out her skilled characterizations and fast-paced style.

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While Fantasy Review contributor John R. Pfeiffer deemed Kindred a novel "of such special excellence that critical appreciation of [it] will take several years to assemble," such in-depth analyses soon followed.

In 1982 Beverly Friend examined how the time-travel plot of the novel served to highlight important feminist issues. "No one would intellectually argue against the proposition that life is better today for both men and women," the critic wrote in Extrapolation, "but few realize what … [this novel has] didactically presented: that contemporary woman is not educated to survive, that she is as helpless, perhaps even more helpless, than her predecessors."

Subsequent analyses of Kindred have explored how Dana's experiences as a twentieth-century writer and nineteenth-century slave have illuminated issues of sex, race, and history. Margaret Anne O'Connor, for instance, observed that it is not just the stark contrasts between Dana's two lives that are educational, but also the parallels: "Slowly [Dana and Kevin] also come to see the situations of virtual slavery in their own technological, twentieth-century culture," the author wrote in the Dictionary of Literary Biography. "Drawing an analogy between power relationships of the early nineteenth century and the home, office, and bedroom of contemporary America, Kindred offers readers a chance to evaluate the racial and sexual dimensions of both cultures."

Dana's experiences also allow her insight into the power that has allowed black women—supposedly powerless in a sexist and racist society—to persevere. According to Thelma J. Shinn, Dana learns to survive the travails of slavery by learning from black female mentors such as Sarah, an archetypal figure Shinn called "the wise witch." As the critic stated in Conjuring: Black Women, Fiction, and Literary Tradition,"Kindred shows that Butler's wise witches, her compassionate teachers armed with knives and cast-iron skillets, have survived and will survive, whether or not they are accepted by their society."

Not only does Kindred emphasize the power of those who are oppressed, it also reclaims history from the dominant culture, according to Adam McKible. In a 1994 African American Review article, the critic argued that Kindred, like other tales of African American women enduring slavery, forces the reader to reassess historical "truth" just by making a black woman the heroine. As a result, "the perspective of the black female slave, who finds herself at the bottom of the hierarchies of race, class, and gender … can in fact become a powerful site of rebellion and self-assertion."

In addition, McKible underscored the way in which names can similarly become symbols of resistance. In Kindred, not only does Alice name her children after biblical survivors of slavery, but the protagonist asserts control by choosing to call herself Dana rather than Edana. Thus names "are crystallizations—constant reminders—of resistance and the will to freedom," according to McKible.

The analysis that Kindred attracts, even twenty years after its publication, seems to justify Robert Crossley's belief that "if any contemporary writer is likely to redraw science fiction's cultural boundaries and to attract new black readers—and perhaps writers—to this most distinctive of twentieth-century genres, it is Octavia Butler. More consistently than any other black author, she has deployed the genre's conventions to tell stories with a political and sociological edge to them, stories that speak to issues, feelings, and historical truths arising out of Afro-American experience."

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