Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

In Kindred, a young black woman is mysteriously transported to the antebellum American South, where she must adapt to a society in which the vast majority of black people are slaves and where she too confronts enslavement. In order to survive, she must acquire basic skills that, as a modern woman, she has never learned, including cooking on an open hearth, sewing, and doctoring without the benefit of modern medicines or antisepsis. She must also determine whether she has the strength of character required for survival in a world that is rough and crude, in which black people are believed to be subhuman and are kept as chattel, and where physical and psychological punishments are daily tribulations.

On an elemental level, Kindred questions whether a modern person is equal to the challenge of living in a preindustrial world and whether modernization has resulted in fundamental losses of resiliency and strength. Because Dana is a black woman, there are racial dimensions to her struggle. Through Dana, Butler explores the nature of slavery and slave-master relations, the special strengths or weaknesses of character that allow slaves to survive as chattel, and the relationships between white men and black women both in the present (1976) and in the past.

The reader is first introduced to Dana in her hospital room after she has returned, injured and mutilated both psychologically and physically, from her final voyage to the past. In a series of flashbacks, Dana describes the six different trips in which she was called, against her will, to an antebellum Maryland plantation. After her first two excursions, Dana understands the purpose, if not the method, by which she returns to the past. In order to ensure her own birth, she must protect the life of her accident-prone great-great-great-grandfather Rufus, whom she first meets as she rescues him from drowning when he is a young boy. She quickly discovers that she can return to her present only when her life appears to be threatened. With each trip to the past, several years have passed for Rufus, while only a few hours or, occasionally, days have passed in Dana’s time. Because Dana cannot safely return home at will, she must endure lengthy intervals, often months, with Rufus.

As they realize that she is about to be transported on her third trip, Kevin embraces Dana, thereby traveling with her to the past. His presence enables her to feign the role of his slave and grants her time to learn the techniques necessary for her own survival. She must prepare a place for herself against the expectation of later trips to Rufus’ future. Although it eases her way in the past, Kevin’s presence worries Dana. She fears the effects that the antebellum South will have on her tolerant and compassionate husband. In order to survive, he will have to tolerate, if not condone, life in the nineteenth century. Her fears seemingly realized, Dana’s life is again threatened, and she returns home without Kevin. He remains for five years until she is newly summoned to Rufus’ aid.


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

As is the case in many of Butler’s novels, Kindred’s protagonist is an able black woman. Yet Dana, like others among Butler’s characters, is not designed exclusively to carry a feminist or antiracist message. Instead, Kindred is a story of the universal striving of human beings to transcend their base humanity in the face of adversity. Using a familiar science fiction technique in which a character develops strategies for survival in an alien environment—in this case, the slave-holding South—Butler chronicles Dana’s developing inner strengths. In the process, she examines the nature of power and the dynamics of racial and sexual relations. Butler’s characters are multidimensional, and no group, either racial or sexual, has a monopoly on strength, courage, or goodness. Her worlds are multiracial, sometimes multispecies, and, at least among some human individuals and in her alien worlds, tolerant of gender differences.

Through her several successful novels, including those of the “Patternist” series—Patternmaster (1978), Mind of My Mind (1977), Survivor (1978), Wild Seed (1980)—and others, such as her trilogy Xenogenesis (1987, 1988, 1989) and Kindred, her only book to be published in the general market, Butler has developed an extensive readership as well as a cult following among black women. In a genre that traditionally has been nearly exclusively populated by white male authors and white male characters, Butler is a pioneer black woman writer. Her work has received acclaim from a broad readership as well as from critics and other writers. She has won science fiction’s highest awards: the Nebula, voted by other science fiction writers, in 1984 and 1985; the Hugo, voted by readers, in 1985; and the Locus award from Locus magazine.

In many ways, Butler’s life parallels that of Dana. Her father died when she was a baby, and Butler was reared by her mother, who had worked as a maid from age ten, and her Louisiana-born grandmother, who had endured a life of hardship on sugarcane plantations. At age twelve, Butler began writing science fiction as a means of shielding herself from the meanness of her family’s existence by creating her own stimulating intellectual world. At Pasadena City College and at the University of California at Los Angeles during 1968 and 1969, Butler studied anthropology, an interest that enriches her writing. After spending several early years working in menial jobs, chronicled in Kindred, Butler succeeded as an author. As a pioneer woman writer who has broadened the scope of a predominantly male genre and as a black woman among predominantly white writers, Butler is clearly a role model for women, both black and white.

Historical Context

(Novels for Students)

The Missouri Compromise
The Missouri Compromise marked the first serious debate over the status of slavery in the growing United...

(The entire section is 845 words.)

Literary Style

(Novels for Students)

Narrator/Point of View
Kindred uses a first-person narrator, which means that Dana is telling her story from her own...

(The entire section is 818 words.)

Literary Techniques

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Kindred is narrated in the first person, Dana's, and employs the science fiction trope of time travel. However, no attempt is made to...

(The entire section is 265 words.)

Ideas for Group Discussions

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

The most obvious topic of discussion raised by Kindred can be the attempt to determine the measure of guilt Americans in the late...

(The entire section is 197 words.)

Social Concerns

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

In Kindred Octavia Butler addresses the historic tension between the antebellum and 1970s postbellum status of African Americans....

(The entire section is 208 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Novels for Students)

  • Write a short story in which you travel to the future. Describe this world. What has changed? Does racism still exist in this society?...

(The entire section is 199 words.)

Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

The novel combines at least three species of story. The first and least remarkable are its elements of the Bildungsroman or initiation...

(The entire section is 213 words.)

Related Titles

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Most of Butler's novels are related to at least one other novel in the body of her work. Kindred however is the exception. It stands...

(The entire section is 35 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Novels for Students)

  • The five novels in Octavia Butler's "Patternmaster" series explore the history of the Patternists, human mutants with telepathic powers....

(The entire section is 290 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Novels for Students)

Robert Crossley, in an introduction to Kindred, by Octavia Butler, Beacon Press, 1988, pp. ix-xxvii.


(The entire section is 410 words.)


(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Beal, Frances M. “Black Women and the Science Fiction Genre: Interview with Octavia Butler.” The Black Scholar: Journal of Black Studies and Research 17 (March-April, 1986): 14-18. In this interview, Butler discusses Kindred and the difficulty she had in publishing it. It was not considered science fiction, yet it did not fit readily into any other category. Butler discusses her intentions in writing Kindred and talks about her childhood experiences.

Butler, Octavia. “Black Women and the Science Fiction Genre: Interview with Octavia Butler.” Interview by Frances M. Beal. Black Scholar 17 (March/April, 1986): 14-18. An interview that gives insights into Butler’s beliefs as a science-fiction writer and her thoughts on the relevance of the genre to the African American experience.

Crossley, Robert. Introduction to Kindred. Boston: Beacon Press, 1988. Crossley describes Kindred as a modern slave narrative. He provides context for Kindred in his history of the science fiction genre, in which very few writers are blacks or women.

Foster, Frances Smith. “Octavia Butler’s Black Female Future Fiction.” Extrapola-tion 23 (Spring, 1982): 37-49. Although her article is not specifically about Kindred, Smith analyzes the strong female characters portrayed in Butler’s fiction. Foster also presents her case that Butler is a major science fiction writer who has made significant contributions to the genre.

Friend, Beverley. “Time Travel as a Feminist Didactic in Works by Phyllis Eisenstein, Marlys Millhiser, and Octavia Butler.” Extrapolation 23 (Spring, 1982): 50-55. Friend describes the use of time travel as a means by which “current freedom” and “past oppression” can be contrasted. Her analysis of Eisenstein, Millhiser, and Butler is didactic, for she uses her article to proclaim that modern women are educated to be helpless and probably could not survive without men.

Govan, Sandra Y. “Connections, Links, and Extended Networks: Patterns in Octavia Butler’s Science Fiction.” Black American Literature Forum 18, no. 2 (Summer, 1984): 82-87. Identifies and compares recurring themes in Butler’s novels, emphasizing power as a central topic in Butler’s work. In addition, Govan discusses how power affects male-female relationships in Butler’s fiction. Govan also discusses how Butler’s characters endure hardship by using coping mechanisms and adaptability.

Rushdy, Ashraf H. A. Remembering Generations: Race and Family in Contemporary African American Fiction. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 2001. An examination of novels set in modern times that attempt to deal with the “family secret”—slaveowner as ancestor.

Salvaggio, Ruth. “Octavia Butler and the Black Science-Fiction Heroine.” Black American Literature Forum 18 (Summer, 1984): 78-81. Salvaggio discusses Butler’s strong female heroes in her first four Patternist novels, illustrating the types of heroism found in four different women, each surviving in a male, racist world.

Washington, Mary Helen. “Meditations on History: The Slave Woman’s Voice.” In Invented Lives: Narratives of Black Women, 1860-1960. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1987. Analyzes the ways in which African American women recounted their experiences as slaves. Gives readers insights on the literary representation of female slaves’ lives.

Weixlmann, Joe. “An Octavia Butler Bibliography.” Black American Literature Forum 18, no. 2 (Summer, 1984): 88-89. Presents a thorough bibliography on Butler’s works.