Form and Content

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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.


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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

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The Missouri Compromise
The Missouri Compromise marked the first serious debate over the status of slavery in the growing United States, and provides an interesting look at how slavery was perceived at the time. In 1819 the territory of Missouri applied for admission to the Union. During the review process, Representative James Tallmadge of New York added an amendment that would outlaw slavery in Missouri. The House and Senate were divided over the amendment.

Eventually a compromise was reached: Missouri would be admitted as a slave state; Maine would be admitted as a free state; and slavery would be prohibited in the remaining portions of the Louisiana territory north of latitude 36 degrees 30 minutes north.

The debate over slavery was an important turning point in American history. Not because Northerners wanted to eliminate slavery—they were more concerned with limiting it than with eradicating it. Instead, it was the Southern attitude that showed a marked change from previous debates on the issue. In previous years, Southerners were defensive about the institution, and seemed only to tolerate it as a necessary evil.

However, during the debate over the Missouri Compromise, Southerners began to justify and even glorify slavery as a moral system. Attacks on it were considered attacks on the South itself. Attempts to limit slavery were similarly considered attacks on the sovereignty of Southern states.

The Missouri Compromise eased the tensions created by the slavery issue for several years, and set a precedent for further political settlements. Yet it wasn't long before the United States entered into a bloody Civil War.

Rebels and Abolitionists
Several highly publicized slave rebellions in the early nineteenth century reinforced the resolve of Southern slave owners to protect the institution of slavery. While there had been a few slave revolts in the 1700s, the largest occurred in the years just before the events of Kindred. In 1800, a revolt by more than one thousand slaves in Virginia was delayed by rainstorms; the leaders were captured before the revolt could be continued.

The largest U. S. slave rebellion occurred in 1811 in Louisiana, when some three to five hundred slaves marched from plantation to plantation gathering recruits and weapons. The rebellion ended when the slaves, led by freeman Charles Deslondes, encountered militia and U.S. military troops.

Another rebellion, which is mentioned in Kindred as one that frightened many slave owners, was the 1822 insurrection planned by Denmark Vesey. A former slave who bought his freedom with lottery winnings, Vesey and nine thousand recruits planned to invade Charleston, South Carolina. Vesey's plans were betrayed, however, and he was captured and hanged before his plans could be carried out.

In Kindred, Kevin Franklin mentions that he was suspected of helping slaves to escape. Both whites and free blacks were involved in the Underground Railroad in the 1810s and 1820s, helping slaves to escape north. Nevertheless, the abolitionist movement—the drive to eliminate slavery completely—did not really get off the ground until the 1830s.

Most historians date the beginning of abolitionism to 1831, when William Lloyd Garrison began publishing his journal The Liberator. Before this time, most opponents of slavery proposed moderate solutions, such as compensating slave owners for emancipation or the emigration of free blacks to Africa. Garrison's journal, however, advocated immediate eradication of slavery everywhere in the United States. The American Anti-Slavery Society was founded in 1833, and was an important voice in the debates over slavery that led up to the Civil War.

Black Power and Black Pride
The "Black Power" movement of the late 1960s and 1970s grew out of the movement for civil rights. As efforts to integrate America were slow to progress, some African Americans came to believe that working within the white-dominated system was not an effective way to achieve their goals. Black Power advocates believed that blacks should celebrate their own heritage and culture. They should not depend on whites to help change the system, but should instead rely on their own communities for political and economic success.

Sometimes the rhetoric of the Black Power Movement was angry and polemic. For instance, many advocates believed that no whites were to be trusted. African Americans—often of older generations—who supported working within the system were often accused of being collaborators. It was this atmosphere of mistrust between different activist camps that was one of Butler's inspirations in writing Kindred.

There were groups within the Black Power movement, however, that were less radical and more willing to work within the system to affect political and social change. Their promotion of "Black Pride" led to an increased visibility of African American heritage and culture. In the 1970s African Americans had a growing influence on television, movies, and literature.

The most notable of these successes was the 1977 television miniseries Roots. Based on the novel by Alex Haley, this eight-part saga of one African American family captivated nearly 130 million viewers and spawned a new interest in genealogy (the study of family history). Thousands of Americans were inspired to research their own family backgrounds—just as Dana Franklin had to do to survive in Butler's novel.

Literary Style

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Narrator/Point of View
Kindred uses a first-person narrator, which means that Dana is telling her story from her own perspective. She relates her own thoughts, feelings, perceptions, and experiences. Other characters—such as Rufus, Alice, and Kevin—are known to the reader only through her perceptions of them.

An advantage of first-person narration is that the reader can really identify with Dana. In addition, much of the plot is comprised of Dana's attempts to understand the society and the people of the past. Her perspective is paramount; in fact, if the reader did not know her thoughts and feelings, it could be difficult to perceive this type of "action."

Another important advantage of a first-person narrator is that it makes the story resemble the historical slave narratives of the past. In creating her own version of the slave narrative, Dana is echoing and extending these historical stories.

A flashback is a literary device used to relate events that occurred before the beginning of the story. After a brief prologue, the main action of the story begins with Dana's first journey back into the past. The first two chapters are used to reveal the basic plot of the novel: Dana is being called back in time to rescue her ancestor.

The third and fourth chapters, however, open with a flashback to Dana and Kevin's courtship. This helps flesh out Kevin's character, as well as Dana and Kevin's relationship. This added depth is essential for the reader to understand their devotion to each other. Butler could have presented this information chronologically by describing the courtship at the very beginning of the novel. By presenting it in flashbacks, Butler can focus the opening on Dana's adventure and is thus able to immediately draw the reader into the action of the book.

Foreshadowing is a literary device used to hint at future events before they actually happen. In Kindred, the prologue actually takes place after the main action of the story, and thus provides the reader with a glimpse of the result of Dana's travels. "I lost an arm on my last trip home," Dana recalls in the first sentence of the novel. Her conversation with Kevin also reveals that the truth of what has happened to her is unbelievable.

This prologue prepares reader for two things: first, that Dana is about to recount events that are strange and unexplainable; second, it alerts readers that Dana's experience will involve serious violence that will permanently scar her.

Sometimes called falling action, the denouement refers to the resolution of a story's conflict. (Denouement is a French word which means "the unknotting.") The denouement follows the climax of the conflict and traditionally provides a resolution to the primary plot situation as well as an explanation of secondary plot complications. This outcome does not always have to consist of a physical action; it can also involve a character's recognition of his or her state of mind or moral condition.

The denouement of Kindred does not strictly fit this definition, however. There is a resolution, for Dana returns to the present after her fight with Rufus, ending the essential conflict of the novel. Yet many secondary questions are never resolved. How was Dana pulled into the past in the first place? Why and how did she lose an arm on her last trip? What happened to Rufus and Alice's children—were they sold or freed?

Dana's search for answers at the end of the novel yields nothing. Critic Robert Crossley has suggested that this open-ended denouement serves a specific purpose. "Leaving the novel's ending rough-edged and raw like Dana's wound," he wrote in the introduction to the novel, "Butler leaves the reader uneasy and disturbed by the intersection of story and history rather than comforted by a tale that 'makes sense.'"

Science Fiction
While Butler maintained that Kindred is not really science fiction—there is no scientific explanation for Dana's voyages to the past—the time travel story is a staple of the genre. The first novel by English writer H. G. Wells, long considered one of the fathers of science fiction (along with Frenchman Jules Verne), was The Time Machine (1895).

Wells also used the device of time travel to dramatize human inequalities. Journeying into the distant future, Wells' traveler encounters two races, the Eloi and the Morlocks. The relationship between the pleasure-loving Eloi and the subterranean Morlocks serves as an ironic comment on the conflict between ruling and working classes of the late-nineteenth century's newly industrialized society.

In Kindred it is never explained how Dana is transported into the past, or why her arm should be severed upon her final return. While the novel contains elements of science fiction, it also works from the tradition of the slave narrative and the historical novel. As Crossley concluded, "Butler's novel is an experiment that resists easy classification by blurring the usual boundaries of genre."

Literary Techniques

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Kindred is narrated in the first person, Dana's, and employs the science fiction trope of time travel. However, no attempt is made to explain the physics of the time-travel effect. Indeed, Butler supplies quite precise calendar and clock time to the reader, in order to make it clear that neither clock time nor historical calendar time can explain the time travel. The reader is thus forced to attend rather to the substance of the social issues and moral forces the novel extracts from real history where the past and the present are superimposed. In practice, Butler's story is set in about thirty years of the past, and spends most of its energy depicting the events of the Weylin slave plantation past. Anchored in 1976, the story tells almost nothing about 1976, and spends only about a fifth of its text reporting the present. A second principle element of the novel is that it is essentially a fictional slave narrative. Dana is born free (as her African ancestors may be presumed to have been born), but is compelled into slavery with the threat of her own destruction, and finally is free again once the brutal energies of the Weylin slaveholding family end with the death of Rufus. Even so, Dana is physically mutilated and scarred, and psychologically marked. The novel, in this last construction, is in some degree a Bildungsroman — without reporting Dana's childhood — written as a memoir that reveals Dana's translation of herself from the island of the present to the macrocosm that embraces all of history to confer meaning and identity upon her as an individual.

Social Concerns

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In Kindred Octavia Butler addresses the historic tension between the antebellum and 1970s postbellum status of African Americans. There is a freedom and a right-to-privacy status in the 1970s Los Angeles home of Dana. But the society is profoundly impersonal. The first three decades of nineteenth-century American slavery culture is fictionally recreated in Kindred. The obscene irony is that this culture was deeply personal, evoked especially poignantly in the mixed-race children of the forced miscegenation of white slave-holders and the African women they enslaved and raped.

In an additional irony, African American Dana, who is the great-great granddaughter of the white slaveholder Rufus Weylin, has herself used her free citizen status to enjoy a voluntarily miscegenated marriage with a white husband, Kevin, although she has no children with Kevin at the novel's end. Both Dana and her husband are aspiring authors, would-be practitioners of perhaps the most intrinsically powerful of all freedoms — the freedom of the press. By the novel's end Kevin has had at least three novels and one book of nonfiction published. Dana has had a story accepted by the Atlantic. Pertinently, Dana has kept a journal of her life in slave-era Maryland from which she can certainly write a magically authentic slave narrative — her own.

Literary Precedents

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The novel combines at least three species of story. The first and least remarkable are its elements of the Bildungsroman or initiation story: The excellent adventure in which one is put to extraordinary tests and is able to survive them, especially morally intact is a version of literary fantasy such as J. R. R. Tolkien's Hobbit (1939) and Ursula LeGuin's Wizard of Earthsea (1968), as well as James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) and Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn (1884). The second story type is the time travel paradox, perhaps most famously concocted by H. G. Wells in The Time Machine (1894) and Mark Twain in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889), but practiced as well in historical novels. The most important story type in Kindred is the fictional slave narrative. Antecedents for the fictional slave narrative are available both in other fiction examples, as well as in the real historical slave narrative works upon which the fictional ones are based. Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1851-1852), Margaret Walker's Jubilee (1966), and Alex Haley's Roots (1976) are well-known examples of fictional slave narrative. Works by Nat Turner, William Wells Brown, Harriet Tubman, and Frederick Douglas are authentic slave narratives. Butler was fully aware of and influenced to some degree by all of these works.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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

Beverly Friend, "Time Travel as a Feminist Didactic in Works by Phyllis Eisenstein, Marlys Millhiser, and Octavia Butler," in Extrapolation, Vol. 23, No. 1, Spring, 1982, pp. 50-5.

Adam McKible, “’These Are the Facts of the Darky's History': Thinking History and Reading Names in Four African American Texts," in African American Review, Vol. 28, No. 2, 1994, pp. 223-35.

Margaret Anne O'Connor, "Octavia E. Butler," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 33: Afro-American Fiction Writers After 1955, edited by Thadious M. Davis and Trudier Harris, Gale Research Company, 1984, pp. 36-40.

John R. Pfeiffer, "Latest Butler a Delicious Confection," in Fantasy Review, Vol. 7, No. 6, July, 1984, p. 44.

Joanna Russ, in Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Vol. 58, No. 2, February, 1980, pp. 96-7.

Thelma J. Shinn, "The Wise Witches: Black Women Mentors in the Fiction of Octavia E. Butler," in Conjuring: Black Women, Fiction, and Literary Tradition, edited by Marjorie Pryse and Hortense J. Spillers, Indiana University Press, 1985, pp. 203-15.

Further Reading
Frances M. Beal, "Black Women and the Science Fiction Genre: Interview with Octavia M. Butler," in Black Scholar, Vol. 17, March-April, 1986, p. 14. An interview with Butler in which she discusses her childhood and other influences.

Teri Ann Doerksen, "Octavia E. Butler: Parables of Race and Difference," in Into Darkness Peering: Race and Color in the Fantastic, edited by Elisabeth Anne Leonard, Greenwood Press, 1997, pp. 21-34. Views Butler's novels as works that "have the potential to lead the once typical white or male reader into some (perhaps uncomfortable) realizations about his or her own society."

Sandra Y. Govan, "Homage to Tradition: Octavia Butler Renovates the Historical Novel," in MELUS, Vol. 13, Nos. 1-2, 1986, pp. 79-96. Provides a stylistic examination of Butler's novel, praising innovative aspects of her work.

Patricia Maida, "Kindred and Dessa Rose: Two Novels That Reinvent Slavery," in CEA Magazine, Vol. 4, No. 1, 1991, pp. 43-52. Traces the portrayal of slavery in both novels.

Veronica Mixon, "Futurist Woman: Octavia Butler," in Essence, Vol. 15, April, 1979, pp. 12-13.
A biographical article on Butler containing an interview with the author.

Burton Raffel, "Genre to the Rear, Race and Gender to the Fore: The Novels of Octavia E. Butler," in Literary Review, Vol. 38, Spring, 1995, pp. 453-61. Provides a thematic overview of Butler's novels, in particular the treatment of race and gender issues.

Hoda M. Zaki, "Utopia, Dystopia and Ideology in the Science Fiction of Octavia Butler," in Science Fiction Studies, Vol. 17, No. 2, 1990, pp. 239-51. Surveys the major themes of Butler's science fiction.


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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.

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Critical Essays