Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 462

Butler’s portrayal of the two main characters, Dana and Rufus, conveys many of the novel’s complex themes. The depth of the characterizations is contingent upon the narrative technique: By making Dana the first-person narrator, Butler makes readers not only understand but also empathize with her psychological and physical dilemmas as she lives in the slavery era. Moreover, the empathy that Dana has for the slaves marks her narration, enhancing readers’ knowledge of the brutality they suffered.

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One of Kindred’s central themes is the role of environment in shaping people’s attitudes and personalities. Moreover, Butler makes clear her belief that environment and training shape one’s self-image and, thus, one’s feelings toward one’s own and others’ power or powerlessness. Butler’s principal concern regarding these themes is the development and acceptance of racism. Similar to the main plot of Mark Twain’s The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson (1894), these themes are enacted in Rufus’s development, for Dana realizes that from childhood Rufus is being steadily trained to assume both his position as master and the related racist attitudes and behaviors. Kevin sums up this theme when he discusses Dana’s hopes to prevent Rufus from becoming more racist as he grows up:After all, his environment will be influencing him every day you’re gone. And from what I’ve heard, it’s common in this time for the master’s children to be on nearly equal terms with the slaves. But maturity is supposed to put both in their “places.”

Another central theme is the relation of both race and gender roles to privilege and power. This theme is especially striking when one compares Rufus’s and Kevin’s experiences with Dana’s and Alice’s. Rufus asserts more and more boldly that racial superiority and abuse of African Americans, including his sexual abuse of Alice, are a part of his power and privilege as a white man. In comparison, Kevin’s initial belief that it would be fun to live during the slavery era shows the racial naïveté and insensitivity afforded by his position as a white man who has lived free from oppression. In contrast, Butler portrays the sexism, sexual exploitation, and abuse that are symbolized especially by Alice’s treatment at the hands of Rufus. Factors of race and gender are central to the oppression and exploitation Dana experiences, again mostly at the hands of Rufus.

Thus, while Butler does not underestimate mistreatment and exploitation of African American males, Dana’s experiences in the antebellum South particularly make clear that the gender and racial privilege enjoyed by such vastly different white men as Rufus and Kevin negatively affects both the characters of these men and the lives of African American women.

Themes

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 217

As Dana's arm is trapped in the wall of her home in the final episode of her time-traveling experiences between antebellum Maryland and 1970s Los Angeles, literally, we are trapped in history. There is no escape. Indeed, some of us do not even survive — worse, arguably, than being an amputee. Put another way, we are mutilated by history.

On the other hand, history infuses us with the energy which splits into desire and anger that directs our lives and gives them force. For people who inherit the particular past that was slavery in America, the effects of that agonizing social condition reach us and determine us, regardless of our racial identity, but especially African-American and Caucasian persons.

America's slave system has destructive effects that must be resolved in every American's life in every generation following. These effects will never disappear. These crimes cannot be undone. A big question is, is it possible to contrive that these crimes not be repeated — since lots of people want to repeat them, have not ceased to commit them, want, for example, to keep the largest part of earth's population in slavery — the agenda of all resolute forms of capitalism. Moreover, particularly infuriating is that the status of women in the late twentieth century is still not equal to that of men.

Themes

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1221

Human Condition
As Dana soon discovers, the reality of slavery is even more disturbing than its portrayal in books, movies, and television programs. Before her journey into the past, Dana called the temp agency where she worked a "slave market," even though "the people who ran it couldn't have cared less whether or not you showed up to do the work they offered."

This turns out to be an ironic contrast to life at the Weylin plantation, where a slave who visits his wife without his master's permission is brutally whipped. Perhaps a more painful realization for Dana is how this cruel treatment oppresses the mind. "Slavery of any kind fostered strange relationships," she notes, for all the slaves feel the same strange combination of fear, contempt, and affection toward Rufus that she does.

At first she has difficulty comprehending Sarah's patience with a master who has sold off three of her children. Likewise, she observes that Isaac Greenwood "was like Sarah, holding himself back, not killing in spite of anger I could only imagine. A lifetime of conditioning could be overcome, but not easily."

"After being beaten following her attempt to run away, however, Dana is tormented by doubts about her own resistance: "Why was I so frightened now—frightened sick at the thought that sooner or later, I would have to run again? … I tried to get away from my thoughts, but they still came. See how easily slaves are made? they said."

In the end, however, Dana realizes that she cannot bring herself to accept slavery, even to a man who would not physically hurt her. "A slave was a slave. Anything could be done to her," Dana thinks as she sinks the knife into Rufus' side.

Choices and Consequences
The whole reason behind Dana's travels into the past is survival. Dana finds herself driven to save Rufus not just to ensure his existence but also that of her whole family. Despite her modern education, Dana doubts that she has the strength and endurance that her ancestors had: "To survive, my ancestors had to put up with more than I ever could," she tells Kevin.

On her second trip to the past, her squeamishness keeps her from defending herself from a patroller. The next time, however, she is ready to maim to escape: "I could do it now. I could do anything." Nevertheless, she finds it ironic that her job is to protect a white man: "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."

Despite her doubts, she manages to save Rufus on several different occasions, and learns more about survival in the process. As she listens to the field hands talking in the cookhouse and observes the other house slaves, she gains information: "Without knowing it, they prepared me to survive."

The drive for survival is very strong, and for slaves this means making many painful choices. "Mama said she'd rather be dead than be a slave," Alice recalls, but Dana disagrees: "Better to stay alive.… At least while there's a chance to get free." Because she thinks she will have a better chance of survival if she befriends the Weylins, she accepts the role of slave during her stay on the plantation. As long as this is her choice and she still has some semblance of control over her life, she finds she can endure more than she ever anticipated.

Accepting this role, however, means that Dana must make some very painful choices. For instance, she agrees to convince Alice to sleep with Rufus willingly because she does not want to see her suffer another beating. She is a quiet and compliant worker, even though this makes the other slaves look at her suspiciously. As she explains to Sam, the field hands "aren't the only ones who have to do things they don't like to stay alive and whole." It is only when Rufus tries to take away the final bit of control she has—control over her body—that Dana kills him.

Appearances and Reality
The strange nature of their time travels causes Dana and Kevin to examine how much their perceptions truly reflect reality. When Dana returns from her first visit, Kevin has difficulty accepting her explanation of where she has been. Yet he has no alternate explanation for her sudden disappearance. "I know what I saw, and what I did—my facts," Dana tells him. "They're no crazier than yours."

After Dana's second trip, however, Kevin admits, "I wouldn't dare act as though I didn't believe. After all, when you vanish from here, you must go someplace." That he finally gets proof when he accompanies Dana on one of these trips does not lessen his point: to communicate with others, sometimes you must accept their perceptions of reality—no matter how strange—as valid.

While Dana and Kevin are living together in the past, they discover another aspect of the connection between appearances and reality: sometimes when you fake an appearance, it begins to feel like reality. At first, Dana is only "pretending" to play the part of a slave, one who sleeps with her master because she has no choice. Although she knows in her heart that she and Kevin are married equals, she nevertheless feels strange when she sneaks in his room: "I felt almost as though I really was doing something shameful, happily playing whore for my supposed owner."

Later she realizes that she cannot continue to be just a modern observer playing the "role" of slave. She becomes involved: she quietly teaches Nigel to read, befriends Carrie and Alice, and plans her escape after being beaten. In the end she cannot fully accept the reality of life as a slave, however, and leaves the past by killing Rufus.

Difference
As a modern woman living in the past, Dana is different in experience and perspective from everyone around her. She is bound to feel alienated because she is so out of place. Ironically, however, it may be a shared sense of alienation that attracts her to others. When she wonders why she is drawn into the past to save Rufus, for instance, she thinks that their blood relationship does not quite explain it: "What we had was something new, something that didn't even have a name. Some matching strangeness in us that may or may not have come from being related."

Her relationship with Kevin is based on a similar sense of shared difference. When they first meet, Dana thinks he "was as lonely and out of place as I was." As she gets to know him, she understands that this loneliness makes him "like me—a kindred spirit crazy enough to keep on trying." On the plantation, Dana's closest friends are people who are similarly alienated from the slave community: Carrie because of her muteness, and Alice because of her role as Rufus' mistress.

Returning home does not cure Dana and Kevin of feeling out of place; it takes them a while to readjust to the twentieth century. Again, however, this alienation brings them together: "It was easy for us to be together, knowing we shared experiences no one else would believe."

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