Octavia Butler American Literature Analysis
Butler’s work, although usually labeled as science fiction, is not easily categorized. Critics praised her straightforward, clear prose style and economy of description. She read widely and was especially fascinated by current issues in the biological sciences. Reviewers agree that Butler’s attention to the psychological development of her characters distinguishes her work from that of others in the science-fiction genre.
Butler told several interviewers that she believed that the conflict between the gift of intelligence and the inborn tendency toward hierarchical behavior is the root of human problems. The central tensions in her artistic vision explore the divisions between rich and poor, male and female, people of different races, and humans and extraterrestrials. She is unsparing in her descriptions, whether the graphic savagery of a slave whipping or the depraved barbarity of drugged young hoodlums who mutilate and burn their victims. Butler’s fiction is skillfully plotted, and although she was not a didactic writer, her work implies a severe criticism of the moral laxity of the contemporary United States.
Although Butler’s African American heritage strongly influenced her writing, she saw racial issues in a wider context, beyond black-white confrontations and even between extraterrestrial and human species. Her positive characters often develop close friendships or sexual ties to those who are “different,” in gender, race, sexual orientation, or social class.
Butler’s science fiction novels include the Patternist series: Patternmaster (1976), Mind of My Mind(1977), Survivor (1978), Wild Seed (1980), and Clay’s Ark (1984). These works, and the Xenogenesis trilogy of Dawn (1987), Adulthood Rites (1988), and Imago (1989), explore the complex power relationships between human beings and extraterrestrials and feature such science-fiction themes as genetic engineering and human/alien sexual encounters. Kindred (1979) projects a twentieth century African American woman into the past as a free black woman in the nineteenth century slaveholding South.
Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents were the first two novels of a projected trilogy left unfinished by her sudden death. Based on parables from the biblical New Testament, these novels portray a dystopic America of the twenty-first century in which social issues such as gang warfare, drug abuse, environmental destruction, racism, and religious fanaticism are carried to their extremes.
The publication of Fledgling ended seven years of writer’s block for Butler. The novel tells the story of the Ina, an ancient, vampirelike race that takes humans as symbionts.
Butler’s fiction resists classification. Whether writing science fiction or historical novels, such as Kindred, she consistently sought a philosophical basis to explore the imperfect world which her characters inhabit. Butler described her writing as a positive obsession and advised young writers to persist in the face of repeated rejection.
If civilization is to survive, Butler’s work implies, it will be the strong, black feminists such as those who dominate her fiction who will assure society’s salvation. However, her artistic vision offers scant hope that human beings can acknowledge the failures of history and build on this understanding unless they make a heroic effort to overcome their flawed nature.
First published: 1979
Type of work: Novel
A twentieth century black woman is transported to nineteenth century Maryland, where she must survive as a free person on a slaveholding plantation.
Kindred is a historical novel which explores slavery in the nineteenth century United States. The novel is classed as fantasy because of its use of time travel, which allows the protagonist to be transported by unspecific means between two centuries.
Dana, a twentieth century California writer who works at menial jobs assigned by a temporary employment agency, is married to Kevin, a white man. In her first time-travel experience Dana is unwittingly transported in time and space to a plantation in nineteenth century Maryland, arriving just in time to save the life of Rufus, the son of the plantation owner. She is sent back there five more times when Rufus’s life is endangered. She returns to her own time and place when her life in the nineteenth century is threatened. During Dana’s journeys into the past, Rufus grows from a young child to adulthood; however, elapsed time in Dana’s twentieth century life ranges only from a few seconds to eight days.
Dana learns, through genealogical research, that Rufus is her ancestor, and unless she assures his survival to father the child who will be known as Hagar, Dana herself will never be born. The plot is driven by Dana’s urgent need to protect the life of Rufus, a self-indulgent, accident-prone child and eventually an impulsively cruel adult. Dana also hopes to influence his character and to mitigate the evils of slavery. The carefully researched details of plantation life in the slaveholding South are graphically portrayed. As Dana notes, while being forced to watch the master whipping a slave, the sensory details of this brutality come alive in ways that cannot be felt by television and film viewers in later centuries.
Dana’s predicament is complicated by the author’s insight into the psychological conflict among, and within, her characters. As a twentieth century feminist, Dana is at first critical of the slaves’ submission to their white master. For instance, Dana judges Sarah, the family cook, harshly as the stereotypical “Mammy” who appeases the master. However, Dana comes to understand that Sarah’s submissive behavior assures the survival of her family, several of whom have already been sold down river to certain death from overwork.
On one journey into the past, Dana’s white husband, Kevin, accompanies her. She must pretend to be his slave mistress in order to save her life; her attempts to act out this role are nearly her undoing. An unpleasant revelation is Kevin’s obvious pleasure in his role as a nineteenth century adventurer, free to travel as he pleases, while Dana is confined to her quarters on the plantation.
Finally Dana must arrange for the young slave Alice to agree to a sexual liaison with Rufus, the event that will lead to the birth of Hagar, Dana’s ancestor. This choice is abhorrent to Dana, a twentieth-century feminist. She acknowledges that she herself has become the hated “Mammy” figure, submitting to the master’s wishes in order to assure her own survival.
At the conclusion, Alice, the slave mother of Rufus’s children (including Hagar), hangs herself when Rufus tells her that he has sold her children. This is a cruel ruse, however, intended to demonstrate his power. He turns his...
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