This guide was made possible
by a grant from The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.
"What tangled skeins are the
geneologies of slavery!"
Harriet Jacobs, Incidents
in the Life of a Slave Girl,
1861 (from the Introduction by Robert
The American slave narrative is a literary form whose historical
boundaries are firmly marked. While first-person narratives about
oppression and exclusion will persist as long as racism persists,
slave narratives ceased to be written when the last American citizen
who had lived under institutionalized slavery died. The only way
in which a new slave-memoir could be written is if someone were
able to travel into the past, become a slave, and return to tell
the story. Because the laws of physics, such as we know them, preclude
traveling backwards in time, such a book would have to be a hybrid
of autobiographical narrative and scientific fantasy. That is exactly
the sort of book Octavia Butler imagined when she wrote Kindred,
first published in 1979. Like all good works of fiction, it lies
like the truth. from the Introduction
Dana, a modern black woman,
is celebrating her twenty-sixth birthday with her new husband,
when she is abruptly snatched from her home in present California
and transported back to the antebellum South. Rufus, the white
son of a plantation owner, is drowning; and Dana has been summoned
across the years to save him. After this first summons, Dana
is drawn back again and again to the plantation to protect Rufus
and ensure that he will grow to manhood and father the daughter
who is to become her ancestor. Each time, however, the stays
grow longer and more dangerous until it is uncertain whether
or not Dana's life will end, long before it has even begun.
Both Kevin and Dana know
that they can't change history: "We're in the middle of history.
We surely can't change it." (page100); and "It's over . . .
There's nothing you can do to change any of it now." (page 264).
What, then, are the purposes of Dana' s travels back to the
antebellum South? Why must you, the reader, experience this
journey with Dana?
How would the story have
been different with a third person narrator?
Many of the characters
within Kindred resist classification. In what ways does
Dana explode the slave stereotypes of the "house-nigger, the
handerkchief-head, and the female Uncle Tom" (page 145). In
what ways does she transcend them?
Despite Dana's conscious
effort to refuse the 'mammy' role in the Weylin household, she
finds herself caught within it: "I felt like Sarah, cautioning."
(page 156), and others see her as the mammy: "You sound just
like Sarah" (page 159). How, if at all, does Dana reconcile
this behavior? How would you reconcile it?
"The ease. Us, the children
. . . I never realized how easily people could be trained to
accept slavery." This is said by Dana to Kevin when they have
returned to the present and are discussing their experience
in the antebellum South. To what extent, if any, do you believe
racial oppression exists today?
How do you think Butler
confronts us with issues of difference in Kindred? How
does she challenge us to consider boundaries of black/white,
master/slave, husband/wife, past/present? What other differences
does she convolute? Do you think such dichotomies are flexible?
Compare Tom Weylin and
Rufus Weylin. Is Rufus an improvement or simply an alteration
of his father? Where, if any, is there evidence of Dana's influence
on the young Rufus in his adult character?
Of the slaves' attitude
toward Rufus, Dana observes "Strangely, they seemed to like
him, hold him in contempt, and fear him at the same time." (page
229) How is it they can feel these contradictory emotions? How
would you feel toward Rufus if you were in their situation?
Compare Dana's 'professional'
life (i.e. her work as temporary help) in the present with her
life as a slave.
When Dana and Kevin return
from the past together, she thinks to herself: "I felt
as though I were losing my place here in my own time. Rufus's
time was a sharper, stronger reality." (page 191) Why would
the twentieth century seem less vivid to Dana than the past?
Dana loses her left arm
as she emergesfor the last time in the novelfrom
the past. Why is this significant?
Kevin is stranded in
the past five years, while Dana is there for almost one. Is
there a reason why Butler felt Kevin needed to stay in the past
so much longer? How have their experiences affected their relationship
to each other and to the world around them?
A common trend in the
time-travels of science fiction assumes that one should not
tamper with the past, lest s/he disrupt the present. Butler's
characters obviously ignore this theory and continue to invade
each other's lives. How does this influence the movement of
the narrative? How does this convolute the idea of 'cause and
Dana finds herself caught
in the middle of the relationship between Rufus and Alice? Why
does Rufus use Dana to get to Alice? Does Alice use Dana?
The needs and well-being
of other residents of the plantation create a web of obligation
that is difficult to navigate. Choose a specific incident; and
determine who holds power over whom and assess how it affects
Dana states: "It was
that destructive single-minded love of his. He loved me. Not
the way he loved Alice, thank God. He didn't seem to want to
sleep with me. But he wanted me aroundsomeone to talk
to, someone who would listen to him and care about what he said,
care about it." (page 180) How does the relationship between
Dana and Rufus develop? How does it change? What are the different
levels of love portrayed in Kindred?
Discuss the ways in which
the title encapsulates the relationships within the novel. Is
it ironic? Literal? Metaphorical? What emphasis do we place
on our own kinship? How does it compare with that of the novel?
Do you believe
that Dana and Kevin's story actually happened to them, or that
they simply got caught up in the nostalgia of moving old papers
Butler opens the novel
with the conclusion of Dana's time travels. The final pages
of the book, however, make up an epilogue demonstrating a, once
again, linearly progressive movement of time. How does the epilogue
serve to disrupt the rhythm of the narrative?
After returning from
his years in the nineteenth-century, Kevin had attained "a slight
accent" (page 190). Is this `slight' alteration symbolic of
greater changes to come? How do you imagine Kevin and Dana's
relationship will progress following their re-emergence into
life in 1976?
About the Author
Octavia E. Butler (19472006) was author of many novels, including
Patternmaster, Adulthood Rites, Mind of My Mind,
and Parable of the Sower. She is the winner of science fiction's
Nebula and Hugo awards, as well as a recipient of the MacArthur "Genius" award.