Analysis Of Dana’s Empathy Throughout The Novel Kindred

Empathy allows a person to place themselves in the shoes of another. Often, being in someone else’s shoes allows for an entirely different perspective. In Octavia Butler’s novel Kindred, the main character displays empathy that may be difficult for the reader to process. Butler’s purposeful choice of making Dana the first-person narrator forces readers to recognize the justification of her empathy by recieving a first hand description of her psychological and physical dilemmas, which portray how both whites and blacks are victim to the slavery system.

One recurring theme in Kindred is the role of one’s surroundings in developing one’s self, including personality, attitude, and beliefs. During Dana’s second trip to the past, she realizes that Rufus has been conditioned to replace his father as slave master and the racist attitudes and behaviors that accompany it. Early on, Kevin rejects 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.” Rufus is a product of institutionalized racism; he has been raised on a plantation with a slave-master-father as his male role model, and an emotional mother to represent grown women. Dana empathizes with this young man. She understands he has potential as a person, but is forced into one direction by the institution he is surrounded by. This is where her strong desire to “fix” Rufus comes from. Dana believes that the impact she has on Rufus may impact the future she is subjected to. In the end, however, she realizes she has been mistaken.

Butler creates an intimate connection between reader and character to create empathy through the representation of people in pain. The slaves in Kindred, and in history, were consistently abused: verbally, beaten, whipped, raped, tortured and killed. The abuse remains constant, even increasing, as the novel goes on. This widens the audience’s capacity for empathy-- not just due to the severity of the treatment. The readers also progressively grows to know the characters, their backstories, and their wounds – both physical and emotional. In the scene where Rufus sends Dana to retrieve Alice, empathy is not hard to find. Dana must tell Alice to go to Rufus, or else be beaten. Alice sadly decides, “I’m going to him. He knew I would sooner or later. But he don’t know how I wish I had the nerve to just kill him!”. Empathy is not present just because of what the reader experienced of Alice earlier-- coming home in a bloody, near death state- , but because it is clear that Alice is being forced to do something she is repulsed by. Her grief is reinforced to the reader by her mentioning of murdering Rufus. The reader is able to empathize because they “know”Alice. That she has lost loved ones, how she has a defiant and determined spirit that tried to escape, and how this spirit has been drowned out with hopelessness. The reader also may feel slight empathy for Rufus. Part of this may come from the awareness of the reader of Rufus’s hopeless and taboo love of Alice. She doesn't love him back, and if they were to be together, they would be ridiculed. Part of it also comes from Dana’s views. Dana and Alice are very similar, which makes Dana empathize with her, and treat her with kindness, despite Alice’s harsh treatment of Dana. Readers therefore feel more warm connection to Alice. On the other hand, Dana and Rufus have an unsteady relationship. Her consistent uncertain feelings toward Rufus rub off onto the reader. Dana doesn’t completely trust Rufus, but she has hopes that he can become a better person. She knows he is a product of an institution, and deep down not a bad man. But, she grows tired of saving him. At the very end, when Dana decides to murder Rufus, she hesitates because she still has an understanding of Rufus. She admits to this understanding, “Now he sat with me – being sorry and lonely and wanting me to take the place of the dead. ‘You never hated me, did you?’ he asked. ‘Never for long. I don’t know why. You worked hard to earn my hatred, Rufe”’.There is a level of sympathy that Dana feels for this white man that the reader is able to recognize. Both want to forgive, but Rufus has done too many wrong acts to be saved. Background, paired with the narrator acting as lens, is essential to creating empathy in Kindred.

Dana’s assimilation to the past and the Weylin plantation assists in portraying her empathy. By directly throwing Dana into the line of fire, Butler allows for the reader to recieve a deeper look into slavery through the eyes of their narrator. When Dana arrives in 1819, she holds a firm believe that slavery is wrong. She has been educated in school and has read extensively on the topic. However, the young African American woman cannot comprehend how a person can be manipulated to accept slavery, and how they can lose the will to escape. For example, when Dana meets Sarah, she is shocked at what the salve has suffered — mainly, the loss of all her children except Carrie. When Dana attempts to encourage her with tales of slaves who make it to freedom, Sarah does not want to hear it. She would rather keep her head down and remain as she is. This complacency thoroughly puzzles Dana, who is determined not to accept being the Weylins’ slave. She attempts to accomplish this with her will to talk back, argue, and even run away — until repeated whippings weaken her will. When Tom Weylin whips her for teaching Nigel to read, she is appalled at the pain. The second time she is whipped, after trying to run away, she realizes that her fear of punishment is now stronger than her will to be free. This is when she begins to empathize with the slaves who are complacent. It is when Dana is viciously whipped by Jake, an overseer, she fully understands why slaves like Sarah do not struggle against their fates. She finds that her desire to fight slavery is diminished a little more each time she is threatened with violence.

Dana’s empathy can present itself as confusing in the beginning. As the story continues, however, she becomes more comfortable in the Weylin household, experiences true slave life, and grows closer to those around her. All of these factors, including her prior education of the institution at the time, contribute to the breakdown of her empathy. By the end of the story, the reader is cognizant that sometimes, potentially good people are poisoned by the institutions they grow up in.  

16 December 2021
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