Literary Analysis Of The Novel Kindred By Octavia Butler

“Kindred” is a novel by Octavia Butler that includes aspects of the time-travel genre and is based on a slave narrative perspective. The book is written in the first-person perspective of an African-American woman, named Dana, who finds herself being transported between ‘present’ time Los Angeles, California in 1976 and a pre-Civil War Maryland slave plantation. The story explores various dynamics and dilemmas of pre-war slavery from the sensibility of a late-twentieth-century African-American, who is aware of its brutal and disturbing legacy in contemporary American society and culture; Mainly through the two interracial ‘couples’ (Rufus & Alice and Dana & Kevin), who form the emotional plot of the story, the novel attempts to touch upon the interconnected issues of power, gender, and ethnicity issues and speculates on the idealism of future equality. With that being said, “Kindred” was written with a purpose to explore how a modern-day African-American woman would experience the time of a slavery society, where African-Americans were considered property and inferior to their Caucasian counterparts despite both being human beings. This was a world where all of society was raised against them in such hypocritical ways, and in contemporary times it’s not commonly discussed with an open mind but instead frowned upon. The novel, however, clearly demonstrates the ‘contrast’ between the philosophy of time/space and the people who are present. Additionally, the essay “The Novelist as Teacher” quotes that a writer “must remain free to disagree with his (her) society and go into rebellion against it if need be. But I am for choosing my cause very carefully”. Both this quote and proverb heavily relate to “Kindred” and Octavia Butler as an author due to the novel’s perspective, characterization, and theme.

Octavia Butler’s main purpose for “Kindred” even relates to the novel’s title (a major theme of the book as well). The meaning of the novel's title (Kindred) has several meanings; At the rawest definition it refers to: “One’s family and relations”. In regards to the story, the definition of the word relates to the biological relationship between the protagonist, Dana, the slave owners (Weylins) and both the ‘free’ and bonded plantation they own. On the other hand, the term Kindred’s most general definition, it relates to the kinship of all Americans regardless of ethnic background. And since “Kindred” expects its audience to come to terms with slavery and its brutal history, one significant meaning of the term kindred is the United States’ history of interbreeding and its constant denial of performing such actions; This kinship of African-Americans and Caucasians must be acknowledged if America is to move into a better future. However, Dana's journey to the past serves to reconstruct her concept of ‘family’ ranging from bloodlines to that of 'spiritual kinship' with those she chooses as her family: the plantation slaves and her Caucasian husband, Kevin. This conclusion is confirmed when Dana confronts her thoughts on Rufus in the climax of the novel, “A slave was a slave. Anything could be done to her. And Rufus was Rufus —  erratic, alternately generous and vicious. I could accept him as my ancestor, my younger brother, my friend, but not as my master, and not as my lover”. This presents the sense of the term kindred as a community of choice -- not by blood; Which is also made clear from the author’s first use of the word to indicate Dana and Kevin's similar interests and shared beliefs. Dana and Kevin's relationship signals the way for diverse America to reconcile. In other words, the people today must face the country's incredibly racist past together so they can learn to co-exist as kindred in the present and future. Kindred also explores and challenges the pureness or unchangingness of ethnicity through the interracial relationships that form its emotional aspects. Dana's ‘kinship’ to Rufus disproves America's erroneous concepts of racial purity. It also represents the distaste to integrate/desegregate Caucasians and African-Americans in America. This is represented as a double-standard viewpoint depending on one’s ethnicity as Dana commonly comments on the slaves’ attitude toward Rufus (their slave ‘master’), “Strangely, they seemed to like him, hold him in contempt, and fear him all at the same time.” Showing fear demonstrates the negative effects of America’s standpoint on racial ‘equality’, even in the present day. A further example of this relates to the negative reactions of characters, in the past and the present, to Dana and Kevin's interracial relationship thus highlighting the continuing hostility of both Caucasian and African-American communities to interracial marriage and procreation. At the same time, the relationship between Dana and Kevin extends to the concept or idea of community from people related by ethnicity to people related by shared experience. In these new communities, both races of people may acknowledge their common racist past and learn to live together. Furthermore, the exploration of ethnicity and its connections to slavery are central themes in the novel and it’s very clear that was always the author - Octavia Butler’s - the purpose for its creation.

Moreover, it should be noted how Octavia Butler’s “Kindred” follows a textbook example(s) of the first-person slave perspective genre; Including loss of innocence, harsh/cruel punishment, strategies of resistance, life in a slave plantation, struggle for education and knowledge, the experience of forced sexual abuse, the realization of Caucasian religious hypocrisy, and attempts to escape with moderate success. As mentioned earlier, the quote (A writer) “must remain free to disagree with his (her) society and go into rebellion against it if need be. But I am for choosing my cause very carefully.”. Relates to “Kindred” due to its secondary theme regarding a ‘critique of American history’ followed by its realistic representation of slavery as well. This critique in the novel can be termed as ‘history amnesia’ or when contemporary beings try/attempt to repress America’s brutal history (in this case, of slavery against African-Americans). It can be argued that Dana has a mild case of historical amnesia, especially in the novel’s beginning however it changes through Dana’s growth and characterization. In a way, Dana’s memories of her enslavement become a record of the ‘unrecorded history’ of African-Americans, plus a retrieval of a logical story demonstrating Dana’s various trials and tribulations. There’s a scene in the novel that even shows Dana obeying Rufus’s instructions to burn her book on the history of slavery in America, “The fire flared up and swallowed the dry paper, and I found my thoughts shifting to Nazi book burnings. Repressive societies always seemed to understand the danger of ‘wrong’ ideas.” The action creates a memory that only Dana knows thereof concerning the outcome of the series of events relating to slavery. So by living these ‘memories’, Dana is enabled to make the connections between slavery and current social situations, including the exploitation of blue-collar workers, police violence, rape, domestic abuse, and segregation. 

It’s possible Octavia Butler wrote “Kindred” to counteract the stereotypical conceptions of the submissiveness of slaves. From the novel’s perspective, the slaves and Dana all contain a growing resentment for slavery; an example of this is seen when Dana explains to her significant other, Kevin, that she refuses to allow Rufus to turn her into a form of property, “I am not a horse or a sack of wheat. If I have to seem to be property, if I have to accept limits on my freedom for Rufus's sake, then he also has to accept limits - on his behavior towards me. He has to leave me enough control of my own life to make living look better to me than killing and dying.” As a result, the author resolved to create a modern African-American character, who would go back in time and present how well she - Dana - could withstand the abuses his ancestors had suffered. Noting that the author uses the time travel trope to emphasize the perpetuation of past racial discrimination into the present and even the future of America. The lesson of Dana’s trips to the past, then, is that 'we cannot escape or repress our racist history but instead must confront it and thereby reduce its power to pull us back, unthinkingly, to earlier modes of consciousness and interaction.' And that’s exactly how Octavia Butler confronts her society with a rebellious and creative theme to drive the plot of “Kindred”.

16 December 2021
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