Kindred

What is the difference between learning about the horrors of slavery in history books and experiencing it firsthand? Octavia Butler's novel Kindred (1979) explores that very question. Through a series of time-traveling episodes, Dana, an African American woman living in 1970s California, is transported back to a plantation in the antebellum South. There, she saves a white boy who turns out to be of her ancestors. 

Kindred Kindred

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Contents
Table of contents

    The time Dana and her white husband Kevin spend in the 19th century affects both of them profoundly. Dana realizes that slavery is even more brutal and complicated than she imagined.

    Kindred: Summary

    Octavia Butler's novel, Kindred, is divided into eight chapters, a prologue, and an epilogue.

    Prologue

    Kindred begins with the protagonist and narrator, Dana, having lost an arm. Her husband, Kevin, is suspected of harming her, but there are no witnesses, and Dana insists that Kevin is innocent. No one can explain what happened.

    The River

    Dana tells the reader that June 9, 1976, was a day of great significance. It was her twenty-sixth birthday and also the day she met Rufus. Dana, a young Black woman, and Kevin, her white husband, have just moved into a new home outside of Los Angeles. Dana spends the day unpacking until she becomes dizzy and collapses. When she comes to, she is on the bank of a strange river where a white boy is drowning.

    Kindred, River bank, StudySmarterThe first time Dana time travels, she finds herself on the bank of a strange river. Pixabay.

    She saves the boy's life, performing CPR on him while his mother sobs. The boy, Rufus, beings to recover, and Dana is surprised to find herself face to face with a man holding a gun. Before she can make sense of the situation, however, Dana finds herself back in her Los Angeles home.

    She and Kevin try to make sense of what happened, both of them alarmed because Dana seemed to have vanished into thin air for a few moments.

    The Fire

    Kevin and Dana eat dinner in their new house because Dana is too frightened from her episode to go out. However, as they eat, she feels overcome by dizziness again and soon finds herself in a strange bedroom with Rufus, the same boy she saved from drowning. Rufus, a few years older, is lighting his curtains on fire out of anger towards his father, who has beaten him.

    Rufus remembers Dana as the woman who saved him. He tells her that she is in Maryland in 1815. He also tells Dana his last name, which is familiar to her. When she learns he knows a free Black girl named Alice Greenwood, Dana realizes that Rufus is one of her ancestors.

    Rufus takes Dana to Alice's house, where Dana witnesses a group of white men tie Alice's father to a tree, whip him, and punch her mother in the face. When the white men leave, Dana revives Alice's mother and tells her that she is a free woman from New York who needs help.

    However, one of the white men returns and chases Dana into the woods. He beats her and tears off her clothing, intending to rape her, but Dana vanishes just in time, reappearing, exhausted and bruised, in her Los Angeles home.

    The next day Dana explains what happened to Kevin, and the two of them assemble a kit of supplies that they tie to Dana so that she will have it with her if she vanishes again.

    The Fall

    The next time Dana feels the dizziness come over her, Kevin holds onto her and travels back in time, too. They find that Rufus has fallen from a tree and broken his leg. Dana explains that Kevin is her husband, which shocks him, and that they come from 1976.

    When Rufus' father, Tom Weylin, appears, Dana and Kevin pretend that they have come from New York and that Kevin owns Dana. They return to the house together, and Rufus's mother sends Dana out to eat with the other slaves. They are suspicious of Dana, particularly because of the way she speaks. She tells them her mother was a school teacher and the other slaves warn Dana that Weylin worries she will make them think too much about freedom.

    After dinner, Kevin and Dana are briefly reunited. Kevin has told Weylin he is a writer from New York and Weylin requested that he tutor Rufus while his leg heals.

    Kindred, An open book, closed notebook, glasses, and a clock on a desk StudySmarterDana begins teaching some of the slaves to read. Pixabay.

    Dana and Kevin become increasingly integrated into the life of the plantation. Dana begins visiting Rufus while he heals and reads to him. However, Weylin warns her to stop when he catches her reading alone. Dana also teaches one enslaved boy to read, but when she is caught, Weylin whips her and causes her to return to her own time without Kevin.

    The Fight

    Back in Los Angeles, Dana finds that her two months in Maryland have passed in less than a day in her own time. She waits to return, reading all the books on slavery she can find in the meantime.

    After eight days, Dana is taken back to Maryland, where five years have passed. Rufus, now eighteen or nineteen years old, is fighting with a Black man who turns out to be Alice Greenwood's husband, Isaac. Rufus raped Alice, although he insists he is in love with her. Dana saves Rufus again, and Isaac and Alice escape. A few days later, however, they are caught. Isaac is sold to a slave trader, and Alice is enslaved and bought by Rufus.

    Kevin left the Maryland plantation in Dana's absence, and Rufus offers to send him the letters that Dana writes. Later, however, she discovers the letters were never sent. When Dana finds the letters, she attempts to run away but is caught almost immediately and knocked out when Tom Weylin kicks her in the face.

    Rufus and Weylin take Dana back to the plantation and beat her. Finally, Kevin arrives after Weylin sends him a letter informing him of Dana's arrival. He is furious that Dana has been beaten, and he makes to take her away with him. As the couple leaves, they are confronted by Rufus, who tries to make them stay at gunpoint.

    The Storm

    Dana and Kevin return to 1976. Kevin, who has been away for years, is confused and disoriented. Dana soon feels the dizziness again, and she is transported to Rufus' side. He is in danger again, drunk and facedown in a puddle.

    Rufus becomes very ill, and Dana cares for him while she learns of everything that has happened on the plantation in her absence. Tom Weylin dies of a heart attack, and Rufus blames Dana for being unable to save him. He forces her to work in the fields as punishment, and she is whipped for working too slowly and later faints.

    When she awakes, Rufus is kinder to her. He tells her that his mother has become an opium addict, and he wants Dana to care for her. Alice, meanwhile, is still Rufus's lover and is jealous of the kindness he shows Dana. She and Rufus have two children; the second, Hagar, is Dana's ancestor.

    Desperate to return home, Dana finally decides to put her own life in danger by slitting her wrists. This works, and she returns to 1976.

    The Rope

    For fifteen days, Dana remains in her California home. When she returns to Maryland, three months have passed. Alice has just hung herself after Rufus pretended to sell their two children in an attempt to frighten her.

    Dana blames Rufus for Alice's suicide and insists that he free her children. He agrees, but after Alice's funeral, he begins acting inappropriately towards Dana, making sexual advances and finally trying to rape her. She stabs him with a knife, killing him. As she transports back to the present, however, Rufus grabs her arm, and it becomes stuck in the wall of her California house, causing the injury that leads to the amputation.

    Epilogue

    Once Dana recovers from her injury, she and Kevin travel to Maryland in their present day. They learn that Rufus apparently died in a fire, after which the estate and all of the slaves were sold.

    Kindred: Key Characters

    There are many different characters in Octavia Butler's novel Kindred. The following are some of the most important.

    Dana

    Dana is the twenty-six-year-old protagonist and narrator of Kindred. She is an African American woman living outside of Los Angeles and working temp jobs while she tries to become a writer. She is sent back in time to the antebellum South to protect one of her ancestors, Rufus, a white slave owner.

    Kevin

    Kevin is Dana's husband. He is a white man who marries Dana despite their families' disapproval. When he goes back in time with her, Dana worries that the experience of being a white man in the pre-Civil war South will change him. At times, Kevin does not seem to recognize his privilege and even remarks that slavery does not seem as bad as he imagined. However, he does continue to support Dana as best he can.

    Rufus Weylin

    Rufus Weylin is one of Dana's ancestors. She first meets him when he is a boy, and she saves him from drowning. Dana is repeatedly called back to save him whenever he is in danger. As a child, Rufus is kind and thoughtful, if a little testy. He is interested to learn about Dana and treats her with respect. However, as he ages, he becomes progressively crueler, treating his slaves poorly, raping Alice and making her his mistress, and finally attempting to rape Dana.

    Alice Greenwood

    Alice Greenwood is Dana's other ancestor. She is a young free Black girl when Dana visits in 1815. Alice and Rufus are friends in childhood, but she does not have feelings for him. Later, Alice is enslaved and forced to become Rufus's mistress. They have two children together.

    Tom Weylin

    Tom Weylin is Rufus's father and the owner of the Maryland plantation. He is a cruel man who beats his slaves and protects his own self-interests at all costs.

    Margaret Weylin

    Margaret Weylin is Tom Weylin's wife and Rufus's mother. She is often rude to the slaves and resents Dana for her education.

    Kindred: Message

    As a young woman, Octavia Butler often heard her classmates and acquaintances criticizing their ancestors for not doing more to resist slavery. If they had been enslaved, the young African Americans of the 1960s and 70s argued, they never would have tolerated the treatment their ancestors received.

    Kindred, Clocks, StudySmarterButler uses time travel to offer a different perspective on the modern understanding of slavery. Pixabay.

    Kindred shows the contrast between learning about slavery and actually living through it. Dana, an educated young woman, becomes trapped in the system as completely as the other slaves. She quickly learns that resistance is often futile and sometimes even counterproductive.

    Kindred: Key Themes

    Three key themes in Octavia Butler's Kindred are survival, family, and the corruption that comes with power.

    Survival

    The theme of survival appears in several different ways in Kindred. On the one hand, Dana is called to the past whenever Rufus' survival is threatened. For some unknown reason, she has been tasked with protecting him until he can father the next in her line of ancestors.

    On the other hand, Dana is called back to the present whenever her own survival is threatened. Furthermore, Dana's survival is presumably tied to Rufus' because she would not exist if he died before he had a child.

    Family

    In Kindred, Dana finds herself suddenly and inexplicably bound to her ancestors. She must keep Rufus alive because her family would cease to exist without him. However, their relationship is complicated. He is a white slave owner, and she is a Black woman in the pre-Civil War South.

    Rufus himself has difficult relationships with both his parents. His father is cruel and dismissive while his mother spoils him, but they aren't close. The plantation's slaves, however, often have very close-knit family relationships. But these are often complicated, too. The Weylins often separate enslaved families as punishment. Therefore, the very closeness of the family ties and the fear of separation work to reinforce the very institution of slavery.

    How does the novel's title relate to the theme of family?

    The Corruption of Power

    Particularly through the character of Rufus, Kindred explores how power corrupts individuals. As a boy, Rufus is open-minded and tends towards kindness. He calls Dana the n-word when he first meets her, but he listens to her when she explains that it's wrong, and he tries to help her. He is also friends with African American children, such as Alice. As he grows up and accumulates more power, however, he becomes crueler and crueler.

    He begins to take more after his father, treating his slaves poorly. He has them beaten for misbehavior, and he rapes Alice, forcing her to become his mistress. When she tries to run away, he pretends to sell her children, causing her to kill herself. Rufus also becomes more hostile and domineering towards Dana until he tries to rape her, and she kills him.

    As a modern-day white man, how does Kevin confirm or frustrate this theme of the corruption caused by power?

    Kindred: Analysis of Key Quotes

    Some of the most important quotes in Kindred focus on Kevin and Dana's understanding of slavery and how that understanding evolves as they experience the pre-Civil War South for themselves.

    And I began to realize why Kevin and I had fitted so easily into this time. We weren't really in. We were observers watching a show. We were watching history happen around us. And we were actors. While we waited to go home, we humored the people around us by pretending to be like them. But we were poor actors. We never really got into our roles. We never forgot that we were acting." -The Fall

    Kevin and Dana's outside perspective is key to Kindred's message about slavery. Because of their more modern point of view, the couple remains separated from the events around them, particularly at first. They construct new identities for themselves and participate in the daily life of the plantation, but they maintain their old identities simultaneously.

    She had done the safe thing—had accepted a life of slavery because she was afraid. She was the kind of woman who might have been called "mammy" in some other household. She was the kind of woman who would be held in contempt during the militant nineteen sixties. The house-nigger, the handkerchief-head, the female Uncle Tom—the frightened powerless woman who had already lost all she could stand to lose, and who knew as little about the freedom of the North as she knew about the hereafter." -The Fight

    This quote speaks to the sentiment that enslaved people should have done more to resist slavery. Here, Dana describes one enslaved woman, a cook named Sarah, who accepts her life and doesn't think about escape. For a while, Dana explains, she didn't understand Sarah's passivity. However, Dana begins to change her mind after seeing the state of some of the recaptured slaves and understanding just how much they had to lose.

    Strangely, they seemed to like him, hold him in contempt, and fear him all at the same time. This confused me because I felt just about the same mixture of emotions for him myself. I had thought my feelings were complicated because he and I had such a strange relationship. But then, slavery of any kind fostered strange relationships." -The Storm

    In this quote, Dana describes the slaves' relationships with Rufus. During a cornhusking party, Rufus brings them whiskey and good food. They appreciate him, even like him sometimes, while at the same time fearing and despising him. She marvels at how similar these feelings are to her own relationship with Rufus.

    Kindred - Key takeaways

    • Kindred is a novel written by Octavia Butler and published in 1979.
    • It tells the story of Dana, an African American woman living in 1970s California who is transported back to the pre-Civil War South where she must save one of her ancestors.
    • Through her time in the 19th century, Dana realizes slavery is even more brutal and complicated than she previously understood.
    • The novel contrasts the lived experience of slavery with the perception of slavery and enslaved people over time.
    • Some key themes in Kindred are survival, family, and the corruption that comes with power.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Kindred

    What is the theme of Kindred?

    Some of the key themes in Kindred are survival, family, and the corruption that comes with power.

    How many kids did Alice have in Kindred?

    Alice has four children, but the first two die.

    How does Rufus change in Kindred?

    In Kindred, Rufus becomes more cruel and domineering as he grows up and accumulates more power.

    What time period does Kindred take place?

    Kindred takes place in California in 1976 and in Maryland in the early to mid-1800s.

    What does the river symbolize in Kindred?

    The river is the first place that Dana meets Rufus when he is drowning as a child. It is where their relationship begins.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    What is the name of Dana’s husband?

    Where is the Weylins’ plantation located?

    Which is NOT a key theme in Kindred?

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