Individuals that Transcend Time: Non-linear and Fantastical Narratives of Kindred and The Rag Doll Plagues
The sociopolitical and cultural landscape of the present is undeniably shaped by that of the past. Past sociopolitical and cultural tensions serve as foundation for the contemporary psychology we experience. However, alongside this connection is a divide between the contextualization of the past and present individual. This means that the individual who experiences cultural and sociopolitical tensions specific to their time period will inevitably be divorced from the experiences of another in a different time period. Morales and Butler employ fantastical narratives in The Rag Doll Plagues and Kindred in attempts to both breach and accentuate this divide. There is an exchange of past, present, and future cultural information made available through the deconstruction of linear time. This allows for a more accessible understanding of such cultural information. Morales makes time cyclical in The Rag Doll Plagues by exploring similar narratives in different time periods via one individual’s past, present, and future selves. Butler literally removes the obstacle of time in Kindred as the narrator, Dana, travels back and forth through time and space, shifting from the twentieth century to the Antebellum South of America. By removing the distance that is time, these authors reveal how familiar oppressions function across the past, present, and future. In addition, they show how the individual is both restricted and uninhibited by the cultural framework specific to their space and time.
The narrative of Morales’s The Rag Doll Plagues travels across centuries, with past, present, and future settings. The novel is separated into three books with settings that span from the seventeenth century to a late twenty-first century speculative future. The reader is grounded by the continual reminder of Spanish imperialism and its influence on colonized citizens over these time periods. The narrative may begin in a recently colonized Mexico City and end in the imagined city of “Lamex”, but the area of study remains the same. In this way Morales allows the reader to observe the effects of Spanish colonial rule on Mexico across all time frames. The fantastical device that Morales employs most effectively, however, is his use of the narrator. The Rag Doll Plagues follows what appears to be an individual “entity” of sorts. This entity appears and reappears across space and time. The narrator is called Gregory in all three books, and although he exists as different individuals in differing time periods, it is heavily implied that “Gregory” is connected to his past and future selves through shared ancestry. Writing Gregory again and again via his past, present, and future selves immediately begins to chip away at the binding reality of time. More significantly, this leads the reader to consider how the effects of Spanish imperialism similarly persist and evolve over time. In the beginning of “Lamex”, Gregory considers his ancestors and their influence over his current situation. Gregory of “Lamex” finds himself, like the Gregory of the first two books, in the midst of a plague-ridden Mexico. Morales carefully characterizes both narrator and setting to accentuate what has persisted and what has evolved over time in colonial and post-colonial Mexico. Gregory thinks to himself in “Lamex”, “In a matter of minutes we would step out into an area devastated by a spontaneous plague. Silently, I prayed for God’s help and that the computerized ghosts of my ancestors would accompany me in this battle” (Morales 113). This mirrors the thoughts of the Gregory from book one, “Mexico City”, as he prepares to enter the city as well, “In one instance, I beheld numerous cadavers in different stages of decay trapped on a sharp river bend. I pondered the cause of these deaths. Don Juan Vicente’s letters described a disease that had killed hundreds, but that had left as quickly as it had materialized. Were these unfortunate remains the aftermath of the malady? Poverty and illness attracted me, as if I needed to get closer to that which I rejected” (Morales 5). These two scenes mirror each other as they introduce each Gregory to the setting of the plague. However, there are observable differences in the characterization of our two narrators. The Gregory from “Mexico City” reads as detached, even somewhat indifferent, silently contemplating whether the corpses he sees are of relevance to him. The Gregory from “Lamex” reads with resolve. He is not emotionally volatile, but he grasps the extent of the plague’s destruction, and prays for assistance from his ancestors. He does not blindly reject the poor and the diseased, only struggles with the reality of their suffering and his subsequent feelings of powerlessness. Morales characterizes these narrators differently to reflect their different contextualization. The Gregory of “Mexico City”, a product of early Spanish imperialism and the related factors of racism and classism, is at first not so sympathetic toward his patients. The Gregory of “Lamex” is not a saint, but he certainly gives off a stronger sense of self awareness. He has been contextualized in a Mexico that has already endured centuries of consequences of imperialist rule. This Gregory has seen the events unfold over time, proceeding from his ancestors in seventeenth century Mexico City. Finding himself once again in a plague-ridden Mexico, the Gregory of “Lamex” feels compelled to reflect on his past selves and their influence, calling on the “computerized ghosts” of his ancestors.
The reference to his ancestors and their “computerized ghosts” merits more attention. Gregory, in “Lamex”, continues, “For many years I have been frequented by two individuals, Papa Damian and Grandfather Gregory. It is comforting to know that they come when I most need them. They are individual human lives who have escaped the parameters of time and the limitations of the computers that house the detailed descriptions of history” (Morales 113). Gregory certainly experiences a sense of interconnectedness with his ancestors, who experienced similar trials of plague and death. He continues later, thinking of his grandfather, “His self-description, once computerized, was so intense that in hours he became a computer ghost and now appeared to assist and guide me through this world which I believed to be real” and “Grandfather Gregory and Papa Damian continuously pursued a better past. They understood that we created the past and not the future in the present. Now, I too, strove for a better past” (Morales 124). Morales uses these descriptions to destabilize boundaries created across time but also to counter the assumed binary of fact and fiction, history and reality. Gregory realizes that, not only has his ancestor transcended space and time, he has transcended the idea of history and fiction as opposing forces. The lines, “this world which I believed to be real” and “Now, I too, strove for a better past” most explicitly underline Morales’s desired message (Morales 124). The present that Gregory finds himself can be considered indeterminate because of how heavily it relies on the history of his ancestors. He strives for a better past in the sense that he seeks to more fully understand the experiences of his ancestors. Gregory writes that he observes a world that he “believes” to be real because he understands how intimately the constructed present depends upon the perceived past. Similarly, he desires a better past in order to create a better future. He is not objectively connected to his ancestors: it is imperative to realize that they remain “ghosts”, accessible only through digitized histories. However, it is their nature as computer ghosts that make the interconnected nature of the past, present, and future more tangible. His ancestors exist within their digitized histories as entities of the past, indeterminate in nature. If these computer ghosts were the figures that constructed that past that led to Gregory’s present day, they are tangible enough to influence history.
These intricate narrative decisions pertain to the greater scope of colonial influence because they demonstrate how developing narratives mirror developing sociopolitical frameworks. The Gregory that narrates “Lamex” has the ability to see the long term effects of imperial rule and how they’ve begun to alter their manifestations. Beyond his dealings with the plague itself, consequences of imperial rule have trickled into his own life and work experiences. He must make the decision to have a surgery that would give him a computerized arm or risk losing his job. Although it may appear removed, this forced decision is also a consequence of imperialist Spanish rule. The developing city of “Lamex” and its administrators demand higher efficiency: you must submit your body to this surgery in order to accommodate for the colonial machine and its industries. Remember that the Gregory from book one, “Mexico City” remarked, “Poverty and illness attracted me, as if I needed to get closer to that which I rejected” (Morales 5). The Gregory of “Lamex” is made intimately closer to that which he rejects: the computerized arm. The relevance of the line spoken by the Gregory in book one is that it plainly demonstrates the evolution of societal tensions over time. While the earlier Gregory is drawn to illness and poverty that disgusts him, the Gregory of “Lamex” must face a mechanized world or risk being left behind. He must literally become closer to the machinery that he rejects, revealing how the tensions from seventeenth century Mexico City have adapted over centuries to apply to the contemporary individual.
Nadine Flagel considers Kindred and its use of time travel in her article “‘It’s Almost Like Being There’: Speculative Fiction, Slave Narrative, and The Crisis of Representation in Octavia Butler’s Kindred”. She writes, “Though introduced to slavery’s brutality, Dana still articulates her identity as that of a twentieth century spectator; she asserts distance while time travel negates it” (Flagel 236). While Morales accentuates a sense of interconnected-ness across time, Butler uses Dana’s narrative to demonstrate how even explicit time travel will fall short of a first hand, contextualized experience of oppression. Throughout Kindred, Dana looks back to her ancestors as second hand sources of experience. This is despite her being literally sent back and dropped in the middle of the Antebellum South. After Dana’s first experience traveling back in time, she says, “I don’t know. As real as the whole episode was, as real as I know it was, it’s beginning to recede from me somehow. It’s becoming like something I saw on television or read about—like something I got second hand” (Butler 17). These lines show that even with her transcendence of time and space, Dana feels quite apart from the psychology of her ancestors. She feels like an observer rather than a participant, and she is quite aware of the differences between her contextualization as a twentieth century black woman and her ancestors’ as slaves in the Antebellum South. She says, “To survive, my ancestors had to put up with more than I ever could. Much more. You know what I mean” (Butler 51). Dana knows that her identity is that of a twentieth century black woman and that this identity will inevitably restrict her from a truly first-hand experience of the Antebellum South. She may be sent back in time, but during these lapses she is experiencing slavery through the contextualized psychology of a contemporary individual. Under the context of colonial rule, past experiences read more as lessons to be learned from, lessons that Gregory’s ancestors seemingly attempt to rewrite themselves as they persist as Barron 13 computer ghosts over time. Dana’s specific oppression under the social and political constructs of the twentieth century divorce her from the brutality of the Antebellum South.
Still, Dana observes an undeniable and even dangerous connection between herself and the foundation of slavery from which her contemporary being arises. Like Gregory, she sees that her ancestors are beings that have “escaped the parameters of time”. They exist in her as Gregory’s Grandfather exists in him in “Lamex”. Dana knows she is not the same as them, that she does not share their experience of violence and oppression. However, the relevant cultural and sociopolitical frameworks are unavoidably tied to her present life. Dana says, “If I was to live, if others were to live, he must live. I didn’t dare test the paradox” ( Butler 29). Dana understands that the connection between her past, present, and future is solid. She is afraid to question it. This reflects the fact that her contemporary self has been constructed from her past relatives, her present day experience constructed with slavery as its foundation. Dana experiences different forms of oppression in the twentieth century. Her white husband, Kevin, tries to support her but often undermines her autonomy and intelligence. He says to her after she explains her disadvantage, “You’re working yourself into a mood that could be suicidal if you’re not careful” (Butler 51). This response could read as concerned, but in actuality, it stems from a severe lack of perspective. Dana is already at a disadvantage for not possessing the mental framework of her ancestors in the era of slavery. Kevin, a white, twentieth century man, truly has no concept of Dana’s experience as a black woman, let alone that of her ancestors in the Antebellum south. For these reasons his response is dismissive. He applies an “objective” take on her situation, remarking that she should be careful not to breach dangerous mentalities. In reality, Kevin’s objectivity is white and male, and his concern a frustration over Dana’s apparent Barron 14 fatalism. Meanwhile, Dana is not being fatalistic, but realistic. Dana also experiences oppression in her work, which is referred to as a “slave market”. She describes menial labor with very low pay, and managers who have little care for their employees. This is absolutely unlike the slavery her past relatives endured, but it is not wholly unrelated. Just like how in “Lamex” Gregory must “commodify” himself in order to work more efficiently, Dana is treated as an easily tradable commodity of labor. Again, this is nothing like the reality of slave labor, but we can observe how both slavery and imperialism functioned to provide the groundwork for the nature of contemporary labor markets. Efficiency and productivity are valued at the expense of the individual’s autonomy and even humanity.
Morales and Butler recognize that time abstracts the individual from the narratives of the past. Both authors use non-linear or cyclical depictions of time in their attempts to breach this abstraction. This device, be it flat out time travel or a time/space transcendent narrative entity, allows the individual to see beyond the constructs of time. However, the individual remains aware of their situation within specific periods. Dana knows she is a twentieth century black woman author above all else. The Gregory within “Lamex” knows he exists in the mechanized late twenty-first century, surrounded by the digitized histories of his ancestors. And yet, both Dana and Gregory achieve an understanding of their respective struggles that transcends the restrictions of an individual psychology. They are made aware of how relevant their pasts are, and in a sense, how relevant they are to their pasts.
The Many Forms of Home
In the novel Kindred, by Octavia Butler, Dana, a modern day black woman, time travels between her present day and the time of slavery in the South. Between her various travels, Dana and her husband Kevin experience a series of both cruel and eye opening events. Their experiences force them to question essentially everything that they knew about their lives and what they thought of as home. Through the use of two different time periods in history and the idea of time travel, Butler is able to draw upon the concept of home and what home means, and touches on the idea that for Dana, home could be more than just a physical place. Through insights into both Dana and Kevin’s minds, Butler suggests that home is the place where one is able to feel the most safe, secure, and comfortable; also emphasizing the idea that over time, any place can feel like home to an individual, even though hate and unfortunate circumstances may permeate it.
The idea of what a home means for each individual varies greatly. Most often, home for an individual is the place where he or she feels the safest, most comfortable, and where he or she feels as though they belong. In the beginning of the story, home for Dana is her house in California that she shares with her husband, Kevin. Dana mentions the time of her move to live in one house with Kevin, stating that, “on the day before, we had moved from our apartment in Los Angeles to a house of our own a few miles away in Altadena. The moving was celebration enough for me” (Butler, 12). Dana refers to the move to one individual house as a celebration: the use of the word celebration implying that having somewhere to call home is something worth getting excited about, something to truly celebrate. This was a major milestone for her, and an important time in her life. This raises the concept that besides being a physical
building, home consists of the people you love the most, which for Dana is Kevin. While home can be a physical place such as a home state, or a person’s house, home can also be a person. Throughout the story, Dana appears conflicted about where her home truly is, and if she even can consider her current house her home with all that has happened. The one consistency through the time traveling turmoil was Kevin. She is deeply connected to him as his wife, and Kevin is able to provide a constant sense of home for her. She mentions one instance where, “we sat there together on the floor, me wrapped in the towel and Kevin with his arm around me calming me just by being there” (Butler, 15). Kevin was not even speaking to Dana, yet his presence alone was enough to comfort her, and make her feel secure simply by being there. Comfort and security are two of the traditional characteristics of a home; two things that Kevin is also able to provide for Dana. Through this scene, Butler is further suggesting and emphasizing on the idea that a person is able to be a form of a home for someone, and presents the idea that home might not just be a physical place, but someone or something that evokes those same feelings of safety, comfort, and belonging.
Kevin as a home for Dana is seen again, when Dana is being badly beaten by Tom Weylin for essentially allowing Nigel to teach Carrie several spelling words. Dana’s fear for her life triggers her return home to present day, although this time Kevin is unable to reach her in time to travel back as well. Upon returning to California without Kevin, Dana walks around their home in a fog. She only does the bare minimum tasks that she needs to do in order to survive; things such as eat, drink, bathe and cleanse her wounds. She is simply going through the motions. This lack of involvement within her own home further emphasizes the idea that home is not truly home unless Kevin is with her. She is distraught, and claims that, “I didn’t want to be awake. I barely wanted to be alive” (Butler, 113). Her separation from Kevin completely inhibits her to feel at home, regardless of the fact that she truly is home in present day California. More than that, her separation from him completely removes her will to live, highlighting just how important Kevin is to her, and the level of comfort and security he is able to bring Dana while simultaneously functioning as a form of home for her. Kevin and Dana’s physical home in California however is not the only home present throughout the novel. As time progresses, Butler suggests that Dana has another home: the Weylin plantation in Maryland, in the eighteen hundreds. Upon her first trips to the plantation, Dana was scared and confused, and desperately wanted to go back to her real home in the present day. Dana comes to the conclusion and realization that her fear is what will propel her home, and in one instance she was, “desperately willing the dizziness to intensify, the transferal to come,” allowing her to return home (Butler, 35). The language, which Dana uses, emphasizes how she is so desperate to return home in her initial trips to the plantation that she is begging herself to reach the point of fear or danger where she will be able to travel back. None of the experiences she had there made her feel like she does at a typical home, and as a result, she wants to leave. However, as the novel progresses, we see that Dana becomes more and more accustomed to this different time period. Her feelings toward the plantation begin to shift, and she begins to see things in a different light.
Dana has a revelation about the plantation one day when she meets a young Alice during one of her time traveling episodes. She begins to realize that, “these people were my relatives, my ancestors. And this place could be my refuge,” in regards to the Weylin plantation (Butler, 37). Once she understands that the people in this new time period are distantly related to her, Dana’s feelings of the plantation begin to shift, even though she may not notice it. The idea of family ties very closely with home, as one’s family is usually who home is shared with. Now that Dana has discovered a deeper connection to the people on the plantation, she is able to slowly begin to see the plantation functioning as a form of home. Dana makes a statement about her definition of home, stating that, “Home. It didn’t have anything to do with where I had been. It was real. It was where I belonged” (Butler, 115). While this statement is referring to her California home, it very closely parallels with her new home on the plantation. She refers to home being somewhere she belonged, and when she visits the plantation numerous times she begins to feel as though belongs there with her ancestors as well.
Yet another reason why Dana begins to see the plantation as home comes from the unique time dynamic present within the wonderland in this novel. By including this concept of time in two different periods of history, Butler suggests that with time, nearly any place in the world can begin to feel like home for an individual. This statement is especially true for both Dana and Kevin. They shift back and forth between the present and past quite frequently, paralleling with something the couple had done in the past. Prior to moving in together, Dana says that Kevin and herself, “just sort of drifted back and forth between our two apartments, and I got less sleep than ever (Butler, 108). While this is directly referring to time before Dana began to time travel to the plantation, it directly relates to Kevin and Dana’s traveling back and forth now. The time period in the wonderland works in the sense that an entire day spent on the plantation translates into mere seconds back in reality. Because of this different time dynamic, it feels as though the couple has been on the plantation much longer, giving them more time to adjust and get acclimated. By allowing themselves to adjust to this new world, Dana and Kevin grow more and more comfortable, making the plantation seem like a form of home over time. They spend so much time in this alternate time that coming back home to the real world is quite difficult for the couple. Kevin struggled with basic tasks such as driving, and “he said that the traffic confused him, made him more nervous than he could see any reason for” (Butler, 244). When they return to what was once their real home, there is a large disconnect occurring. Normal tasks are now foreign to them, and home does not quite feel like the home it once did. Dana’s issue with being home is similar to Kevin’s. She has grown familiar with the plantation, and has adjusted to all that goes on there. She has even adjusted to the beatings and cruel practice of slavery, suggesting that even though horrible things were endured on that plantation, it was still able to be a second home to her over time.
Through her numerous travels, Dana has gotten beaten, bruised, whipped, and endured a great deal of emotional abuse as well. Trauma such as this most often would make individual reject the place where it occurred, but Dana is slightly different. Dana’s trauma happened gradually, and over time on the Weylin plantation. It started with the initial beating on the riverbank, the frequent derogatory language aimed at her, progressing all the way to whippings and threats. She had time to travel back to the present day between these instances, giving her breaks to process it all in a sense. Even though this entire ordeal filled with trauma occurs, she still feels a deep connection to the Weylin plantation, and almost anticipates going back. Kevin notices this, claiming, “hell, half the time I wonder if you’re not eager to go back to Maryland anyway” (Butler, 244). Even though it is a horrible place to be for her, Dana feels a deep connection to the plantation, and has grown accustomed to it overtime. This adjustment highlights how the plantation shifted in her mind from a foreign place to something familiar, and was beginning to function as a second home for Dana. She has conditioned herself to view herself as a slave and form of property, and to accept all that has happened to her as a form of survival and self-protection. She has lost a part of herself as a result of this time traveling, but has gained a new form of a home in her mind.
The idea of home can vary from one person to another, but the characteristics of what makes a home a home are often similar. Characteristics such as comfort, a sense of belonging, and safety are all parts of what makes a home a home. By presenting two drastically different time periods in Kindred, Octavia Butler is able to show that home can change overtime for an individual, and can take on a multitude of different forms. Home can be more than a place, or a person, but one constant factor is that an individual always seeks a home out, and a sense of belonging and family is almost always something desired.
The Concept of “Home”
Home is oftentimes perceived as one of the places where a person feels safest and as one of the places where one likes being most. This seems to be very straightforward, but in her novel Kindred, Octavia E. Butler complicates this concept of home by using the conflicting emotions of the characters Dana and Kevin to show how having sharper experiences somewhere affects their idea of what and where home is. Dana and Kevin are both taken from one time to another and in Dana’s case, more than once, causing them to rethink their ideas of what/where home to them is. During their stays in the 19th century, they have many experiences that make them feel more connected to it and make them start to feel like it is their home.
Towards the beginning of the story, Dana is sure that the new apartment she shares with Kevin in 1976 is her home. After her second visit to Rufus, she still says, “God, I hurt, and I’m so tired. But it doesn’t matter. I’m home” (44). She hasn’t been in the 19th century for very long and has had only a few experiences there, most of them not very good. She also hasn’t really had any connections with the people there besides realizing that a few of them were her ancestors, so she understandably views her 1976 apartment as her home. It’s the time that she grew up in, and it’s where Kevin and the things she likes/is most familiar with are, while 19th century Maryland is a time and place she’s been in for less than a day.
As Dana starts making more trips back to the antebellum South, she has more experiences there and makes more connections with the people there. She becomes more used to everything there and how it works. When she thinks about it after a couple more visits and after getting Kevin back, she thinks that Rufus’s time was a “sharper, stronger reality” (191), and that “the work was harder, the smells and tastes were stronger, the danger was greater, the pain was worse” (191). Dana has done and experienced so much there that it’s become a place she’s familiar enough with to think of as home. She remembers that “[she] could recall feeling relief at seeing the house, feeling that [she] had come home. And having to stop and correct [herself], remind [herself] that [she] was in an alien, dangerous place” (190). These thoughts show Dana’s conflicting emotions regarding the plantation and what it was to her. Even though it was a place in which she had felt a lot of pain, she had also had good experiences there and made strong emotional connections with some of the people there. With this, Butler is trying to make the point that home might sometimes have painful or dangerous things along with the good things, but it will still be home if that’s what one feels about it.
In Kindred, Butler complicates the concept of home by showing that home isn’t always the place where one feels the safest, or the one where one always wants to be. Robert Crossley argues that Butler, with Kindred, offers a challenge to the expression “Home is where the heart is”, along with other expressions, which essentially means that home is where someone always longs to be. He writes that “By the time Dana’s time traveling finally stops and she is restored to her Los Angeles home in 1976, the meaning of a homecoming has become impossibly complicated. Her first act, once her arm is sufficiently healed, is to fly to present-day Maryland; both her California house and the Weylin plantation have become inescapably ‘home’ to her” (267). Dana feels like there are two places that are her home, but a person can’t long to be in two places at the same time, so the expression “Home is where the heart is” was challenged. Butler did this using Dana as an example and uses this to make the point that home isn’t necessarily only one place.
Kevin’s conflicting emotions regarding his and Dana’s 1976 house and the Weylin plantation were also used by Butler to complicate the concept of “home”. At first, he, like Dana, thought of their house in 1976 as their home. However, when he went to the antebellum South with Dana, he was left there for five years when Dana was transported back to the 20th century, having to live in the 19th century by himself until Dana came back. He said that he “‘kept going farther and farther up the east coast’” (192), but that the only time he felt at home was when he “‘went back to Maryland … when [he] visited the Weylins to see whether [Dana] was there’” (192), and when he was back in the 20th century, he also said “‘If I’m not home yet, maybe I don’t have a home’” (190). These things he says show that even though he doesn’t like the Weylin plantation, he still somehow thinks of it as home, because he has had experiences there with Dana that affected him a lot, and since he loves Dana, he’ll think of a place as his home when she is/was there with him. This is also a point that Butler is trying to make: home is a place in which someone has shared many experiences (sometimes good, but other times not as good) with someone who he/she has a strong emotional connection with.
Butler uses the characters Dana and Kevin and their emotions regarding two different places they’ve stayed in to complicate the concept of “home,” which is usually thought of as a place that someone feels safe in and one that a person would almost always want to be. She does this by having them have stay and go through many experiences, both good and bad, in a foreign place and time. This makes them feel like the both of the times and places they stayed in are their homes, even though one of them has proved to be dangerous to them, especially to Dana. Butler has made all of her readers think about their ideas of home and what it is.
Butler, Octavia E. Kindred. 1979. Boston: Beacon Press, 1988. Print.
Crossley, Robert. Critical Essay. Kindred. By Butler, Octavia E. Boston: Beacon Press, 1988. 265-280. Print
Cultural Trauma Narratives’ Use of Supernatural Elements
Novels that are centered on traumatic events in history have used different tools to access the past. The Piano Lesson by August Wilson is a film (based on a play) that is set during the Great Depression while Octavia Butler’s Kindred is a novel that is set in the 1970s and part of the 19th century. In Kindred, protagonist Dana finds out more about her family’s past and the trauma they went through during slave times. Likewise in The Piano Lesson, siblings Boy Willie and Berniece, along with Berniece’s daughter Maretha, learn the importance of the history of their family’s piano to find out what their ancestors went through during slave times. Both stories are focused on learning, through the use of supernatural elements, about the characters’ ancestors’ traumatic experiences and the importance of family and cultural history. Kindred and The Piano Lesson use elements of the fantastic (i.e. haunting (from ghosts) and time travel) to access the past, because, through these elements, the stories engage and describe things to people from modern or close to modern times in ways they wouldn’t be able to without them, and therefore enhance their understandings of the lingering traumas of past enslavement in the United States.
Before Dana travels back in time and to Maryland, she doesn’t know very much about her family’s past, only knowing the names of a few of her ancestors and a couple other things. Her cultural heritage isn’t something that means as much to her as it does later, and she doesn’t actually know how bad slave times were. But then, after the second time she goes across the country to the nineteenth century and she finds out about the kind of violence that existed then, it becomes more real to her and not something that, even though she is still a part of, is more detached from. She becomes willing to use violence on people intending to hurt her, and when asked if she will use a knife, says, “‘Yes. Before last night, I might not have been sure, but now, yes.’” (Butler 47). Butler uses the supernatural element of time travel here to show that although people may think they know what happened during the past (from history books/classes or other sources), they oftentimes don’t and won’t be able to fully understand it if they weren’t there.
Dana’s learning about her cultural history through time travel gives us, as readers, a way to connect to it better, because unlike cultural trauma stories in which the characters are from a very different time, in Kindred, Dana has much more similar knowledge and feelings than characters from a much earlier time do to those of the modern reader, so it makes the story feel a lot more real. Placing (the at first unknowledgeable about slave times) Dana in the role of a “lone black woman” (Butler 47) in the nineteenth century gives the reader “a journey of discovery that mirrors the protagonist’s own, which enables her to imagine a “mimetic encounter” with a trauma that she did not experience and one, moreover, to which she may not have a cultural connection” (Setka 96). This is because the reader is from the same or a similar time as Dana and therefore accepts the new information that Dana receives in a similar way to her.
Similarly to Dana finding out in Kindred more about her family history and cultural heritage through her travels in time, Boy Willie in The Piano Lesson realizes the importance of his family’s heritage and of keeping his family’s piano to remember that heritage, and Berniece realizes the importance of remembering and not ignoring the piano. However, unlike Dana, Berniece and Boy Willie start out already at least partly knowing the story of his family and why they though the piano was important. In The Piano Lesson, instead of using an element of the fantastic to show history to a character who didn’t know almost all of it, the supernatural element of ghosts was created to show Boy Willie and Berniece the importance of the piano and of remembering his family’s past enslavement. In the beginning of the film, Boy Willie starts out not really feeling attachment to the piano and only wanting it to make money off of it, but by the end, he has realized the importance of the piano and of its connection to his ancestors/family history and culture, and Berniece starts out ignoring and not playing the piano, but by the end of the movie, she plays it and brings out the spirits of her ancestors, who drive out the ghost of Sutter.
The most important ghost in The Piano Lesson is probably Sutter’s ghost because of the fact that he haunts an object that almost everyone in the story is focused on – the piano. Sutter’s ghost makes the remembrance of the Charles family’s past more unavoidable, because it makes the piano more alive and hard to ignore in the minds of some of the characters (Berniece’s and Boy Willie’s). It is also, according to Jermaine Singleton in the article Some Losses Remain with Us: Impossible Mourning and the Prevalence of Ritual in August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson “the text’s metaphor for the psycho-social remains of the Charles family’s social history of loss, dispossession, and struggle.” (46). August Wilson created Sutter’s ghost as the part of the family’s and culture’s traumatic past that both Berniece and Boy Willie are trying to ignore, but then they are both forced to confront. The siblings’ overcoming of the ghost (Boy Willie’s fighting it and Berniece’s playing the piano to bring out their ancestors’ spirits to fight it) is similar to their embracing the importance of remembering their family’s past. Sutter’s ghost was not able to be ignored, just like the trauma the enslavement of African-Americans in the U.S. caused are not able to be forgotten.
Despite the fact that the use of supernatural elements made Kindred and The Piano Lesson stories that were obviously not true, it made the slave narratives in them something that made them something we could connect to, or at least understand, more easily. The use of elements of the fantastic in both Kindred and The Piano Lesson help us, the readers, to better understand the lingering cultural trauma of slaves in the past. These supernatural elements (time travel and haunting) are placed in the two stories also because they have no need for explanation, which makes adding unexplainable scenes, such as Dana’s loss of her arm in Kindred, the Charles family’s ancestors’ spirits being a part or the piano, something like Sutter’s ghost symbolizing the past that Berniece and Boy Charles are ignoring, or anything else that can’t be represented in a way that can be easily explained in a way that makes sense scientifically.
Without these supernatural elements, the stories of enslavement in both Dana’s family and the Charles family, and therefore those accounts of slavery that were shown in both the novel and the film, would not have been created, and the portrayals of slavery in both Kindred and The Piano Lesson would not have been as powerful as they are right now. Both of the stories illustrate lingering traumas of enslavement in the United States in ways that enhance our understanding of them extremely well.
The Piano Lesson. Dir. Lloyd Richards. 1995. Film.
Butler, Octavia E. Kindred. 1979. Boston: Beacon Press, 1998. Print.
Setka, Stella. “Phantasmic Reincarnation: Igbo Cosmology in Octavia Butler’s Kindred.” MELUS: Multi-Ethnic Literature of the U.S. Oxford University Press. 2016. 93-124. Web.
Singleton, Jermaine. “Some Losses Remain With Us: Impossible Mourning and the Prevalence of Ritual in August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson.” College Literature. Johns Hopkins University Press. 2009. 40-57. Web.
Chronotopic Shaping and Reshaping in H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine and Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred
Mikhail Bakhtin, in his essay “Forms of Time and Chronotope in the Novel,” argues that the “chronotope” of a literary work – the configuration of time and space in the fictional world that the text projects – is inextricably connected with its characters: “the image of man in literature… is always intrinsically chronotopic.” (Bakhtin, 85). In this paper I will apply his theory to two radically different texts that deal with time travel: H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine and Octavia Butler’s Kindred.
H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine contains three different chronotopes: the chronotope of the novella’s frame narrative, the chronotope of the future world of 802,701, and the chronotope of the post-apocalyptic world. The chronotope of the frame narrative is the time travel chronotope, in which temporality and spatiality fuse together: time becomes “a fourth dimension of Space” (Wells, 8), and therefore it is a nexus in which both time and space are isotropic. A corollary of this unified space-time continuum is predestination, because the ability to travel through time presupposes a fixed history, in order to avoid various logical paradoxes, such as the grandfather paradox. Hence, the free will of the characters situated in the fictional world constructed around this chronotope is of no ontological consequence; they are powerless to change their reality or shape their future. I suggest that the predestination governing this fictional world is precisely the cause of the characters’ lack of psychological depth: they are all stock characters, most of them named only after their profession and conforming to their professional stereotype – the Medical Man is skeptical, the Editor is nosy and eager for a scoop, the Psychologist listens attentively and feigns understanding and the Time Traveler is eccentric and fervent, as any archetypical “mad scientist”. Their inherent flatness is the structural result of the time travel chronotope: complex characters with a rich background, personal desires, passions, thoughts and quirks are ill-fit for a world upon which they have no impact.
The chronotope of the future world of 802,701 is the evolution chronotope. This future world is the end result of environmental changes brought about by upper class humans, which led in turn to the division of the human race into two distinct species, one decadent and the other animalistic, due to the mechanism of natural selection, which prevents the preservation of traits that are no longer necessary for the survival of a species, like intellect in the case of the future humans. Natural selection, as delineated by Charles Darwin, links events together by contingency rather than design, because it is based on random changes in environment. It may be argued, however, that natural selection does not negate determinism, since it is possible that a force beyond nature governs environmental alterations that seem random. Nonetheless, the implied author of the narrative remains faithful to the Darwinistic paradigm and constructs the timeline of this fictional world as mutable, as is evident in the Time Traveler’s behavior: he acts as if he has free will and his actions have consequences. Moreover, he blames the human race for its own deterioration – “I grieved to think how brief the dream of the human intellect had been. It had committed suicide.” (85) – thereby preassuming that the humans responsible for the situation could have acted differently. Thus, from the implied author’s ontological point of view, the fictional world of the embedded narrative is governed by contingency. Accordingly, its chronotope is the intersection of unbounded space and linear time, with a mutable timeline, bounded only by the Time Traveler’s quest for the Time Machine: the moment he recovers it, the Time Traveler leaves this world and the discourse time of this narrative comes to an end.
The evolution chronotope shapes characters differently from the way they were molded by the time travel chronotope. The Time Traveler is no longer an archetypal mad scientist, but rather a complex man who struggles to survive in a dangerous world. We are given a much deeper insight into his emotions and frailties: at the outset we see him losing control – “I remember running violently… beating the bushes with my clenched fists… laying hands upon them and shaking them up together.” (40) – later on he wastes his precious matches on amusing the Eloi, and towards the end of his journey he accidentally burns down an entire forest. However, the Time Traveler’s psychological complexity manifests itself most clearly in his attitude towards Weena: he states that “she was exactly like a child” (48), and yet flirts with her – “she kissed my hands. I did the same to hers.” (48); he complains that that he “had as much trouble as comfort from her devotion” (48), but immediately qualifies the complaint – “Nevertheless she was, somehow, a very great comfort” (48); finally he feels “the intensest wretchedness for the horrible death of little Weena” (84), but asserts that “she always seemed to me, I fancy, more human than she was, perhaps because her affection was so human.” (70). In this context it is interesting to note that the Time Traveler perceives affection as an inherently human trait, because none of the characters in the frame narrative evince affection, although they are all “human” in the usual sense of the world. Furthermore, the Time Traveler himself expresses affection only towards Weena.
To recapitulate, the Time Traveler’s shift from a world constructed around the time travel chronotope, to a world unified by the evolution chronotope, brings about his transformation from a flat character to a round one, who expresses the range of irrational behavior and conflicting thoughts and emotions that is the hallmark of psychological depth. We may therefore surmise that in this novella complexity of character is only rendered possible in a fictional world that entails temporal fluidity. Furthermore, time in the future world of 802,701 leaves its marks on the Time Traveler – “His coat was dusty and dirty… his face was ghastly pale… his expression was haggard and drawn, as by intense suffering” (17) – whereas time in the fictional world of the frame narrative does not seem to alter the characters physically or mentally. This contrast is another corollary of the difference between the chronotopes of the two worlds.
It may also be worth mentioning the third chronotope of the novella, which lies at the core of the post-apocalyptic fictional world. In this chronotope space is boundless, whereas time is both boundless and static at the same time. On the one hand, temporality is a dimension in this world, because otherwise there could be no movement within it. On the other hand, the life of this world is almost completely extinct – the sun is dying, civilization is long gone, and the only creature remaining is “a round thing… black against the weltering blood-red water” (93) – and without life time is in many aspects meaningless. Be that as it may, the chronotope of the post-apocalyptic world has little opportunity to influence the Time Traveler, since he quickly flees in “horror of this great darkness” (92).
The difference between the shaping of fictional characters by the time travel chronotope to their shaping by the evolution chronotope may also offer a solution to one of the central mysteries of the text: why does the Time Traveler decide to undertake another journey in time, despite the fact that he narrowly escaped unscathed the first time? Ostensibly, he journeys in search of more tangible proof of his travels. However, the Time Traveler ipso facto cannot bring back proof substantial enough to make people believe him, because then in all probability the future he describes would be averted due to precautions taken in his present time, and if the future he describes no longer exists, then it is not possible that he traveled into this future, thereby creating a logical paradox. The Time Traveler, as a scientist, is probably aware of this paradox. Therefore, I suggest that he undertakes a second journey in time because he desires to enter, once again, a world structured around a chronotope that, to the extent of his knowledge, does not dictate a fixed timeline. He is well aware that the future of his own world is fixed, but by traveling to a world in which, from his limited point of view, the future may be open, the Time Traveler believes that he is once again assuming control over his life and mastering his fate. Perhaps that is why “he has never returned” (99).
Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred contains two chronotopes. The first chronotope, like that of The Time Machine’s frame narrative, is the time travel chronotope. In order to distinguish it from The Time Machine’s chronotope, I will henceforth call it the “modern chronotope”, since it predominantly deals with space and time in the twentieth century. The temporal movement enabled by the modern chronotope is far more limited than that which is enabled by the Time Machine’s time travel chronotope. Dana, the narrator and protagonist, can travel through a vast stretch of time and space within a few moments, but this travel is restricted to shifts between her new house in Altadena, California, in the time span of a few weeks between the 9th of June to the 4th of July 1976, and Rufus Weylin’s immediate surroundings in Maryland, during Rufus’ lifetime between the 1830s to the 1850s. It is important to note two things about this chronotope, concerning the instances in which Dana is not time traveling. First, on the diegetic level temporality is linear: the narrative moves forward in time from Dana’s birthday to an unknown instance – “as soon as my arm was well enough” (262) – after the time travel has come to an end. On the extradiegetic level there are a few external analepses and one internal prolepsis (the loss of Dana’s arm), but these anachronisms are irrelevant to the discussion of the chronotope, because if we were to reconstruct the story from the narrative discourse, these events would be part of a linear timeline. Second, with the exception of the narrative anachronisms aforementioned, space is bounded to Dana’s home, precisely because of her abnormal spatial-temporal movement: “I was still afraid to leave the house… Driving, I could easily kill myself, and the car would kill other people if Rufus called me from it at the wrong time. Walking, I could get dizzy and fall while crossing the street.” (116). Thus, the modern chronotope is an intersection of limited isotropic time and bounded space. However, despite the logical paradoxes of time travel, this chronotope does not create a fictional world governed by predestination. There are no textual indications that the actions of the fictional characters lack ontological consequences, thereby reducing them to the level of pawns of a fixed future. Quite the contrary, Dana is portrayed as an especially independent and free thinking young woman, who talks back to her boss, decides to be a writer despite the objections of her aunt and uncle, marries the man she loves regardless of racial difference and family disapproval, and stands her ground when her husband attempts to force her into activities she detests, such as typing. Thus, although the implied author is clearly aware of time travel paradoxes, as she articulates through the Dana’s musings regarding Rufus – “His life could not depend on the actions of his unconceived descendant. No matter what I did, he would survive to father Hagar, or I could not exist. That made sense.” (29) – she nonetheless creates an impossible world that contains both isotropic time and freedom of will and action. This impossibility can be pardoned, because time travel in Kindred is used to defamiliarize the past, by depicting it through the eyes of a homodiegetic narrator who has much more in common with the implied reader than she does with the average African American slave. The narrative thus recreates the horrors of slavery in a way which is intended to shock an audience already benumbed by innumerable slave narratives and documentaries. However, this affect is predicated on Dana’s depth and complexity, and therefore it is crucial that she be free to make her own choices on an ontological level, in at least one of the fictional worlds of the novel. Hence, the modern chronotope of confined space and restricted multidirectional time, coupled with ontological freedom, shape the characters as free beings who are constantly struggling with the oppressive forces pitted against them. Dana and Kevin, her husband, do not wait resignedly for her sudden abductions into the past, but exert every effort in order to increase her chances of survival: Kevin furnishes Dana with a weapon – “On the side of me was a canvas tote bag containing… the biggest switch knife I had ever seen” (45) – searches the local library, and even travels with her to the past, and Dana supplies herself with medication and a map of Maryland, and calls for help when she realizes that she cannot do her own shopping.
The second chronotope of the novel is the slavery chronotope, in which space is bounded to the Weylin slave plantation, and time is linear – the narrative moves forward in time from Rufus’ early childhood to his death – and fragmented: the world is depicted in discontinuous sections of time, which are delimited at their start by a moment in which Rufus feels that his life is in danger, and at their end by a moment in which Dana feels her life is threatened. This fractured time creates fractured characters, because both the narrator and the reader have access to them only in isolated stages of their lives, with substantial gaps in between. Dana first meets Margaret Weylin, for example, when she is a young overprotective mother who beats her child’s savior. Dana meets her a second time four years later, and she is still overprotective, fiercely jealous and vindictive. However, when Dana meets her for the third and last time, Margaret is eleven years older and profoundly changed: vulnerable, weak, and pathetic. Both Dana and the reader find it difficult to accept Margaret’s change, because for Dana only a few months have passed (including both the time she spent in the past and that which she spent in the present), and for the reader only a single chapter separates between Dana’s previous meeting with Margaret and the current one. Thus, we see here an example of how science fiction projects narrative techniques from the extradiegetic level to the diegetic one – narrative ellipses become actual ellipses in the fictional world’s timeline – which create an affinity between Dana’s experience of time travel and the reader’s reading experience. This in turn brings about the deconstruction of the fictional characters as unified entities that change gradually over time. All the characters in this world, with the exception of Dana and Kevin, are incomplete, and as much as Dana loves Carrie, hates Tom Weylin, and pities Alice Greenwood, her perception of them is discontinuous, and she can never relate to them as fully as they relate to one another.
The slavery chronotope leads us once again to the issue of predestination. This issue manifests itself on two levels. On one level, the question of whether the fictional world’s timeline is fixed or mutable must remain ambiguous, in order for the narrative to retain its credibility and poignancy. If the fictional world were clearly deterministic, the preservation of Dana’s ancestry would be assured and she would probably abandon Rufus to his death, thereby bringing the story to an abrupt end. Yet if the fictional world were overtly subject to change, then the narrative would lose its raw power of depicting Dana’s attempts to instill Rufus with modern moral values and to alleviate the suffering of the plantation slaves as “gambling against history” (83), a struggle doomed to failure. By the end of the narrative it is still unclear if the fictional world’s timeline is fixed, in which case Dana has no choice but to rescue her ancestor, or rather if it is open, in which case she indeed saves her lineage and herself through her endurance and resourcefulness. This ambiguity is heightened by the absence of any mention of Dana in the newspaper reporting Rufus’ death – “I could find nothing in the incomplete newspaper records to suggest that he had been murdered,” (263) – thereby suggesting that his demise was predetermined, and it is of little consequence that Dana was the agent of death. On the second level, the novel deals extensively with the notion of socio-historical determinism: “how easily slaves are made” (177). It explores how the slavery chronotope inevitably engenders slaves and slave owners. In other words, the issue at stake on this level is not determinism resulting from logical paradoxes, but rather the extent in which human behavior is controlled by spatiality and temporality (chronotope). This issue is dramatized through the process in which the slavery chronotope inexorably destabilizes the identities of Dana and Kevin, as they are shaped by the modern chronotope – as liberal thinkers, modern writers, and open-minded, affectionate lovers – and reshapes them respectively as a slave and a slave owner who becomes an abolitionist. In this context, it is most telling that Dana’s black skin color is only mentioned on her second journey to the past, three chapters into the novel, when Rufus states that his mother called her “just some nigger” (24). It is almost as if she was a white woman in the fictional world structured around the modern chronotope, and it is the slavery chronotope that has suddenly blackened her. At this stage she is still secure enough in her modern identity to return a rebuke: “‘I’m a black woman, Rufe. If you have to call me something other than my name, that’s it.’” (25). However, her attitude towards Rufus’ derogatory language changes in her next journey, when Kevin wishes to chastise him for exclaiming that “‘Niggers can’t marry white people!’” (60), but she lays “a hand on Kevin’s arm just in time to stop him from saying whatever he would have said.” (60-1). In the same journey Dana attempts to assert their otherness – “we weren’t really in. We were observers watching a show… poor actors. We never really got into our roles.” (98) – but her words carry a degree of self deception, since shortly beforehand she felt vaguely ashamed when Tom Weylin caught her leaving Kevin’s bedroom – “I felt almost as though I really was doing something shameful, happily playing whore for my supposed owner.” (97) – thereby betraying that the slavery chronotope has already begun to reshape her identity. Even her attempt to teach Nigel to read and write is a typical act of a rebellious slave, not of a modern woman. Kevin’s identity is similarly reshaped, as we may see in his declaration that nineteenth century America “‘could be a great time to live in,’” (97). His abolitionist activities mentioned later on in the narrative are once again characteristic of a nineteenth century enlightened white man, not of a young liberal in 1976 California. Thus, by the end of this journey Dana is ready to admit that “now and then… I can’t maintain the distance. I’m drawn all the way into eighteen nineteen” (101). Dana’s next journey to the past marks a further step in the slavery chronotope’s reshaping of her identity. She now regards the plantation as her home – “I was startled to catch myself saying wearily, ‘Home at last.’” (127) – thereby severely calling into question the status of her house in twentieth century California. Moreover, while dining with Rufus she states – “I put down my biscuit and reined in whatever part of my mind I’d left in 1976.” (134) – thus indicating that the change imposed on her by the slavery chronotope is accelerated by her own self fashioning as a slave, in an attempt to ease her suffering in the harsh reality encompassing her. This destabilization of Dana’s identity is articulated in Tom Weylin’s interrogation of her: “”Who are you?’ he demanded. ‘What are you?’… ‘I don’t know what you want me to say,’ I told him. ‘I’m Dana. You know me.’ ‘Don’t tell me what I know!’” (130); indeed, by the time Dana returns from her fourth journey to the past, it is no longer clear who she is. This is true for Kevin to an even larger extent: his identity has been reshaped so profoundly by the slavery chronotope in the five years that he spent in the past, that he feels like a stranger in his own home and century.
The dialectical shaping and reshaping of characters by the novel’s two chronotopes is epitomized in the juxtaposition of the sexual intercourse between Dana and Kevin in the fictional world of 1976 California, and Rufus’ attempted rape of Dana in the fictional world of mid nineteenth century Maryland. After they return to the twentieth century, Dana insists that Kevin make love to her, despite his misgivings: “‘Go to bed,’ said Kevin… ‘Come to bed with me.’… ‘Come with me,’ I repeated softly. ‘Dana, you’re hurt. Your back’… ‘Please come with me.’ He did.” (189-90). This act portrays Dana as a willful young woman with a sexual appetite, who feels secure in her own body and self confident enough to demand that her husband pleasure her. Yet shortly afterward, Dana returns to the past and is nearly raped by Rufus, in the scene which marks the culmination of the novel. The first moments of this scene portray a completely different Dana: apathetic, submissive, and ready to surrender her body to the exploitation of a man who treats her as his slave. She initially displays meekness equal to the insistence with which she implored Kevin to come to bed with her: “I realized how easy it would be for me to continue to be still and forgive him even this. So easy, in spite of all my talk” (259). Thus, Dana’s antithetical behavior in these two scenes reflects the extent in which fictional characters are shaped by the chronotopes of the worlds they inhabit. Another example of this is Dana’s agreement to write letters for Rufus, which stands in contrast to her obdurate refusal to type for Kevin. Yet despite textual evidence that the slavery chronotope almost fully erodes Dana’s modern identity and reshapes her as a slave in the fictional world of the past, in the final moments of the attempted rape scene the last vestige of her modern identity drives her to rebel against Rufus: “No.” (260). Ironically, she saves herself by killing him, which is once again an act of a rebellious slave, not of a free modern woman.
In the novel’s dénouement Dana returns to the modern world, this time permanently, but in the process her left arm becomes “a part of the wall” (261). I suggest that her arm is caught in the gap between chronotopes, in that same space through which Rufus saw her coming to rescue him from the elements of fire and water, and which solidifies into a plaster wall after Dana kills him. One may also construe the mutilation as the price Dana must pay for undergoing such extensive reshaping as an obedient slave: she is mutilated in the same way that nineteenth century slaves were maimed as punishment for transgressions against their owners. Thus, the loss of modern identity entails the loss of an arm.
To conclude, I have attempted a close analysis of the chronotopic shaping and reshaping of fictional characters in H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine and Octavia Butler’s Kindred. By tracing the profound influence that travel between worlds with different chronotopes has on the protagonists of the two literary works, I have tried to show the intrinsic connection between a literary text’s chronotope and its characterization.
Bakhtin, Mikhail Mikhailovich. “Forms of Time and Chronotope in the Novel.” The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981
Butler, Octavia E. Kindred. Boston: Beacon Press, 2003.
Wells, H. G. The Time Machine. London: Ernest Benn, 1927.
For the Love of Family: Conflicts and Bonds in ‘Kindred’
Relationships between brothers and sisters can be complicated; relationships between parents and children can be even more so. Family often varies in definition from one person to the next. For the majority of the population, the idea of a “nuclear family” doesn’t exist. In the novel Kindred, Octavia Butler uses both science fiction and slave narrative to explore the variances in familial bonds. Every situation is different, but a few aspects of familial relationships are practically guaranteed. Although we relentlessly seek the love that comes from our kindred, humanity is continuously hurt by familial bondage.
At the beginning of Dana and Kevin’s relationship, they didn’t talk to each other extensively about their families. Dana’s parents were dead and later she would find out that Kevin’s parents were both dead, too. Years ago, his parents died in an automobile accident (Butler 56). Further along in their time together, Kevin asks Dana to marry him. This very traditional topic brings up both Dana and Kevin’s very untraditional families. Dana expresses her concern to Kevin about his only close living relative, a sister. Interracial marriages were not yet socially acceptable in the late 1970’s, and Dana is reasonably worried about what her future husband’s family will think of her (109). When Kevin returns from visiting his sister, he is shocked by her reaction to the upcoming wedding: “She didn’t want to meet you, wouldn’t have you in her house – or me either if I married you” (110). Unsurprised, Dana reports that her aunt and uncle had a similar reaction. “Forgiving” the marriage only because it will result in Dana’s children being lighter-skinned, Dana’s aunt criticizes the match. Dana’s uncle, also, tells her, “The worst thing he could think of to do” (112). This worst thing is writing Dana out of his will so that nothing will fall into “white hands”. It is clear that although Kevin and Dana are hopeful in searching for the approval of their families, this approval is not something that is ever going to occur. Instead of putting their wedding on hold, Kevin suggests the only thing they can do: “Let’s go to Vegas and pretend we haven’t got relatives” (112). Kevin and Dana desperately want their families to approve of their spouse, but are let down when the negative responses come pouring in.
Slavery consistently turns motherhood into a complicated matter. A child does not simply belong to his mother. Regardless of whether the father is the master of the plantation, another slave, or even a free black man, that baby becomes a slave from the moment of birth. Sarah, who runs the cookhouse, has four children: three sons and one daughter. Tragically, her husband dies when a tree he was cutting falls on him (76). Shortly afterwards, Tom Weylin sells Sarah’s three sons. Sarah blames Margaret Weylin for this sale, telling Dana that Margaret, “Made Marse Tom sell my three boys to get money to buy things she didn’t even need!” (95). Although Sarah is the mother to these four children, she has little say in what takes place in their lives. As masters of the plantation, Tom and Margaret have the power to decide what happens to any and every slave. Sarah thinks that the only reason Carrie has not been sold yet is because of her inability to talk. Dana assesses the situation, “Her husband dead, three children sold, the fourth defective, and her having to thank God for the defect” (76). But, Carrie’s inability to talk is not the only reason that Weylin has kept her around. If Carrie was sold to a different plantation, Sarah would have no familial bonds or reasons to remain on the Weylin plantation. Not only does Carrie work hard, but she also inspires Sarah to work hard. As long as she has Carrie to protect, Sarah will stay on the plantation and follow Weylin’s orders.
Later in Carrie’s life, Carrie’s marriage to Nigel serves a similar purpose in the eyes of Weylin. Nigel attempted to run away, but patrollers brought him back hungry and sick. Weylin wanted to sell Nigel off as a punishment, but Rufus talked his father into keeping him on the plantation. Rufus tells Dana, “I don’t think Daddy relaxed until Nigel married Carrie. Man marries, has children, he’s more likely to stay where he is” (139). By marrying Carrie, Nigel relinquishes his passion for freedom. Through the selling and marrying of slaves, familial love becomes a tool of those who seek to oppress. Although Sarah and Nigel both love Carrie dearly, their love for her interferes with their freedom and overall well-being. Family ties account for a majority of the loyalty Dana has to Rufus. Right from the beginning, Dana has a feeling that there is something special that draws her to him. She begins to wonder if Rufus really could be her relative. Dana thinks, “Not that I really thought a blood relationship could explain the way I had twice been drawn to him. It wouldn’t. But then, neither would anything else” (29). The way Dana feels about Rufus must be partially due to their connected bloodlines. Rufus is a part of Dana’s ancestry, possibly her great-great-grandfather (28). As impossible as it might be for Dana to believe this, there is no reason that better explains the common thread between them.Day after day, Rufus treats Dana cruelly. The two of them share a few pivotal moments and experiences that bond them further together, but overall the relationship between Dana and Rufus is not optimal. Every single time that Dana is hurt by Rufus, though, she forgives him. Dana says, “Somehow I always seem to forgive him for what he does to me. I can’t hate him the way I should” (223). For a lot of people, it is difficult to have hostility towards your family. Humans crave the sense of belonging and approval that comes from their kindred. Quite often, just as Dana does, parents and siblings will forgive and forget to prevent jeopardizing this connection.
Dana experiences regret about saving Rufus after the traumatizing sale of a few of the slaves: “I wish I had left Rufus lying in the mud…To think I saved him so he could do something like this” (223). Rufus hurts many people, both with and without Dana’s help. Alice, Dana’s other half according to Rufus, is manipulated countless times by both Rufus and Dana. Because she is counting on Alice to be the mother of her great-grandmother, Dana helps Rufus coerce Alice into a sexual relationship (164). This ruthlessness of Rufus’s actions leaves Dana feeling guilty about her need to continuously save him to insure her own birth and survival. If Dana could have let go of her familial bond to Rufus, she might have been able to prevent the pain in Alice and the other slaves’ lives. Oppression through familial love is a skill passed down from father to son. After Tom Weylin is gone, Rufus becomes the master of the plantation. Although Rufus persuaded his father before not to sell Nigel, he has no qualms about using family bonds to punish the love of his life, Alice. Together, Alice and Rufus have two children – Joe and Hagar. After an attempted escape, Alice is returned to the plantation and beaten both physically and emotionally (250). Receiving much more than just a whipping, both of Alice’s children are “sold”. Rufus tells Alice that he has sold her children as a punishment for her runaway. Truly, though, Rufus has only brought their children to his aunt’s place in Baltimore (250). Joe and Hagar are the only good things that Alice has in her life. In the darkness of their absence, Alice decides she has nothing left to live for. Dana finds alice hanging in the barn… Alice is bound to both the plantation and her life solely through her children. The bondage of familial love rarely leads to pure happiness; often it leads to both physical and emotional harm.
Every single day, siblings across the globe say the wrong words, parents do the wrong things, and children make the wrong decisions. The harm that familial love causes cannot be denied. Yet, still clinging to the love of our parents and relatives, it is biologically ingrained in us to crave the love of those closest to us. What would we do without this love – without those bound to us in such a biological way? Bloodlines tie one another together for better or for worse. But, in the end, life might not be worth living without the other members of our family. Without Carrie, Sarah might have given up on finding a worthwhile life and happiness within the plantation. Without Rufus, Dana wouldn’t have felt the thrill and satisfaction of saving her great-great-grandfather or growing close enough to him to cause an influence. Without one another we might be better off. However, we would certainly miss out on the biological sense of belonging that common bloodlines create.
In today’s world, Western society has grown incredibly desensitized to violence. Children play video games such as Grand Theft Auto in which they murder civilians and sexually assault women without a second thought in order to win the game. Turn on any major news station, no matter the political bias, and a shooting, bomb threat, or alternative act of terror seems bound to pop up throughout the newshour. Action movies full of combat and cruelty rule the box office. Many people have chosen to tactfully avoid such violence. Parents ban certain movies, video games, and toys in their households. Some smartphone users turn off their news outlet notifications in order to better their mental health. However, some acts of violence in the media have a higher purpose than a teenage boy’s entertainment, or even a college student being in the know about current events. In narratives involving oppression, accurately depicting the hardships of the oppressed seems necessary in order to honestly and gravely show what the oppressed group endured at the hands of their oppressor. Although violent scenes might drive away certain audiences, perhaps one should consider why the most gut wrenching images in the media came to be before deciding to close the book or turn off the screen. Not all displays of violence are as senseless as the rest. For instance, in Kindred by Octavia Butler and the movie Sankofa, depicting violence feels necessary in order to make the media historically accurate. Historical accuracy is important in these stories of African Diasporic temporal migration in order to not romanticize slavery. If the people who wrote these stories exclude the narrative’s most violent aspects, they would gloss over the inherent evil in white supremacist power structures, which might end up as a function of white supremacy itself.
In the essay “On Independent Black Cinema” by Haile Gerima in Black Cinema Aesthetics: Issues in Independent Black Filmmaking, Gerima elucidates why violence seems necessary in order to honor what many historic people of the African Diaspora went through. For instance, Gerima writes that, “the main purpose served by establishment cinema is to provide entertainment. The entertainment format in conventional cinema is a romanticized conception of society as opposed to the very harsh and cold realities which characterize black existence” (Gerima 107). Therefore, perhaps black cinema has a higher purpose than simply “to provide entertainment.” Perhaps, when dealing with historical issues of the African Diaspora such as temporal migration, black cinema must examine the tough and violent truths of the Diaspora in order to evade whitewashed “romanticized conception” of what cinema must be. The same goes for other forms of black media, such as literature. Maybe the most radical cinema that exists uses violence in a didactic manner rather than a shocking one.
These “very harsh and cold realities which characterize black existence” have a lot to do with sankofa as a term. Because the violence depicted in Sankofa was, in fact, so harsh and cold for Shola, those experiences ultimately characterize Mona’s existence in present day. These two characters’ oneness represents how the African Diasporic past cannot help but characterize the present people of the African Diaspora. The same goes for Dana in Butler’s Kindred. She experiences sankofa, too, as what she experienced in the 1800s cannot help but become a part of her identity when she returns to the late 1900s. Because of the fact that such “harsh and cold” realities existed, and therefore and characterize a part of the African Diasporic experience, the violence in both Sankofa and Kindred seems absolutely justified, even necessary.
For instance, one of the most violent scenes in Sankofa takes place after one of the most calm scenes in order to show a stark contrast between freedom and the violence that accompanies enslavement. Soon after Mona does a highly sexualized photoshoot for a white photographer with an American accent, she wanders into a cave of enslaved Africans. There, at the hands of white captors, she loses her freedom: her freedom to cloth her body, her freedom to her own sexuality, her freedom of comfort, and her freedom of choice. Her captors strip her clothing away and press a red hot brand onto her skin as she screams from somewhere deep within her.. Mona tells her white captors that she is an American, not an African, hoping this will change their treatment towards her. They ignore her, her freedom of speech seemingly ripped away as well. The other slaves stand, in chains, just watching her. Their faces have placid expressions, as though they are either too desensitized to the violence Mona endures, too fearful to even move their facial muscles in a way that would hint at any kind of rebellion, or both. Although this scene causes viewers to close their eyes or hide their faces from the screen, it seems important that the viewers feel Mona’s pain too. It’s a good thing viewers react with such horror. Mona’s pain demands to be felt, and the more people that understand the historical truth behind her pain by feeling a fraction of a fraction of it themselves, the better. The filmmakers behind Sankofa perform a radically good and didactic act through the violence in this scene, and many that follow it. By watching it, viewers are forced to feel for Mona, and, therefore, to pay witness to one of the many horrors of slavery, white supremacy, and racism.
Similarly, in Octavia Butler’s novel, Kindred, Butler forces her readers to understand what those in a similar African Diasporic position to Dana went through in history. In order for Butler’s modern readers to better relate to Dana, she creates this character in the late 1900s before bringing her back to the 1800s as a slave. One of the most horrific things Dana went through actually happened to the majority of slaves in the 1800s. Butler acts just as radically didactic as the filmmakers of Sankofa when she describes Dana’s whipping: Weylin dragged me a few feet, then pushed me hard. I fell, knocked myself breathless. I never saw where the whip came from, never even saw the first blow coming. But it came – like a hot iron across my back, burning into me through my light shirt, scaring my skin … I screamed, convulsed. Weylin struck again and again, until I couldn’t have gotten up at gunpoint. I kept trying to crawl away from the blows, but I didn’t have the strength or the coordination to get far. I may have been still screaming or just whimpering, I couldn’t tell. All I was really aware of was the pain. I thought Weylin meant to kill me. I thought I would die on the ground there with a mouth full of dirt and blood and a white man cursing and lecturing as he beat me. By then, I almost wanted to die. Anything to stop the pain. I vomited. And I vomited again because I couldn’t move my face away. (Butler 107)This quotation feels painful to read not only because of the specific graphic depictions of pain that Dana faces, but also because of the multitude of them. Butler could have just as easily stopped at the first sentence or two in depicting Dana’s whipping, but she continues in order to drive home the pain that Dana felt to the reader. She makes this passage so long and descriptive in order to do justice to the pain that real slaves represented by Dana felt at the hands of their cruel white masters. For instance, Dana not only recounts, “I screamed, convulsed,” but also, “I kept trying to crawl away from the blows, but I didn’t have the strength,” and “I vomited. And I vomited again because I couldn’t move my face away.” Butler includes all three of these very graphic images in order to pay homage to what real slaves in the African Diaspora went through. Watering these pains down would do a disservice to history, and, therefore people of the African Diaspora. Having readers understand what these people went through feels integral to telling these stories accurately.
Perhaps some people think that these violent scenes make media such as Sankofa and Kindred less accessible to a wide audience. After all, sensitive people who might be more easily triggered by violent scenes would be less inclined to consume these materials. Children might not be able to handle such intense emotions that violent scenes elicit. However, it genuinely seems as though these narratives need these violent scenes in order to be true and honest. As Haile Gerima put it, “the entertainment format in conventional cinema is a romanticized conception of society as opposed to the very harsh and cold realities which characterize black existence.” Therefore, sacrificing viewership is an unfortunate consequence that authors of the most noble historical depictions of oppressed people such as slaves in the African Diaspora must face. Unfortunately, these moments in history cannot be watered down without disrespecting an entire segment of the population. The graphic violence in Kindred and Sankofa feels necessary for the radical reclamation of the violent truths that the real people represented in these narratives were forced to endure.
Butler, Octavia E. Kindred. Beacon Press, 2003.
Gerima , Halie, director. Sankofa. 1993.
Yearwood, Graham de Lisle. Black Cinema Aesthetics: Issues in Independent Black Filmmaking. Center for Afro-American Studies – Ohio University, 1982.
Power in Kindred: The Development of Dana’s Agency Over the Course of the Novel
In the novel Kindred, Octavia Butler tells the story of Dana and Kevin, an interracial married couple living in 1976 who repeatedly travel back to the time and place of Dana’s ancestors. Butler’s plot brings up agency, which can be defined as one’s ability to think and act individually without the influence of others. Dana’s agency over her situation develops over the course of the novel. In the beginning, when Rufus blackmails her into burning a map, Dana has no agency. Later, in the chapter “The Fight,” Dana demonstrates an increase in agency when she challenges the power dynamic between her and Rufus. Towards the end of the novel, she uses the power she gains from her time-travel to threaten Rufus’ father and regain control of her situation. Overall, as the novel progresses, Butler depicts Dana’s change from submissive to opportunistic to reveal an increase in agency. Ultimately this suggests, a sense of agency can be developed with knowledge.
At first, Dana has no agency since Rufus’ blackmail prevents her from having control of the situation. In the beginning of the chapter, “The Fight,” Rufus promises to mail Dana’s letter to Kevin if she will burn her map of Maryland. Dana protests this form of blackmail; however, she submits to Rufus’ request. Rufus says, “‘That map is still bothering me. Listen. If you want me to get that letter to town soon, you put the map in the fire, too.’ I turned to face him, dismayed. More blackmail. I had thought that was over between us” (142). Saying that the map was “bothering” instead of “vulgar” suggests that Rufus views the map as only a minor annoyance. Therefore, when Rufus goes to drastic measures to meet this small desire, Butler reveals his extreme power and agency. However, unlike Rufus, Dana is powerless. In writing that Dana feels “dismayed,” Butler demonstrates Dana’s hopelessness upon realizing that she has no control over the situation because for Dana, the burning of the map was not a negotiation or choice. Dana also thinks, “I wanted to ask him what he would do with my letter if I didn’t return the map. I wanted to ask, but I didn’t want to hear an answer that might send me out to face another patrol or earn another whipping” (Butler 143). Repeatedly using the phrase “I wanted to” instead of “I did” emphasizes Dana’s conformity because instead of having agency and disagreeing with Rufus, Dana corners her thoughts and yields to him. Dana’s potential punishment of “facing another patrol or earning another whipping” and her fear of not being in contact with Kevin limit her agency because in both examples Dana must rely on Rufus to fulfill her desires. Butler uses these two different examples to indicate the scope of Rufus’s control, as Rufus has agency over both Dana’s physical and emotional state. Thus, Dana lacks agency at the beginning of the novel since she must remain dependent on Rufus in order to reunite with her husband and remain safe.
However, as the novel progresses, Dana shows a slight increase in agency when she disputes Rufus. As Dana and Kevin are escaping, Rufus intervenes and invites them to dinner at his estate. Rufus tries to manipulate Kevin and Dana into going back to the house so that he can keep Dana for himself and assuage his fears of abandonment by possessing her in some way. As a response, Dana challenges and insults Rufus. Butler writes,“‘Still trying to get other people to do your dirty work for you, aren’t you, Rufe’ I said bitterly. ‘First your father, now Kevin. To think I wasted my time saving your worthless life!” I stepped towards the mare and caught her reins to remount. At that moment, Rufus’s composure broke. ‘You’re not leaving!’ he shouted. He sort of crouched around the gun, clearly on the verge of firing. ‘Damn you, you’re not leaving me!’ He was going to shoot. I had pushed him too far. I was Alice all over again, rejecting him” (Butler 187). Firstly, Dana ¨bitterly¨ replies to Rufus to demonstrate her rebelliousness and non-conformity to him. Even when she is held at gunpoint, Dana insults Rufus saying, ¨To think I wasted my time saving your worthless life!¨ In this moment, Dana challenges the power dynamic between herself and Rufus because when Rufus exhibits his superiority, holding a gun, she bickers him nevertheless. Rufus’ ¨composure breaking¨ suggests he has lost agency in the situation, as his decrease in composure results in a decrease in power. The fact that Dana refuses to submit to Rufus after he repeatedly says “you’re not leaving me” indicates that she has agency and power over him because he has a pleading and unstable tone. However, Dana does not have complete agency over her situation since her tone shifts from confident to fearful. In saying ¨I had pushed him too far,¨ Dana feels pity for Rufus because when her agency increased, Rufus’ agency deteriorated. The fact that she feels pity for weakening Rufus indicates that Dana herself is losing power because in showing compassion, she shows weakness too. In sum, Dana demonstrates an increase in agency when she refutes Rufus, although she does have complete control over her situation.
At the end of the novel, Dana uses her time-travel situation to threaten Tom Weylin and demonstrate an increase agency. Because Dana has knowledge of modern medicine, she is the only person that can aid Rufus when he is injured. Dana uses this ability to intimidate Tom Weylin. Butler writes, “If you can manage to put up with me a little more humanely, I’ll go on doing what I can for Mister Rufus. He frowned. ‘Now what are you talking about?’ ‘I’m saying the day I’m beaten just once more, your son is on his own’ His eyes widened, perhaps in surprise. Then he began to tremble. I had never seen a man literally tremble with anger…’Crazy or sane, I mean what I say.’ My back and side ached as though to warn me, but for the moment, I wasn’t afraid” (Butler 201). Tom Weylin “frown[ing]” and his “eyes widen[ing]” reveal his surprised and fearful tone because Dana unexpectedly blackmails him to decrease his authority and thereby increase her own control. Even when Weylin “trembles with anger,” Dana “wasn’t afraid” because she has leverage on him. Moreover, Tom is outraged and recognizes that he can’t do anything to Dana. Weylin shouts, “‘Get out!’…’Go to Rufus. Take care of him. If anything happens to him, I’ll flay you alive’” (201). Because his potential consequence is solely a “flay[ing],” Tom Weylin yields to Dana’s desires and gives her control of her punishment. Tom Weylin’s response to Dana’s blackmail is submissiveness because he acknowledges that Dana is in control of the situation. In addition, Butler contrasts Dana’s previous obedience in the beginning of the novel to her maverick control in the ending to reveal a change in her agency over the novel. Butler writes, “My temper flared suddenly. ‘I don’t give a damn why you did it! I’m just telling you, one human being to another, that I’m grateful. Why can’t you leave it at that!’ The old man’s face went pale. ‘You want a good whipping!’ he said. ‘You must not have had one for a while.’ I said nothing. I realized then, though that if he ever hit me again, I would break his scrawny neck” I would not endure it again” (Butler 200). The detail of Tom Weylin’s face turning “pale” indicates that he has lost authority in the situation because he is showing weakness. Dana’s resistance to Weylin increases her agency since in resisting, she develops the capacity to act independently and to make her own free choices. The fact that even after Tom threatens with a “whipping,” Dana does not fray and submit to Weylin (unlike when she submitted to Rufus in the beginning when he threatened to cut off her communication with her husband) suggests Dana has had an increase in authority, as her previous submissive nature is replaced by rebellious behavior. Moreover, Dana admits she has more agency than Tom when she thinks to herself“I would break his scrawny neck” since she reveals the potential power she has. The line “I would not endure it again” furthers this idea since Dana restates her independent capability and ability to act on her will. Overall, Dana uses the power she has from her situation to gain control over people in a higher position in society.
In sum, Butler uses Dana’s increase in agency throughout the novel to argue that a sense of agency can be developed with intelligence and awareness. At the end of Kindred, Dana demonstrates a great deal of agency when she threatens Tom Weylin. In “The Storm,” Tom Weylin insults Dana’s intelligence when she tries to explain her time traveling situation, however, Dana replies, “If you can manage to put up with me a little more humanely, I’ll go on doing what I can for Mister Rufus” (Butler 200). Dana demonstrates her agency when she replies that she will help Rufus as long as she is never beaten again. Tom realizes that because Dana has knowledge of medicine and the future, she is the only one that can aid his son. Therefore, in this example, Dana’s knowledge is what gives her power to negotiate with him and blackmail him. A real-life example this theme applies to is The Arab Spring. During the Arab Spring, younger generations in the Middle East gained knowledge from the internet about their government. They used that knowledge to gain self-confidence and agency over their situation. Their organizing on Twitter and creation of massive protests often led to regime change. Similar to Dana’s increase in agency, in this example, the information the younger generation gained caused an increase in activism and power. Overall, the capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices can be increased through education and awareness.
A Reflection of the Past: The Links Between Dana and Alice
As one may look into a mirror, the reflections that they see may vary. For Dana Franklin in Octavia Butler’s Kindred (1979), she sees her long lost ancestor Alice Greenwood. The story tells the tale of Dana, a young black woman in the 70’s, and her husband Kevin, a young white author, as they travel to and from the antebellum South of the 1800’s. The book begins with Dana and Kevin unpacking into a new home on Dana’s 26th birthday, until Dana passes out and awakes to find herself near the Weylin plantation. It becomes clear to Dana and Kevin that the goal to her time travelling is to keep Rufus Weylin, who Dana discovers to be her ancestor, safe in order to carry on their line. Dana travels approximately six times to the Weylin plantation in the past, each time getting more and more trying and dangerous for Dana. Soon after meeting Rufus, Dana meets Alice and discovers her to be the other half of her ancestry. Knowing these pieces of information, Dana goes to the extremes to keep Rufus and Alice alive each time she travels to the past. Due to her role as ancestor to Dana, Alice becomes an extremely important character in Kindred because she represents a version of who Dana would be if she were born in the past, a reflection of Dana herself, and a foil to Dana within the story. Octavia Butler carefully creates Alice Greenwood to be an incredibly vital character and mirror to Dana Franklin, and thus is worthy of careful analysis.
While Dana may not have been born in the early 1800’s, she quickly adapts to the time and the customs that accompany it. The antebellum South creates a sense of an alternate reality for Dana and Alice, Dana’s distant relative, slowly begins to represent what Dana would have been like if she had been born into this time. Aside from the obvious similarities, such as their ethnicity and heritage, Dana and Alice are often compared. This can be seen when Rufus gets drunk and stumbles into Alice’s cabin: “’Behold the woman,’ he said. And he looked from one to the other of us. ‘You really are only one woman. Did you know that?’” (Butler 228). Alice explains after he leaves that Rufus meant that “’[h]e likes me in bed, and you out of bed, and you and I look alike if you can believe what people say…. Anyway, all that means we’re two halves of the same woman….” (Butler 228). This scene shows that Rufus sees the two of them the same way, and that if Dana had been born in the same time and had been less educated she might have been in the same situation that Alice was currently in. In this same sense, Dana and Alice can be drawn upon and compared to be the same person. Alice represents a mirrored image of Dana, one less educated and from a more open-minded time, and in turn draws on Dana’s character to make several important points about gender and race issues within Kindred. The scene in which Dana considers Alice’s future with Rufus and how she would come to conceive Dana’s ancestor shows this concept immensely by Dana saying, “Alice Greenwood. How would she marry this boy? Or would it be marriage? And why hadn’t someone in my family mentioned that Rufus Weylin was white?” (Butler 28). By questioning her heritage and how it came to be, focusing solely on Alice and Rufus’ mixed relationship, demonstrates Dana’s own slight obsession with someone in her family being white, as her uncle had when she introduced the thought of Dana marrying Kevin, another white man: “[n]ow … it’s as though I’ve rejected him. Or at least that’s the way he feels …. He wants me to marry someone like him – someone who looks like him. A black man.” (Butler 111). In another scene in “The Fight”, shows Dana and Alice talking about Kevin and Rufus, where Alice says that Kevin is just like Rufus just because of the color of their skin (Butler 168). This creates another parallel between the lives of Dana and Alice, but more specifically their relationships with white men. By portraying Alice to be a reflection of Dana, Octavia Butler paints a heart wrenching portrait of the historical south and how racism travels, just as Dana and Kevin do, through time.
To contrast such stark resemblances, Butler also portrays Alice as Dana’s foil. While there are many foils within Kindred, however one that has such a lasting effect on the plot of the book is Alice’s foil against Dana. Alice’s true history of slavery and firsthand experience of the antebellum south makes way for discussion on Dana’s disfigured heritage. Alice represents the true African American slave, while Alice comments that Dana, “[will] care. And you’ll help me. Else, you’d have to see yourself for the white nigger you are, and you couldn’t stand that,” (Butler 235). Alice says this to Dana to convince her to help Alice escape the Weylin plantation with her two surviving children. Alice and Dana can also be contrasted by looking at their language. Dana is constantly being confronted by how she talks by a young Rufus when he tells Dana “[y]ou don’t talk right” or when Nigel tells Dana “[y]ou sure do talk funny” (Butler 30, 60), while Alice’s way of speech is considered normal. However, point of view is one of the most important differences between Alice and Dana. Dana represents a more modern, open minded society and believes that her survival and the fight for her life would be better than living a life of slavery and condemnation, while Alice was raised in a society that supports and allows racism and slavery and in turn took her own life, representing the idea that death was more kind than the life she was living. Butler creates Alice as a warped, opposite of Dana in order to represent truly important topics both within the book and in the real world, and presents Alice as one of the most pivotal characters within the story.
Kindred covers vital topics of racism, outside agents, sympathy versus empathy, slavery, and more within its profound and complex characters. Dana Franklin and Alice Greenwood create interesting dynamics that truly define the struggles of the past, and even the present, while establishing heartbreaking relationships amongst all of the characters. Alice represents a mirror to Dana’s own character and what Dana would have been like if she had been born within the years of slavery. On the other hand, Alice also represents a warped image of Dana, or the polar opposite of her, in order to show the argument of sympathy versus empathy. Dana cannot understand fully the life of a slave even though her ancestors were slaves and she is sent back in time to witness slavery, so she becomes an outside agent and a sympathizer. Alice represents the empathizer in these situations. Octavia Butler crafts a true work of literary art through her tantalizing relationships between her characters as seen through the time they dwell in, specifically within the relationship between Alice and Dana. Butler’s work forces readers to look into the mirror and see themselves through a mirror and evaluate themselves as outside agents, and in turn reevaluate their own actions, making Kindred a timeless piece of fiction worthy of much praise.
Kindred Character Analysis: Alice Greenwood
Octavia E. Butler’s novel Kindred details the harrowing journey of 26-year-old Dana Franklin. A modern black woman from 1970s Los Angeles, Dana is continuously jerked back through time to the land of her ancestors: early 1800s Maryland. Her task? Save her white ancestor, Rufus Weylin, from death. The risk? If she does not, she may never be born. As an educated black woman in this time of slavery, she must watch everything she says and does just to survive, and she learns to rely upon the tight-knit slave community to help her through. One figure in particular, however, stands out to Dana as who she could have been, had she been born in this time period. That figure is Alice Greenwood, born free but forced into slavery through Rufus’s cruelty. Throughout this narrative, Alice’s example is a grim reminder of what people will do just to survive, and a caution to Dana to be wary of becoming complacent. Alice exhibits multiple qualities as the novel progresses, starting with strength, moving forward to resolve, and ultimately ending in despair as she is pushed past her breaking point.
First, Alice does exhibit great strength throughout the narrative. The first encounter Dana has with Alice occurs when Alice is a small child. Alice and her mother are free black women, according to Rufus (28), but Alice’s father is a slave, who sneaks out at night to visit his family (35). Dana sees patrollers rip him out of the house and strip him and his wife naked before whipping him. Alice witnesses this occur, and does “weep noisily against her mother’s leg” (36), but when the patrollers are gone, she quietly goes to her mother’s side and does not show fear when Dana calls to her. To see such horrible experiences and still be able to trust others shows me that Alice has a great deal of inner strength, which she definitely requires being a black woman in a slave state.
However, it may be easier for children to show strength as life has not yet broken them. As Alice grows older, her strength does threaten to break. She works through it the best way she can by showing resolve, defined as the determination to stick to a plan. Her life circumstances become miserable when she is stripped of her dignity and freedom to serve Rufus Weylin’s aggressive appetites. Although she often snaps at Dana, calling her a traitor and a “mammy” figure. and has mood swings, she is willing to do whatever it takes to survive. Dana often thinks to herself that she and Alice could have been the same person if Dana were born in a different time, and knows that it’s hard to criticize another person’s decisions when Alice was just doing what she had to do to stay alive.
But one person can only take so much pain, and Alice’s resolve eventually gives way to despair and the loss of all her hope. Her miseries started strong by being born black in the antebellum South, and the loss of her freedom at Rufus Weylin’s demands also was a great shock to her (157). She also suffered much as Rufus’s mistress and being forced into his bed each night, as well as being abused by him physically at least once that Dana knows of. It isn’t until Rufus threatens her children that Alice breaks completely. Dana discovers on her last visit that Alice has hung herself (248). As Dana begins to investigate what led to this, she discovers that rufus pretended to sell Alice and his children, Joseph and Hagar, to get back at Alice for attempting to runaway (251). Alice’s loss of her children led to the breaking point, resulting in a tragic suicide.
In a world where she had no rights under the law and virtually zero prospects for happiness other than the love of her children, losing them meant there was nothing left to live for. Dana realizes that this choice is not selfish, and the responsibility to live life can be overwhelming for those who have been pushed this far. Dana is grateful that her life took a different path. Alice is a strong woman full of resolve; however, even strong women can be pushed to despair. In a cruel world, Alice shines as a person of self-honesty and the willingness to protect her own life and her children’s lives. Her life and death serve as a strong reminder to the rest of us of the importance of kindness, independence, and the continuing need for social justice in our world.