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.
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