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Kindred | Study Guide

Octavia Butler

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Kindred | Discussion Questions 1 - 10


How is the theme of violence introduced in the prologue of Kindred?

The theme of violence is shown in the opening scene, in which readers learn that the narrator, Dana, has lost her arm. As the prologue progresses, more details show that part of Dana's arm has become wedged inside the wall of her living room. This mysterious scene foreshadows the violent events that will lead up to this moment. Because of her severed arm, Dana's husband, Kevin, is questioned by police; they assume her injury is one of spousal abuse. Though the police do not detain Kevin for this violent act, the stage is set for a plot that involves senseless torture and violence.

How does Butler achieve a mysterious mood in the prologue of Kindred?

Through the jarring opening sentences and stark language, Butler achieves a mood of suspense and mystery. The prologue thrusts readers into the middle of the action, which leaves the audience asking how and why Dana has such a strange injury. Dana's lack of direct answers to the police as to what has caused her lost limb adds to the suspense of her experience. This same mood is heightened when Kevin reports that he told the police Dana's arm was crushed in the living room wall. Though Dana counters that her arm was not exactly "crushed," it is unclear what has happened to her arm, creating mystery. The closing dialogue of the prologue cements the mystery, with neither character sure of what happened. Kevin says, "Then [the police] wanted me to tell them how such a thing could happen. I said I didn't know ... kept telling them I didn't know. And heaven help me, Dana, I don't know." To which Dana responds in a whisper, "Neither do I ... Neither do I."

How do Dana's and Margaret Weylin's reactions to Rufus's near drowning in "The River" compare in Kindred?

Even though Dana experiences dizziness and blurriness before being thrust into another time and place, she reacts quickly to the situation unfolding on the riverbank. She assesses that the small child, Rufus, is drowning and reacts instinctively—she is quickly in the water, retrieving and then resuscitating the boy, even though he is a stranger. In contrast, Margaret Weylin, the boy's mother, runs back and forth along the riverbank crying and calling to her son. She expresses grief and shock without taking any action. Margaret reacts in a hysterical, purely emotional way, which is emphasized through her beating of Dana afterward. Dana displays a calm, level-headed response to the situation and becomes fearful only when a man points a gun at her.

What signs of trauma does Dana show after her first return from time travel in "The River"?

Dana, muddy and soaking wet, returns to her home in California in 1976. The trauma from her experience manifests itself physically and emotionally. She is "shaking with fear, with residual terror that took all the strength out of [her]" from the combined experience of time travel, saving the child, being beaten by his mother, and thinking she would be killed by his father. Kevin grips her by the shoulders, and Dana tells him that he is hurting her, a sign of sensitivity to touch after a physically tasking experience. The narrator realizes that her body aches in the places Margaret Weylin has hit her. She hadn't noticed the traumatic pain as much when it was happening because of the shock of not knowing the place or people at the riverbank. Even though Kevin wraps Dana in a towel, she still shakes and her teeth chatter, which are other signs of trauma. After they have discussed more of what Dana has experienced, Dana knows it was not a hallucination but rather something real that has caused her to be emotionally and physically shaken. She feels like "a victim who survives, but who doesn't feel safe anymore."

In Kindred, how does his role as a modern white man affect Kevin's reaction to Dana's return in "The River"?

Kevin is a man anchored to a modern world, and he approaches Dana's experiences using observations rather than emotions. He notes that when Dana disappears, she is near the bookshelf, and a few seconds later she shows up "on the other side of the room." He sees that she is shaking, cold, wet, and muddy. Though Kevin first sees Dana's experience as imagined or a hallucination, he listens to her and acknowledges that he saw her vanish and then reappear across the room. He relies on these facts to draw conclusions. Logically, however, Kevin cannot explain the experience. Kevin's final conclusion is that Dana should let the entire experience go, something Dana cannot do.

How is the symbol of home undercut in "The River" section of Kindred?

Typically, homes provide safety and shelter. Dana and Kevin are just beginning to fill in the contours of their new home together, negotiating space and organizing their lives. Both are writers, and it is significant that Dana time travels at the moment she is putting away books and Kevin organizing the office. The safe and reliable structure she is creating with Kevin is undercut in that moment, and she no longer feels safe. She can and will be snatched from her home and thrust into another time period in which her life is under constant stress. The home that Dana and Kevin are trying to build cannot protect her from these events.

In Kindred, how does Kevin's belief that Tom Weylin owes Dana gratitude for saving his son show the theme of power over versus power under?

Kevin tells Dana that if she returns to antebellum Maryland, the fact that she saved the son of Tom Weylin (the man who held her at gunpoint) will prevent him from harming her: "If it happens again, and if it's real, the boy's father will know he owes you thanks. He won't hurt you." This comment shows the power over versus power under theme on two levels. First, Kevin, as a white man in 1976, assumes that any man will thank the person who saved his child's life; he does not think about the time period (antebellum South) or the racial differences (white man, black woman). Even though Dana saved Rufus, if Tom Weylin so chooses, he has the right, as a white man in antebellum Maryland, to shoot her—after all, a black woman in this era has no rights. Second, Kevin is in a position of power, if only because, unlike Dana, he is in control of his own body and where it exists. Dana responds, "You don't know what could happen," displaying her realization of her lack of power in controlling the time travel and in dealing with the situations in which she is placed.

In Kindred, how do Kevin's words "let go of it" relate to the chapter title of "The River"?

Kevin tells Dana that she needs to "pull away from" her time-travel experience at the river, saying, "Let yourself pull away from it. ... That sounds like the best thing you can do, whether it was real or not. Let go of it." He uses the image of letting go and floating down the river as a means of helping Dana release her fear and anxiety. This was her first time in antebellum Maryland, and she returns home shocked and frightened. Dana cannot let go of the experience, because she has no power to control when or if it will happen again.

Why does Dana say in "The Fire" chapter of Kindred that the Weylins "made their own limbo and held me in it"?

The term limbo refers to being in an in-between state or a state of waiting; Dana finds herself in a type of limbo because she cannot disassociate herself from the Weylins after the first time-travel episode. The Weylins are real people to Dana, and she is held captive by the situation, waiting for but not knowing if or when they might call her back to their time. She is afraid to leave the house and even showers quickly in fear that she will be called back while showering and show up "naked among strangers." Without having any control over the situation, Dana waits in fear of being called back again. And as she learns later, Rufus will call to her again when he is in danger.

How does Rufus react when Dana puts out the fire in "The Fire" chapter of Kindred?

Dana puts out the fire that Rufus started by throwing the curtain out of the window. Rufus's initial reaction is to look at Dana, "curious and unafraid." She says that someone should use the stick with which he started the fire on him, and this makes Rufus defensive. He says, "You lay a hand on me, and I'll tell my daddy!" By invoking his father, Rufus is trying to transfer the violent punishment he knows he will receive—a whipping—to Dana. Dana realizes she shouldn't have spoken so harshly; she wants Rufus on her side, as she doesn't fully understand her new situation. When Dana says, "You'll have plenty to say to [your father] when he sees those burned draperies," Rufus appears defeated, knowing that he will be punished by Tom Weylin for his actions.

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