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Kindred | Study Guide

Octavia Butler

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Kindred | Discussion Questions 11 - 20


In Kindred, how does Dana determine her location in the section "The Fire"?

At first Dana uses logic to figure out where she is; she can hear Rufus's Southern accent, so she determines that she is in the South. Rufus also uses derogatory and archaic terms to refer to blacks, and that, along with the darkness outside, indicates that she is in a different time zone. Dana concludes from these details that she has traveled in time and place. Then, once she has gained Rufus's trust, she asks him some direct questions and learns that they are across the bay from Baltimore and that the year is 1815.

In "The Fire" chapter of Kindred, what connections does Dana draw between herself and Rufus?

After learning that Rufus's last name is Weylin and that Alice, a free black girl, lives nearby, Dana concludes that Alice and Rufus are the parents to Dana's distant relation, Hagar. Because of Dana's resemblance to Alice, Rufus even asks Dana if they are related. Although Dana lies and says they are not, her similarity to Alice and to Alice's mother seems to confirm the kinship tie. Though Dana had not known she had a white relative, it does not surprise her, given the violent history of slavery in the United States and the sexual violence that women slaves often suffered at the hands of their owners. Dana also sees a connection with Rufus in their shared need to ensure their existence. Dana knows that she does not want to "test the paradox" of the situation by not saving Rufus if he needs her to do so, as that could disrupt the existence of her family members and herself.

In Kindred, why does Dana say that meeting a white person in the fields of antebellum Maryland at night scares her more than "street violence" in 1976?

Dana understands that she has traveled to a past in which slavery is still legal. As a black woman wandering at night, without the requisite free papers, she is right to be scared. She knows that enslaved black people have no rights in the antebellum South. She knows that if a white person finds her wandering at night, she could be beaten, raped, or hauled off to be sold into slavery. At this point in the novel, she is uncertain about how to return to 1976, and she fears that if she is caught by a white patrol, she may be harmed or stuck permanently in the past.

How does Butler use imagery in the whipping scene in "The Fire" chapter of Kindred?

Butler uses detailed imagery to paint a grotesque scene of violence and an accurate depiction of slavery for a modern reader. The sense of sound helps the reader hear the violence, with words like cracked used for the whip as it strikes. Alice "wept noisily." The man being beaten breathes in gasps and eventually cries out in pain. Dana narrates that she hears "low gut-wrenching sounds" and "every ragged breath, every cry, every cut of the whip." Butler also evokes the sense of smell, with Dana commenting that she can smell the beaten man's sweat. Dana, hidden from view of the patrollers, witnesses the horrible action and watches the man's "body jerking, convulsing, straining against the rope," which invokes the reader's sense of sight.

In Kindred, what repercussions are implied by the statement "He'll never own a child of mine"?

Alice's mother tells this to Dana in "The Fire" in reference to the possibility of Tom Weylin owning her daughter Alice. But Dana sees how exposed to patrols Alice and her mother are. Living alone in a clearing in the woods, they are vulnerable to white men patrolling and causing problems for free black women. Dana wonders how long their freedom can last in antebellum Maryland. Also, Dana has future information in her knowledge bank; she knows from the names listed in her family Bible that Rufus and Alice have children together. Given that Alice is black and Rufus is white, this could mean that Alice is owned by the Weylins at some point in the future. Though Alice's mother seems to expect her daughter to remain free, the opposite occurs later in the novel.

What does Dana mean when she says in "The Fire" section of Kindred, "My squeamishness belonged in another age, but I'd brought it along with me"?

Dana thinks about squeamishness while she is being attacked by the patrolman who believes she is Alice's mother. The scene, action-packed and violent, shows Dana in a struggle. The white man overcomes her, pins her down, and beats her. The brutality shocks Dana, and at one moment, with her fingers near his eyes, she knows she can truly harm the patrol if she pokes out his eyes with her fingers. This is when her "squeamishness" comes in, because she cannot make herself commit the grotesque act. She comes from a time period during which violence and survival are different, mainly because violence is not sanctioned by a system like slavery. With laws to protect the rights of most individuals in 1976, Dana has the option to turn to the law, rather than one-on-one violence, to seek justice. This ideal temporarily gets in the way of her self-defense when she is in the 1800s.

Why does Dana want to avoid the hospital in "The Fire" in Kindred?

Dana returns to 1976 California when she is bloody, sore, and terrified that Kevin is the person who tried to rape her in antebellum Maryland. Once she realizes it is Kevin and not the rapist, she feels safer. Kevin wants to take Dana to the hospital to seek some help for what has happened to her. He confirms that Dana vanished for three minutes, and Dana knows she was in the past for several hours. With this in mind, she reasons that she does not want to go to the hospital for fear that she may vanish from the hospital and reappear there when she returns to 1976. She sees no reasonable way for her or Kevin to explain such an occurrence to people in a hospital, so she wants to stay home and rest instead.

What does the metaphor of Kevin as Dana's "anchor" in "The Fire" mean in Kindred?

The description of Kevin as Dana's "anchor" shows that she feels moored by him, much like an anchor secures a ship in place in the water. Kevin demonstrates this kind of security for Dana by believing in her time-traveling experiences. Some people would not. Kevin also helps Dana fill her bag with useful items to take to the past when she travels again. For instance, he gives her a switchblade to defend herself. Kevin also gives her a map of Maryland that he found while researching on her behalf. He plans to do more research at the library on certificates of freedom to help Dana pass as a free black person. Through his support and his provision of useful items and knowledge that she can bring with her to the past, he serves as her anchor in both time periods.

Why do Kevin and Dana suspect that fear plays a role in Dana's time traveling in "The Fire" in Kindred?

After hearing how Dana becomes afraid and dizzy at the sounds of a small animal on the road in the past timeline, Kevin suggests that a fear of danger might be the trigger for her dizziness. That particular fearful moment passes without time travel, perhaps because Dana is not afraid for her life. Dana says, "Rufus's fear of death calls me to him, and my own fear of death sends me home." Unlike some other science-fiction stories, Kindred does not provide a mechanical or magical device for time travel. Instead, Butler bases the movement on human emotions, kinship ties, and the need for survival.

In Kindred, how is Dana's description of her job at a labor agency as a "slave market" an example of both verbal and situational irony?

In a flashback, Dana describes the first time she met Kevin, at which time she was working various low-wage jobs during the day and writing her novel at night. The irony of referring to these jobs as a "slave market" is both verbal and situational. Verbal irony is when words are used to convey the opposite of the literal meaning. Dana and her coworkers refer to their jobs as a "slave market" to express their discontent with the physical nature of the work and the low wages. However, the fact that they are paid for their work supports the opposite fact—this is far from slavery. Even Dana says, "Actually, it was just the opposite of slavery. The people who ran it couldn't have cared less whether or not you showed up to do the work they offered." Situational irony is when there is a disconnect between what a person expects to happen and what actually does happen. The situational irony is that Dana, a free, modern black woman, expects to remain as such. When she is cast back in time and forced to survive real slavery, she witnesses the slave market in its full meaning.

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