Kindred | Study Guide

Octavia Butler

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Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe explains the themes in Octavia Butler's novel Kindred.

Kindred | Themes


Power Over/Power Under

The theme of power is dominant throughout the novel. Butler shows this major theme through her depiction of the institution of slavery in the antebellum setting and through the various relationships between the characters. Dana and Rufus experience the push and pull of their connection across time and are bound to each other for existence. In many ways, they are threats to each other—for instance, Rufus threatens to sell or punish slaves to get Dana to do certain tasks for him. Likewise, Dana asserts her power when she can, and ultimately this gives her the upper hand.

Marriages in the antebellum era consisted of a clear hierarchy in which the man was the head of the household, while in the modern era, couples often struggle to achieve equality in their marital relationships. Dana and Kevin do not escape these struggles; in fact, they are intensified in an interracial marriage. For example, when Kevin requests that Dana type up his handwritten novel pages, she first acquiesces but then refuses, sensing the inequity of such an arrangement. In a moment of situational irony, Dana agrees to take up her pen in the antebellum setting to write letters for Rufus.

Slavery, time travel, and self-inflicted wounds support this major theme. The recurring setting of antebellum Maryland depicts the power dynamics among whites and blacks. Attempts at freedom can be put down in the most brutal of ways—for example, the mutilation of Isaac's ears and his ultimate sale. Without time travel, Dana would not be able to experience these horrors firsthand, which serves to expose the extreme trauma of an entire group and highlight the effects still lingering in the modern day. The motif of self-inflicted wounds exposes the theme of power in its rawest sense. By cutting her wrists, Dana achieves the power to leave the antebellum setting and return to her 1976 timeline. In a parallel display of power, Alice hangs herself to escape Rufus's power, leaving him bereft and alone.


The theme of violence in the novel runs throughout the antebellum setting, pulling readers into the horrific actions of the time period. The slavery motif supports this theme, as does the time travel motif.

Violence is committed against slaves repeatedly throughout the novel. Whippings occur to show slaves they should not talk back or attempt to run away. Harsher punishments for escape attempts are doled out in the form of dog attacks or bodily mutilations. The rape of women slaves is a form of routine violence. There is no shame in committing violence in the fields to make slaves work harder; the brutal overseers incite fear and intentionally humiliate their slaves. When Rufus makes Dana work in the fields as punishment, she does not think she can go on working, but the idea of violence looming in the form of a whip makes her work.

The wounds Dana carries from the past to her present expose the violence of the antebellum setting. Her scars from whippings heal better than those of the slaves, but her skin is still marked, revealing an outward sign of the brutal acts she has endured. Dana's severed arm, symbolically wedged between the two settings, represents the emptiness experienced by those who endure similar suffering. Dana concludes in "The Fight" that "slavery was a long slow process of dulling"; the dull acceptance occurs only after horrendous moments of punctuated violence.

Kinship Ties

Dana's kinship tie to Rufus creates the time travel "calling" through which Rufus beckons Dana to save his life, thus ensuring her own existence. Their relationship, marred by the backdrop of slavery, holds itself together in the push and pull of negotiation that exists in most familial connections. Dana cannot fathom at times how and why she is able to forgive Rufus for his cruelties. Ultimately, she defends herself and severs this bond by killing him, though the ancestral tie remains intact through Hagar.

Dana's kinship tie to Alice is marked by familial tensions as well. Alice verbally abuses Dana, who surprises herself with the question of why she takes it. The answer: family. Like sisters who squabble, they come back for more because a kind of safety exists between them. At the core, each knows the other would walk through fire for her. For example, Sarah reveals that Alice defended Dana after she left with Kevin: "She knocked the devil out of a field hand who was runnin' you down."

Last, kinship ties emerge within the black community brought together by slavery. The bonds created by "jumping the broomstick," or marriages between slaves, and having children were strong and constantly threatened by members of the family being sold. By working together and helping one another, the slaves form bonds tighter than blood; Dana, though an outsider, considers herself a part of this family. These bonds stand in strong contrast to the weak ties between Rufus and his white kin.


Education is a prevalent theme, especially in the antebellum setting, and it is expressed as characters teach one another. For example, Dana and Kevin tutor Rufus, an inattentive student. Dana also tutors young Nigel, a slave. Dana risks much, as does Nigel, for their lessons, yet the act of learning to read empowers Nigel beyond the borders of the plantation. With the ability to read and write, Nigel may one day write his own "pass" to freedom.

Dana sees it as part of her mission to teach Rufus to be more humane toward the slaves and not treat them the way Rufus's father does. She feels it is important to teach him to be kind and empathetic toward the slaves. She wants him to avoid breaking up families and to grant his slaves their freedom in his will. After Alice dies, Dana pushes Rufus to free his and Alice's children.

When Dana teaches Joe—Rufus and Alice's son—she sees a sharp, quick mind ready to learn. After she reveals this observation to Rufus, he takes an interest in the boy, an interest that most likely helps Joe attain his own freedom after the death of his mother.

Dana and Kevin are also educated. Both have to learn to live in the antebellum era. This is much harder for Dana; as a black woman, she must continually walk a fine line between her assumed role as a slave and her actual role as a time-traveling modern woman who has privileges the other slaves do not. She is free to talk to Rufus as she pleases, especially when he is younger, but she has to learn to control her tongue with his mother and father and with other slaves as well. She has to learn to control her temper and pride in order to survive; she watches and learns from the other slaves. Rufus, especially as a child, gives her hints and suggestions about how to act in order to stay out of harm's way. Kevin, as a white man, has an easier time being accepted. While living in the 1800s, Kevin uses his white privilege and knowledge of the Underground Railroad to help slaves escape.

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Questions for Themes

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