“The boy already knew more about revenge than I did. What kind of man was he going to grow up into?”
Dana makes this observation about Rufus in part 2 of “The Fire.” In this section, Dana returns to the past for the second time to save Rufus from a fire he started himself. Rufus set his draperies ablaze in retaliation against his father, Weylin, who whipped him for stealing a dollar. The brutality of the punishment is striking to Dana, who comes from a culture in which children are rarely spanked, let alone whipped. At this point in the story, Dana is still easily shocked. She has not grown accustomed to the bloodiness of the past. Yet even at this early stage in the novel, and in Dana’s and Rufus’s relationship, the tenor of their relationship has been established. Rufus comes from a violent world, and he is being raised (and neglected) to be a violent master. Although he is still a child, Rufus already lives an existence in which whippings are a commonplace, and fits of pique result in fires. Although Dana does not answer the question she poses here (“What kind of man was he going to grow up into?”), we can guess, along with her, that he will grow up to be the kind of man his father is: harsh, powerful, and cruel.
“‘Don’t argue with white folks,’ [Luke] had said. ‘Don’t tell them ‘no.’ Don’t let them see you mad. Just say ‘yes, sir.’ Then go ’head and do what you want to do. Might have to take a whippin’ for it later on, but if you want it bad enough, the whippin’ won’t matter much.”
In this quotation, which comes from part 7 of “The Fall,” Luke, a slave, advises his son, Nigel, about how to interact with white people. From Weylin’s perspective, Luke gives satisfaction. He does his work, and he keeps others in line so effectively that he is made overseer. Initially, Dana finds Luke inspiring. He shows her a way to hide one’s internal rebelliousness with an external appearance of servility. Yet later in the novel, she finds that Luke’s carefully calibrated behavior is not enough to save him from disaster: Weylin sells Luke for so-called insubordination. As Rufus puts it, Luke is sold for carrying himself like a white man. Yet the point is not that Luke has let his mask of servility slip, incurring Weylin’s wrath, or that open rebellion is less dangerous than quiet rebellion. Rather, the point is that slaves’ behavior is mostly irrelevant. They may be sold for profit; they may be sold on a whim; they may be sold as punishment for a mostly imaginary crime, as Sam is; they may be kept around for no reason, or in spite of rebellious behavior. They are not in charge of their lives, and their attitudes and actions, even when carefully managed, like Luke’s, are far less important than the caprices of white people.
“[Tom Weylin] wasn’t a monster at all. Just an ordinary man who sometimes did the monstrous things his society said were legal and proper.”
Dana makes this observation in part 6 of “The Fight.” Rufus has just said that Weylin would never whip Dana for something Rufus told her to do, because it is her duty to obey Rufus. He sees this theoretical forbearance as evidence that his father is a fair man. While Dana does not agree with Rufus’s characterization of Weylin as fair, she does believe that Weylin must be analyzed in the context of his time period. This quotation is just one of several instances in which Dana observes that Weylin is not as bad as he could be, that he is not as cruel as some of the other men of his day. Butler may intend for us to agree with Dana’s interpretation. Perhaps a slave owner who whips people to punish them is less hateful than a slave owner who whips people to indulge his own appetite for cruelty. On the other hand, Butler may intend for us to interpret Dana’s grudging sympathy for Weylin as evidence that her stay in Maryland has warped her judgment beyond repair. If morality is absolute, no slave owner, however fair or unfair, may be absolved.
“I could recall walking along the narrow dirt road that ran past the Weylin house and seeing the house, shadowy in twilight, boxy and familiar . . . I could recall feeling relief at seeing the house, feeling that I had come home. And having to stop and correct myself, remind myself that I was in an alien, dangerous place.”
This quotation comes from part 1 of “The Storm.” Dana has just returned from months in the South; Kevin has returned from a five-year stint there. Both characters feel dislocated, as if they have forsaken their real home, Maryland, for a place they no longer recognize. While Dana’s disorientation is not as a severe as Kevin’s—he can’t remember how to operate household items, and his accent has changed—she shares his discomfort with the modern era. More disturbingly, she shares his sense that the Weylin house has become home. Dana’s increasing familiarity with the Weylin plantation accompanies her decreasing independence. The more time she spends in Maryland, the less she thinks of herself as her own person. In Maryland, everyone around her sees her as a slave—a slave with special privileges and otherworldly powers, but a slave nonetheless. Over time, Dana finds herself in danger of accepting the identity that has been forced on her. In part, this is a matter of survival. She can’t behave as a modern woman would and still hope to avoid death. But in part, Butler suggests, it is a matter of place. Conformity is unavoidable, and we can conform to almost any place, no matter how unfamiliar or brutal. Before Dana knows it, her fear of the Weylin house has changed from instinctual to intellectual. Fear becomes something she knows she should feel but does not actually feel.
“[The slaves] seemed to like [Rufus], hold him in contempt, and fear him all at the same time. . . . I had thought my feelings were complicated because he and I had such a strange relationship. But then, slavery of any kind fostered strange relationships.”
This quotation, from part 11 of “The Storm,” is inspired by the slaves’ behavior toward Rufus at the husking party. Rufus has just doled out whiskey and good food. The slaves shower Rufus with gratitude to his face and ridicule him behind his back. Dana is surprised to find that the slaves feel the same simultaneous and contradictory emotions toward Rufus that she herself feels. They, like she, feel both affection and hatred for Rufus. A lifetime of enslavement has beaten submissiveness into the slaves, and they can’t help but appreciate the little scraps Rufus throws them, the food and alcohol, the small mercies, the occasional gesture of goodwill. At the same time, though, they despise him. In the same way, Dana half-loves Rufus. She is grateful for his occasional kindness, and she can’t help but feel affection for him. At the same time, she loathes him. Dana recognizes in this passage that she is not as different from the slaves as she thought she was, at least in her attitude toward Rufus.