Themes, Motifs & Symbols
The Corrupting Influence of Power
Rufus is the prime embodiment of this theme. When we first meet Rufus, he is a young boy. While his race and gender alone give him some measure of authority, his youth renders him relatively powerless, and at this stage in his life, Rufus is a humane, compassionate soul. Despite being bombarded by the message that his skin makes him superior to all African-American people, Rufus’s instinctive moral sense tells him that Alice and Nigel are worthy of his respect and friendship. Yet Rufus’s good instincts prove no match for the power he is given. When he comes into his inheritance and becomes a slave owner, Rufus begins to believe that he has a right to control the lives of others, mete out punishments, and have all of his demands satisfied. A small tyrant, he turns on his friends and elders, abusing Alice and treating Nigel as a subordinate. Like his son Rufus, Tom Weylin succumbs to the corrupting influence of his authority. We never see Weylin as a child, so we don’t know whether his instincts are as sound as his son’s. However, we do see him devolve from a routinely brutal master who uses violence to keep order into a capricious despot who whips slaves for tiny offenses such as talking back to him. With power comes the desire for more power and the conviction that one deserves all the power one accrues. Rufus and Weylin—and men like Jake Edwards and the doctor—don’t consider the possibility that they are benefiting from the wrongheaded conventions of an unjust society. Rather, they convince themselves that they are deserving of the power that falls into their laps.
The Bondage of Familial Love
In Butler’s novel, family ties keep slaves in one place, which makes familial love a tool of those who seek to oppress. The slaves know that if they displease the Weylins in any way, the Weylins might retaliate by selling them away from their families. This is what happens to Sam, who is sold away from his family for the crime of speaking to Dana. The Weylins also encourage family ties as a way to bind the slaves more closely to the plantation. They don’t trust Nigel until he marries Carrie and begins a family. By settling down, Nigel weds himself to the plantation and his life there. He loves his wife and children and wants to support them, so he is less likely to run away, rebel, or plan subversive actions. Sarah, too, is held hostage by her love for Carrie. Weylin knows he could get a good price for Carrie, but she is more valuable to him on the plantation. Not only does Carrie work hard, but she also inspires Sarah to work hard; as long as she has Carrie to protect, Sarah will stay on the plantation and follow Weylin’s orders. Alice is bound to the plantation—and to life—solely by her children. Once Rufus tells her he has sold her children, she has no family to hold her, and she promptly escapes by taking her own life. Family ties account, in part, for Dana’s loyalty to Rufus. Although Rufus mistreats her cruelly, Dana cannot help continuing to save his life. She feels a familial bond to him, and moreover, because he is her ancestor, she must save him to safeguard her own life. Family connections are one of the few sources of joy in the lives of the slaves Butler depicts. At the same time, though, family ties are what force the slaves to remain on the plantation, which is the source of their torment.
As is to be expected in a novel about slavery, race is a key motif. Indeed, Butler stresses the wearisome constancy of race as a motif in Dana’s life, and in the life of other African-Americans on the Weylin plantation. In Maryland, the color of Dana’s skin is the key fact about her. Her intelligence, her youth, her independence, her personality—these qualities certainly change the experience she has and give her a different life than, say, Alice’s. But in the eyes of both black and white characters, her race defines her. It is what dooms her to servitude at the Weylins’. It is also what links her to the best and strongest people around her, as Carrie suggests when she rubs Dana’s cheek to show her that her skin color doesn’t come off. Race defines Butler’s white characters too. Over and over, we see that white skin excuses all ills.
Kindred is a bloody novel, filled with whippings, rape, hangings, dog attacks, and various other brutalities. Butler crams her novel with violent episodes not to shock or titillate but to bring to life the omnipresent terror that African-Americans lived with in the 1800s. The threat of violence informs all of her characters’ decisions and shapes their personalities. The white characters believe it is their right, and even their duty, to inflict bodily harm, and they are coarsened as a result of this belief. The black characters know that any spark of rebelliousness, independence, or cleverness may be rewarded with a whipping, or worse. They are often cowed by this knowledge. Butler argues that violence warps everyone, victim and perpetrator alike.
Butler’s novel toggles back and forth between Dana’s homes. Most obviously, Dana’s homes are her house in California and the Weylin plantation in Maryland. However, the idea of home also applies to the two time periods in which she lives. By the end of the novel, Dana is more at home at the Weylin plantation in the 1800s than she is in her own house in the 1970s. Butler suggests that with time, any place, and any historical era, can come to feel like home. Even those situations that are initially strange and hateful can eventually seem ordinary and even comfortable. The ability to adapt to new homes, as Dana does, can aid in survival. It is not an entirely desirable ability, though. Butler argues that it is the ability to adapt to anything, to feel at home in any mode, that can make whole societies accept shockingly immoral behavior.
The motif of time travel gives structure to each section of Kindred. Episodes open with Dana’s travels backward in time to 1800s Maryland and close with her travels forward in time to 1970s California. Butler does not linger over the fantastical aspects of time travel, or its mechanics. Instead of exploring exactly how Dana’s temporal leaps work, Butler focuses on the results of those leaps. Indeed, as the novel progresses, the otherworldly nature of time travel ceases to be surprising. For us and for Dana, time travel becomes expected, even ordinary. This shift reflects how shockingly easy it is for modern-day people to accept slavery. Just as Dana quickly gets used to the initially bewildering sensation of time travel, she quickly gets used to the initially unthinkable institution of slavery. Butler also stresses Dana’s inability to control her travels. Just as Dana cannot control her fate in Maryland, she cannot control the frequency or duration of her journeys back in time.
In Kindred, whips symbolize the white man’s power and capacity for violence. The men who wield whips in the novel are men to be feared. They are small-minded, angry people who use violence to get what they want, dole out punishment, spur slaves on, or relieve their own irritation. A whip in the hand of a white man embodies all that is evil in the antebellum South. The way the whips function stands for the slow, soul-crushing effect of slavery. Whips have the capacity to kill, but, unlike guns, they kill slowly. They are a premeditated instrument of slow torture. In the same way, slavery kills the soul piece by piece.
Birthdays stand for the cruel cycle of slavery. For the slaves on the Weylin plantation, the birth of infants is a mixed blessing. Although the birth of a child brings with it great joy, it also creates great suffering. The necessity of caring for an infant links parents more closely to the plantation, making it almost impossible for them to consider escape. As the infant grows, the parent must suffer from the knowledge that his or her child is enslaved and must fear the possibility that a family member will be sold. Butler makes Dana’s first trip to Maryland coincide with her birthday to suggest that, like an infant on the Weylins’ plantation, she has been born into suffering. Dana’s final trip to Maryland comes on the Fourth of July, the birthday of the United States. The timing of this trip reminds us that this nation is grounded in a history of agony. Although the birth of the United States brought about great good, it brought pain in equal measure.
In antebellum Maryland, maps stand for the possibility of freedom. For that reason, it is extremely dangerous to possess a map. When Rufus forces Dana to burn her map, he is forcing her to burn her ability to navigate the Maryland shore. When he teaches his son to read a map, he is giving him the ability to seek his own freedom. A person with a map can find his way. A person without one can only go as far as his personal experience and memory allows.
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