Summary: The Fire, Part 6

Kevin has packed a bag of items that Dana might need if she time travels again—clothes, a knife, shoes—and fastens it to her with rope. Dana tells him about her most recent experience in the past, and they discuss how she can defend herself if she returns again. They look at maps and read about certificates of freedom and passes, which would help Dana avoid trouble. Kevin theorizes that Dana returns home when she fears for her life. She worries that she won’t be able to survive more trips to the past.

Analysis: The Fire

Because Dana comes from modern day, we can identify with her emotional responses. Like her, we have grown up in a country plagued by racism and by the legacy of slavery but not by the system of slavery itself. Therefore, we share her outsider perspective on the antebellum South. When Dana travels back in time, we imagine that we might react to events as she does. When she experiences shock at Rufus’s casual use of the word nigger, we share her surprise. When she cannot help a slave being beaten by a band of white men, her shame and horror are akin to what we might feel in the same situation. Our connection to Dana means that we are not allowed to see slavery as a relic of the past. Instead, like Dana, we are plunged forcibly into the midst of the slave system, while retaining our modern sensibilities. The Weylins are a standard white family living on a standard plantation. In another novel, they might come off as generic representatives of their time. In Butler’s novel, however, they are vividly alive because we see them through Dana’s eyes.

By using traditional epic devices, Butler gives Kindred weight and a sense of timelessness. The chapter titles (“The River,” “The Fire,” “The Fall,” and so on) reflect the epic nature of the story. Like many epics, Kindred is episodic and rhythmic. Each chapter begins in the twentieth century, with Dana at home in California. Then Dana is whisked away to the South, where she saves Rufus’s life. After various episodes occur, each of varying duration, someone gets violent with Dana, and she returns to California. Like other epic heroes, Dana struggles to survive her enemies’ attacks and return home to her loved one. Butler’s novel both compares itself to and differentiates itself from classic epics. Dana’s gender and race distinguish her from traditional epic protagonists. And her enemies are not fantastical, as are the enemies of a hero such as Odysseus. Rather than fighting surreal creatures, Dana must fight her way through real history. And while Dana’s forced journey makes her similar to other epic heroes, hers is a journey through time, as opposed to a more conventional journey through space.

Rufus and Dana’s relationship gets underway at a time when Dana has some sway over Rufus. Not only is she older than him at this point in her travels, but she is also strange to him, and her strangeness makes him wary and predisposed to listen. The tenor of Dana’s and Rufus’s early meetings sets a precedent, and Dana is later able to exert some control over a man who, by the standards of his day, has no cause to obey her or even consider her opinions worthy of notice. In this section, their struggle over the word nigger provides a précis of their relationship. The n-word, now incendiary, is part of Rufus’s everyday vocabulary. Without doing so consciously, Rufus claims the right to oppress Dana by using the word casually in conversation. Although baffled, he does agree to Dana’s request that he call her a black woman. Still, his agreement is unnecessary. If Rufus feels like being magnanimous, he can be. Equally, if he feels like using the n-word, he can do that too. His race and gender give him complete power, even as a young boy. He likes Dana and fears her a bit, so at times he responds to her, but his responsiveness is always whimsical and could be reversed at any time.