Study Guide

Kindred Themes

By Octavia Estelle Butler

  • Violence

    In Kindred, when Dana travels back in time to the age of American slavery, she knows she's going to encounter some violence. Yeah, she's not disappointed. What she doesn't realize is just how much this violence has become a part of everyday life for the slaves she meets. It doesn't take long for this violence to find its way to her, either. Whether it's Tom Weylin pointing a shotgun in her face, whipping her, or kicking her, Dana has almost no option for asserting her rights as an individual without some white person hurting her.

    Questions About Violence

    1. Who tends to commit the most violence in this book? Why?
    2. Who tends to be the biggest victim of violence in this book? Why?
    3. What are some of the strategies Dana uses to avoid violence? Do they work?
    4. What leads to Dana's final decision to use violence on Rufus? How does it turn out?

    Chew on This

    In Kindred, Octavia Butler shows us that sometimes the only way to respond to violence is through violence.

    Kindred shows us that violence travels in a big circle without ever actually accomplishing anything.

  • Race

    Race is the central theme of Kindred. There's just no getting around it. America has a dark history of slavery and few of us take time out of our daily lives to think about what life was really like in those days. But Octavia Butler wants us to consider just how much this history still informs American culture today. The main character Dana, for example, feels pretty removed from slavery until she goes back in time and feels just what it was like to live as a black person at this time. When she finally comes back to the present, she starts seeing all kinds of patterns in people's behavior that definitely continue on from slave times. It's just that no one realizes the connections.

    Questions About Race

    1. How do you think Kevin handles the responsibility of being a white person during slave times? Why?
    2. How do the children of white fathers and black mothers get treated in this book? Can you find particular passages to back up your answer?
    3. How does Dana respond to being called a traitor to her race? Who calls her this and why?

    Chew on This

    In Kindred, we find that race is not just a matter of black and white. It is a complicated issue with many layers of affection and hatred.

    In Kindred, we learn that racism in America isn't just a thing of the past.

  • Slavery

    Whether people like to admit it or not, slavery is a huge part of American history that still has huge implications for today's world. It is almost impossible to look at today's incarceration rates or poverty rates for black people in America without thinking that these things are directly connected to America's history of slavery. Many modern Americans would like to wash their hands of this history and say, "Whatever, I'm not responsible for what happened back then." But this kind of denial is the sort of luxury that a kid born into a poor black neighborhood just doesn't have. The history of slavery still affects that person whether they like it or not, and it's this kind of lingering historical impact that Octavia Butler wants us to take a good hard look at in Kindred.

    Questions About Slavery

    1. Do you think Dana puts up enough of a fight against slavery? Why or why not?
    2. How does Kevin react to the slave-owning culture when he gets stuck in the past? Is it a good reaction? Why?
    3. Why does Rufus want his slaves to think he's a good master? How does he balance (or fail to balance) this impulse with his desire to be obeyed?

    Chew on This

    In Kindred, we learn that slavery is just as much a state of mind as it is a power relationship.

    Kindred reminds us that slavery hasn't really gone anywhere in American culture. It's just taken on a more invisible form.

  • Gender

    It's hard enough for Dana to travel back to slave times as a black person. It's even harder for her to do it as a black woman. Sure, she faces the threat of being whipped or beaten just like the male slaves do. But she also has to deal with the constant threat of sexual violence too. On two occasions she has to fight off a white rapist and at other times she has to convince another slave named Alice to give in to Rufus Weylin's sexual demands. In this sense, Dana is in double danger in Kindred because of her race and her gender.

    Questions About Gender

    1. Does Dana resent having to be "protected" in the past by her white husband Kevin? Why or why not?
    2. How would this book be different if Rufus were a white woman and Dana were a black man? How would their power relationship be different?
    3. What does Tom and Rufus Weylin's behavior tell us about the masculine mindset? How?

    Chew on This

    In Kindred, we learn that being a woman during the slavery era is an even bigger challenge than being black.

    Kindred shows us that there are many types of power one person can have over another. But this power can often be a two-way street, like we see with Dana and Rufus.

  • Family

    It's fair to say that Rufus has a pretty messed up family life. Between his harsh father and his spoiling mother, the kid gets an awful lot of mixed messages. This helps explain why he grows up to be such a jerk when he's older. His mom teaches him to expect the world to give him whatever he wants and his dad teaches him to act violently whenever this doesn't happen. Finally, his mom also teaches him to expect immediate forgiveness from anyone he hurts, especially women. Put it all together and you've got Octavia Butler making some important points in Kindred about how not to raise a kid.

    Questions About Family

    1. How could Tom and Margaret Weylin do a better job of raising Rufus?
    2. How fair is it to blame Rufus' problems on his upbringing? How much of it is his fault?
    3. How are we supposed to interpret the fact that Dana and Rufus are blood relatives? Does the book draw a lot of attention to this fact?

    Chew on This

    In Kindred, we learn that family is usually the number one reason a person turns out bad or good.

    Kindred reminds us that, at the end of the day, we can't blame our family for our behavior as adults. We need to take responsibility.

  • Marriage

    You wouldn't think marriage would be a big deal in Kindred, since interracial marriage wasn't even legal in much of the U.S. until the mid-1900s. But that's exactly why marriage plays such a huge role in this book, especially when you consider that Dana is married to a white man and they must hide their marriage when they travel back in time. Even in the book's present-day setting of 1976, interracial marriage makes some people uncomfortable. But it's a whole different ballgame back in 1815 Maryland, where the mention of interracial marriage could get you thrown in jail—or worse.

    Questions About Marriage

    1. How does Rufus respond when Dana says she's married to Kevin? Why?
    2. Do you believe Rufus when he says he'd marry Alice Greenwood if he could? Why or why not?
    3. How do Kevin and Dana's families react to their engagement? What does it tell us about "modern" attitudes toward race?
    4. How does Kevin get Dana to marry him? What's her initial reaction and why?

    Chew on This

    Kindred shows us that the word "marriage" isn't some timeless, unchanging thing. Its definition has changed in many ways over the centuries and it has meant different things at different times.

    Kindred shows us that marriage is about two human beings who love each other and, well, nothing else.

  • Education

    With education comes power, which in Kindred is exactly why slave owners like Tom Weylin have strict rules against their slaves learning to read or write. Dana tries her best to spread her modern ideas to the slaves on the Weylin plantation, but Weylin whips her brutally when he catches her at it. From that point on, Dana avoids causing any conflict out of fear of getting hurt. You might want to condemn her for giving up too easily. But then again, you've probably never been whipped half to death either.

    Questions About Education

    1. Who are Dana's first reading and writing students? Why do they want to learn?
    2. How does Sarah react when Dana tells her about black people writing books? Why do you think she react that way?
    3. How do Tom and Margaret Weylin react to Dana's ability to read? When is she allowed to read and when is she not?
    4. What does Tom Weylin mean when he says there's a difference between educated and smart?

    Chew on This

    In Kindred, we learn that education must hold a deep power if people are so dead-set on preventing others from having it.

    In Kindred, Octavia Butler shows us that education has limitations when it comes up against violence.

  • Power

    If you could find one general theme that covers every issue in Kindred, power would be a pretty good one. Whether it's gender, race, or class, nearly all the relationships in this book cause us to stop and think about how power influences every aspect of our experience and the experiences of those around us. Power can make us do insane things and it can make us do great things. The trick is to remember which is which, especially when power works so hard to cloud our judgment and forces us into hasty decisions.

    Questions About Power

    1. Who do you think has more power in this book, Dana or Rufus? Why?
    2. Who is the most powerless person in this book? Why?
    3. How does Rufus' power change as he grows into an adult? How does he use it differently?
    4. What is Rufus' biggest source of power over Dana? What is her biggest source of power over him?

    Chew on This

    In Kindred, we learn that power is the main ingredient in almost every human relationship.

    Kindred shows us that you can only have genuine connections between people when you take power out of the equation.