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As one may look into a mirror, the reflections that they see may vary. For Dana Franklin in Octavia Butler’s Kindred (1979), she sees her long lost ancestor Alice Greenwood. The story tells the tale of Dana, a young black woman in the 70’s, and her husband Kevin, a young white author, as they travel to and from the antebellum South of the 1800’s. The book begins with Dana and Kevin unpacking into a new home on Dana’s 26th birthday, until Dana passes out and awakes to find herself near the Weylin plantation. It becomes clear to Dana and Kevin that the goal to her time travelling is to keep Rufus Weylin, who Dana discovers to be her ancestor, safe in order to carry on their line. Dana travels approximately six times to the Weylin plantation in the past, each time getting more and more trying and dangerous for Dana. Soon after meeting Rufus, Dana meets Alice and discovers her to be the other half of her ancestry. Knowing these pieces of information, Dana goes to the extremes to keep Rufus and Alice alive each time she travels to the past. Due to her role as ancestor to Dana, Alice becomes an extremely important character in Kindred because she represents a version of who Dana would be if she were born in the past, a reflection of Dana herself, and a foil to Dana within the story. Octavia Butler carefully creates Alice Greenwood to be an incredibly vital character and mirror to Dana Franklin, and thus is worthy of careful analysis.
While Dana may not have been born in the early 1800’s, she quickly adapts to the time and the customs that accompany it. The antebellum South creates a sense of an alternate reality for Dana and Alice, Dana’s distant relative, slowly begins to represent what Dana would have been like if she had been born into this time. Aside from the obvious similarities, such as their ethnicity and heritage, Dana and Alice are often compared. This can be seen when Rufus gets drunk and stumbles into Alice’s cabin: “’Behold the woman,’ he said. And he looked from one to the other of us. ‘You really are only one woman. Did you know that?’” (Butler 228). Alice explains after he leaves that Rufus meant that “’[h]e likes me in bed, and you out of bed, and you and I look alike if you can believe what people say…. Anyway, all that means we’re two halves of the same woman….” (Butler 228). This scene shows that Rufus sees the two of them the same way, and that if Dana had been born in the same time and had been less educated she might have been in the same situation that Alice was currently in. In this same sense, Dana and Alice can be drawn upon and compared to be the same person. Alice represents a mirrored image of Dana, one less educated and from a more open-minded time, and in turn draws on Dana’s character to make several important points about gender and race issues within Kindred. The scene in which Dana considers Alice’s future with Rufus and how she would come to conceive Dana’s ancestor shows this concept immensely by Dana saying, “Alice Greenwood. How would she marry this boy? Or would it be marriage? And why hadn’t someone in my family mentioned that Rufus Weylin was white?” (Butler 28). By questioning her heritage and how it came to be, focusing solely on Alice and Rufus’ mixed relationship, demonstrates Dana’s own slight obsession with someone in her family being white, as her uncle had when she introduced the thought of Dana marrying Kevin, another white man: “[n]ow … it’s as though I’ve rejected him. Or at least that’s the way he feels …. He wants me to marry someone like him – someone who looks like him. A black man.” (Butler 111). In another scene in “The Fight”, shows Dana and Alice talking about Kevin and Rufus, where Alice says that Kevin is just like Rufus just because of the color of their skin (Butler 168). This creates another parallel between the lives of Dana and Alice, but more specifically their relationships with white men. By portraying Alice to be a reflection of Dana, Octavia Butler paints a heart wrenching portrait of the historical south and how racism travels, just as Dana and Kevin do, through time.
To contrast such stark resemblances, Butler also portrays Alice as Dana’s foil. While there are many foils within Kindred, however one that has such a lasting effect on the plot of the book is Alice’s foil against Dana. Alice’s true history of slavery and firsthand experience of the antebellum south makes way for discussion on Dana’s disfigured heritage. Alice represents the true African American slave, while Alice comments that Dana, “[will] care. And you’ll help me. Else, you’d have to see yourself for the white nigger you are, and you couldn’t stand that,” (Butler 235). Alice says this to Dana to convince her to help Alice escape the Weylin plantation with her two surviving children. Alice and Dana can also be contrasted by looking at their language. Dana is constantly being confronted by how she talks by a young Rufus when he tells Dana “[y]ou don’t talk right” or when Nigel tells Dana “[y]ou sure do talk funny” (Butler 30, 60), while Alice’s way of speech is considered normal. However, point of view is one of the most important differences between Alice and Dana. Dana represents a more modern, open minded society and believes that her survival and the fight for her life would be better than living a life of slavery and condemnation, while Alice was raised in a society that supports and allows racism and slavery and in turn took her own life, representing the idea that death was more kind than the life she was living. Butler creates Alice as a warped, opposite of Dana in order to represent truly important topics both within the book and in the real world, and presents Alice as one of the most pivotal characters within the story.
Kindred covers vital topics of racism, outside agents, sympathy versus empathy, slavery, and more within its profound and complex characters. Dana Franklin and Alice Greenwood create interesting dynamics that truly define the struggles of the past, and even the present, while establishing heartbreaking relationships amongst all of the characters. Alice represents a mirror to Dana’s own character and what Dana would have been like if she had been born within the years of slavery. On the other hand, Alice also represents a warped image of Dana, or the polar opposite of her, in order to show the argument of sympathy versus empathy. Dana cannot understand fully the life of a slave even though her ancestors were slaves and she is sent back in time to witness slavery, so she becomes an outside agent and a sympathizer. Alice represents the empathizer in these situations. Octavia Butler crafts a true work of literary art through her tantalizing relationships between her characters as seen through the time they dwell in, specifically within the relationship between Alice and Dana. Butler’s work forces readers to look into the mirror and see themselves through a mirror and evaluate themselves as outside agents, and in turn reevaluate their own actions, making Kindred a timeless piece of fiction worthy of much praise.
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