Relationship Between The Past and The Present in Octavia Butler’s "Kindred"

About this sample

About this sample


Words: 1825 |

Pages: 4|

10 min read

Published: Mar 18, 2021

Words: 1825|Pages: 4|10 min read

Published: Mar 18, 2021

Octavia Butler’s Kindred involves two central themes of time travel and slavery. Published in 1979, the novel focuses on many issues during slavery in the 1800’s including the abuse of power, gender hierarchy, and the outcome of racial conflict. The novel features a twentieth century black woman, Dana, that is able to travel to the 1800s when necessary to save her white ancestor. She encounters and learns about the complex fate of being a black woman during that time and the necessities for survival. Octavia Butler’s Kindred establishes a strong link between the past and present through presenting traces of the past in the present and the present in the past to emphasize the similarities, and connections focusing specifically on the evolution of history and racial issues or status in both time periods in Kindred.

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Focusing on the historical aspect of the relationship between the past and the present, in the 1970s, The Civil Rights movement had just winded down, and there was still tension among blacks and whites in the United States. Although it was a rise from segregation, society was still separated. Blacks and whites were allowed to be in the same places, but society remained to view them as entirely separate. In history, the 1960s and 1970s portrayed themes of racial inequality, gender inequality, and racial dominance. Butler’s novel includes these themes, addressed in both time periods to display to readers where the problems arise from.

Dana, the main character and narrator of the novel is a young black woman living in 1976 in Los Angeles, married to a white man, Kevin where they are both authors. On her twenty-sixth birthday, Dana finds herself taken to the antebellum South in the nineteenth century, an opposite world with similarities in which she must struggle to establish an identity and live in freedom. Her purpose is to save her ancestor, Rufus, the son of a plantation owner in times of danger, and harm, or she will cease to exist in the future. During her experience, Butler establishes a link between the past in the 1800’s and the present in 1976 to portray a strong link between the two.

The first relationship of the past in the present, and the present in the past is portrayed through Rufus. The relationship between Dana and Rufus becomes more complex the older Rufus gets. Rufus is portrayed as not a typical white man during the 1800s. He does not carry the characteristics of his father, or other slaveowners. He has a complex history of his own that goes against anything history claims white men are.

Another comparison involving Rufus is his relationship with Dana. It is built on the basis of respect, and negotiation. Rufus admires Dana, and her intellect since the beginning of their relationship. However, there is a difference in Dana’s action to the same scenario. Kevin asks Dana to type his manuscripts which she refuses while Rufus asks Dana to write for him, and she has to accept, or she will be punished. This is significant because it demonstrates racial hierarchy, but also the significance of such moments because in the present, a black woman is given the choice to refuse, however in the past, it was seen as disrespectful, and women, solely did not have the choice, but black women ultimately did not have a say in arguing against not doing something a white person, much less a white men would order.

Considering the relationship between Kevin and Dana, Kevin is important to the reader’s perception of the present and the way we understand how the present is relevant. Kevin is a white man of 1976 in Kindred, and his ideals reflect those of the present and the past. He and Dana fight the stereotype of blacks and whites not being able to be together equally. Being married to one another presents problems for the couple, including family disagre ements about their marriage. At the time, society was still hesitant about accepting interracial marriage and interactions. Butler uses Kevin and Dana’s relationship as an example of how the past still affects society. In comparison to the past, in which Rufus was not allowed to love a black woman publicly, Kevin and Dana were viewed in a negative light from their families because they were marrying the opposite race. This creates a racial divide and contributes to the racial hierarchy in society that both the main characters were trying to break in both time periods and provides an understanding that this complex fate is going to remain negatively viewed. Since Kevin and Dana are able to experience the past in a real setting, they grasp the complexity of both time periods and its effects where society relies solely on racial hierarchy status. Society cannot go to the past as Kevin and Dana do, so it must rely on history, and during that time, society following the Civil War in order to make sense of it. This perpetuates the wound because the version of history that the present knows leaves out many details except for the remaining pain of slavery and opposition.

Butler interestingly introduces Kevin. She purposely hides his race till later in the novel. In section one of “The Fall”, the reader is finally told that Kevin is white, in which Butler states “He was an unusual-looking white man, his face young, almost unlined, but his hair completely gray and his eyes so pale as to be almost colorless”. This creates a shift in the novel because Kevin is now a large comparison to Rufus since the two of are large aspects of Dana’s life. Kevin, while much different from Rufus, reacts in ways that have been shaped by his upbringing and society. His understanding of history is just as distorted as Dana’s. Schmitt argues that Kevin and Dana live in a complex world. Schmitt states, “The blandness of their interracial relationship, its lack of meaningful exchange, is likewise indicative of the forgetfulness Dana must engage with in order to have a potentially meaningful relationship with him”. Schmitt describes that this kind of “forgetting” is what society is doing on a larger scale around Kevin and Dana. Butler points these things out to the reader so that the connection to the past can be made and dealt with through Dana. Kevin, in many ways, reflects these actions. He does not see Dana any differently because of her color but he looks at Dana the way Butler intended for Rufus to be shaped as by the end of the novel.

The comparison between Kevin and Rufus, in relation to the past in the present, and the present in the past is their bond with women of color. Kevin’s bond with Dana is stronger than Rufus’ relationship with Alice because of their need for one another to work under racial issues, and the strain of gender hierarchy. Kevin and Dana continue to stay with one another throughout the course of the problems that occur in 1976. Following Dana’s trip to the 1800’s, she returns to Kevin, who is concerned and holds her tightly, hurting Dana without realizing it (Butler 15). When she tells Kevin that he is hurting her, he tries and helps her in which Butler states “We sat there together on the floor, me wrapped in the towel and Kevin with his arm around me calming me just by being there. After a while, I stopped shaking.” Kevin reacts in such a way that he wants to make sure Dana is safe, and calm; he is not angry that she left. His questions and actions are filled with emotion.

In comparison to Kevin, focusing on abuse of power, gender hierarchy, and the outcome of racial conflict, Rufus’ relationship with Dana becomes complex as the novel progresses. Rufus treats Dana with respect since saving his life at a young age, however, as he gets older, his father’s qualities are portrayed in his actions, and he begins to objectively view slaves in the same sense as other slaveowners. However, his relationship with Alice, once a free slave, and later his property, shows the values of the present in the past. Rufus’ actions were considered a part of what was acceptable during that time period, and Dana viewed the complexity of how she must accept what Rufus thinks about black woman. To Rufus, Alice could not refuse anything from him, stating that he would not have hurt her if she had just allowed him to do what he pleases, however, he says that he only acts this way towards Alice out of love, although distorted, it remains to be a form of love and compassion. Here, the complexity of the present in the past arises because although Rufus claims to love Alice, he continues to hurt her, and places his power onto her.

There is a large contrast between Rufus’ distorted meaning of love, and Kevin’s actions of concern in the present. While Kevin does not display a form of possession in the same sense as Rufus, Kevin is possessive and protective of Dana because she is his wife. However, there are comparisons in which he is like men from the 1800s. In the beginning of the novel, Dana describes the scene in which they are moving in together, describing Kevin as, “He gave me a look that I knew wasn’t as malevolent as it seemed. He had the kind of pale, almost colorless eyes that made him seem distant and angry whether he was or not. He used them to intimidate people.” This represents the past in the present because it features historical characteristics that white men possessed in the novel, including Rufus. This corresponds to Rufus’ actions throughout the novel. He constantly acts harsh towards Dana only to later apologize. The difference between the two men is Kevin’s actions are displayed entirely from possession and protectivity without physically harming Dana. If Kevin hurts Dana, he immediately tries to stop the pain, while Rufus does it to prove his power over women and establish fear. Overall, Kevin does exhibit some signs of white male privilege over Dana in the moments they are together in the novel, although they are far less exaggerated than the occurrences in which Rufus claims his full power.

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In conclusion, Octavia Butler’s Kindred establishes a strong link between the past and present through presenting traces of the past in the present and the present in the past to emphasize the similarities, and connections focusing specifically on the evolution of history and racial issues or status in both time periods in Kindred. Through the main characters, there is a strong linkage of the societal, and historical aspects represented in both time periods. Butler emphasizes how the past carries into the present, and the past includes evolution of the present. Through demonstrating the significance of racial power, gender hierarchy, and the outcome of racial conflict, Butler reaffirms that the past and present are interconnected through not only the character’s actions, but society and history. 

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Dr. Charlotte Jacobson

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Relationship Between the Past and the Present in Octavia Butler’s “Kindred”. (2021, March 18). GradesFixer. Retrieved December 11, 2023, from
“Relationship Between the Past and the Present in Octavia Butler’s “Kindred”.” GradesFixer, 18 Mar. 2021,
Relationship Between the Past and the Present in Octavia Butler’s “Kindred”. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 11 Dec. 2023].
Relationship Between the Past and the Present in Octavia Butler’s “Kindred” [Internet]. GradesFixer. 2021 Mar 18 [cited 2023 Dec 11]. Available from:
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