Monday, February 1, 2016

Ending Romanticization of Time Travel in Kindred

The aspect of time travel seems to be something that seems to be played with throughout most of popular culture in a variety of ways. Most of the time, it is used to bring in iconic figures to a show or literature that viewers or readers would know. Within Octavia Butler’s novel “Kindred,” we see the use of time travel as a means to serve a greater purpose. Instead of bringing in iconic figures, it instead brings in an important part of our history and gives commentary on it from the year of 1976. This novel allows for the reader to understand just how brutal and hard times were in the south before the civil war broke out. Butler uses time travel as a means of bringing the reader back into the past and to tell a small story in one of the darker moments of United States history.

We begin by being introduced to the main character of Dana, who is in the hospital after losing an arm. The reader is left wondering how the arm was lost, how her husband Kevin is not too blame, and what the truth is that no one would believe. Butler does a great job of playing with time in just the prologue. The reader is given a glimpse into the future and must travel through the linear narration of the novel to be able to find what had happened to our main character.

Butler’s play with time doesn’t end with the prologue, throughout the novel, our main character Dana is consistently pulled back to the year of 1815 to save one of her ancestors. Despite the fact that the ancestor is only a child at the beginning, any time he is in danger she is pulled through time to save his life and the future life of the family. The interesting play with time here is the situation that Butler puts on Dana. Dana is an african american while Rufus, her ancestor, is white. What’s worse for Dana is that Rufus is the son of a plantation owner in Maryland, who is growing up with a family that owns slave. Every time that Dana travels back to save Rufus, she is also then treated as a slave.

By telling the story with a modern black woman travelling back to the times of slavery, Butler is able to tell the stories and horrors that went along with this era while not directly living in it. Even though we meet several slaves, and the owners and other whites during the time, it is all shown through the modern lens thanks to Dana. Her often first person narration allows for the reader to understand what it was like for her to experience these times, the pain and hardships that were felt, and the struggles for both african americans and whites. For example, throughout the novel we get glimpses of both Tom and Rufus Weylin and the men that they are. As Dana consistently tells Kevin, they are simply “men of their time.” With both of them, they tend to show signs of good, whether it’s trying to avoid giving harsh punishments to Dana, or allowing certain actions to be done by slaves that would otherwise bring extreme punishment, they ultimately still are slave owners, treating people as property.

The travel between both times also leaves its mark on the characters, which again allows for the reader to gain a better sense of what it was like to travel back and forth within these two time periods. One of the things that Butler does well is having a white man, Dana’s husband Kevin, travel back with her and to end up being trapped in the time period for 5 years. By taking Kevin and trapping him within this time frame, the reader gets a better understanding that life was not just hard for african americans, but the entire time period itself was. By no means is Butler trying to say that white americans lived just as rough of a life, but she shows the perils that they face as well, if anything as a means to humanize them. Kevin struggles to find his foothold within this old society. He speaks of bouncing from place to place, trying to find a job. When he finally returns to Dana and Dana brings him home, his struggles then change to dealing with the real world. Despite showing the luxuries of 1976, Kevin is lost within himself and the time period that he faced then vs the current time. This again adds to the sentiment towards the time and to white men, which seems like it should be impossible to do given the era.

The novel also does a great job of showing the readers just the amount of danger that existed for everyone during the time, in specific african americans. The prime example would be Dana. The only conceivable way that has been found for her to get home is through danger. Whether it’s having a gun pointed at her, being nearly raped and then possibly caught attacking a white man, or slitting her own wrists, her life must be in peril for her to return. This speaks volumes to the danger that is evident through the rest of the novel. Every time Dana is called from 1976 back to 1800’s, it’s to save Rufus when his life's in danger. When she lives amongst the slaves, she hears about the horrors many of them faced in the hands of whites, and even has to endure a lot of the pain they felt as well. By having Dana travel back in time and face each of these dangers, the reader is left scared more and more for her life, and the idea of time travel becomes worse and worse.

A feeling that this novel also gave me was the fact that time travel would not be as great as it is romanticized in popular culture. So often we see the hero travel back in time, whether it’s to meet a historical figure, chase down a villain, or save all of history. Rarely though is the reader or viewer ever shown the true dangers of the time period. With “Kindred,” the romanticizing stops. The main characters are constantly subjected to violence and the lines between heroes and villains are blurred. Despite the fact that Rufus can be a cruel man, he is given small redemptions. Tom Weylin has proven to be worse than his son, but at the same time, he also gives some pity to the slaves that he owns. With Dana, she tries to do what she can with what little power she has to help the slaves, but the more power she gains with the family, the more she is despised by others. The advice she gives is often based around trying to help others survive, but it’s at the advantageous point that she would not continuously endure with the others. In the end we see Dana kill Rufus, which seems like the heroic choice, but at what cost? She loses her arm returning to her time and finds in the end that none of the slaves are truly freed. So in the end, the reader is left questioning whether or not her time was well spent, and was that time used to truly help others or to simply be selfish enough to save herself.


  1. I also loved how time travel in the novel brought the past back into conversation with the present as well as humanize those in the past. Like you said, the white plantation owners are shown to have some good parts of themselves, rather than just being completely evil. Everyone is humanized and shown to have positives and negatives. As time progresses, we tend to lose the fact that these people were real and full of life. We start to see everyone and events in black and white.

  2. Your post had me considering how society dictates what is considered right and wrong. You mentioned Tom Weylin's relationship to his slaves, that he pitied them but also treated them cruelly. This dichotomy of his character suggests a conflicted balance between knowing what is morally right and living in a society in which the rules are geared to you.

  3. I agree that Kindred does not romanticize time travel, even though contemporary authors have predominantly continued to use time travel in a romanticized or comedic way (at least in the novels and movies that I can think of). And maybe it's use to show reality and brutality is why I have heard of the novel but have never been told that I MUST read this novel. As with the other novels that we have read, I found this novel to be very appropriate to use in my classroom, but I have never seen it on a college-bound reading list or a suggested list of novels for American literature. I assume that it has been dismissed because of the time travel technique by people/teachers who have not given it a chance.

  4. I'm wondering what you think the complications are of living within a culture that does indeed romanticize time travel. When most people think about time travel, they recall things like Back to the Future. Do you think part of the force behind stopping the romanticization is the brutal historic context behind Dana's travels?