‘Kindred’, by Octavia E. Butler, tells the story of Dana, a 26-year-old African American woman from the 1970s, who is constantly called into the 19th century antebellum South by her white ancestor, Rufus Weylin. After learning she must keep Rufus alive to ensure her own bloodline, she explores her family’s roots while at the same time, struggles to witness and endure the hardships of slavery. By allowing Dana to lose her arm on her last trip back from the past, Butler suggests that the past is always going to be there and you can let it haunt you or come to terms with it.
The relationship between Dana and Rufus is what really drives the story forward and during the first couple of encounters between the two we see the development and maintenance of their relationship. Dana is introduced to Rufus during her first trip where she saves him from drowning. At this point she doesn’t know anything besides name. It’s not until her second trip back to Maryland, where she saves Rufus from a fire he starts, that she realizes he’s her ancestor and his survival is important for her own. On the third trip, she aids him with his broken leg and at this point they’ve become accustomed to each other. From his childhood to his early adolescent years, he grows to see Dana as a person of safety and someone he finds comfort in during his times of distress. Between his aggressive dad and his overprotective mother, Dana becomes a parent like figure to Rufus. She’s kind to him, but she’s not afraid to correct and tell him right from wrong - at least what is considered right and wrong during her time. He can be difficult at times, but he still listens and tries to understand Dana. Because he enjoys her presence, he helps her stay out of trouble. Dana has the upper hand in power during their early relationship because of Rufus’ childlike innocence and vulnerability, and she takes advantage of it in hopes of having a lasting influence on him.
Despite what Dana hoped for, Rufus drastically changes when he reaches adulthood. He acts similar to his father and it’s clear that he’s adopted his family’s view of slavery. The first time she sees him as an adult, he’s getting beat by one slave for raping another, who happens to be his childhood friend Alice. He proceeds to argue with Dana that Alice has no rights and he grins at the thought of Alice being punished (123). Eventually he reveals that he loves Alice. Even though he comes off as monstrous in this part of the book, this is actually the first time we see his childhood innocence clashing with his predestined role in the antebellum South. Not only does he argue against Dana’s belief about Alice having rights, but he’s struggling with his feelings for Alice that go deeper than physical attraction because “there was no shame in raping a black woman, but there could be shame in loving one” (Butler, 124). This incident is only one example of why Butler chooses to humanize Rufus early on. If Dana and readers were to meet Rufus after his rape rather than when he was a young boy, our reactions to him would be completely different. Because Dana has that close attachment to him already, she’s not immediately driven off. Butler’s “idea is not to present Rufus as a monster, but as a person with good qualities and major flaws” (Manis, 13).
As Rufus comes to truly understand Dana’s situation, their relationship becomes more complex and the balance of power shifts. Critic Florian Bast states, “at the core of Dana and Rufus’s relationship is their capacity to hurt each other physically” (160). Bast is right. Dana and Rufus have an understood agreement that Dana will help Rufus as long as he respects her, but the breaking of this agreement is foreshadowed. He’s so emotional that he’s inconsistent in their relationship. Rufus pushes Dana to do things in a manipulative way, such as telling her she needs to burn her map of the state if she wants him to reach out to Kevin (PD). He punishes her for things he feels are her fault, such as forcing her to work in the fields for ‘failing’ to save his father from dying, and he uses her sympathy for others against her. Although Dana isn’t completely powerless and has some say in his actions, Rufus still holds more power at the end of the day. As expected, Rufus breaks their ‘unspoken’ rule. He commits the ultimate betrayal when he slaps Dana across the face after she begs him not to sell a slave. At this moment, Rufus holds all power. He’s reduced Dana down to just another slave, even if it is just for a moment (LaFaver). As a result, Dana goes and slits her wrist, which sends her back home to California.
Fifteen days after Rufus’ betrayal, Dana is pulled back to Maryland one last time and finds Alice hanging in the barn. Once Rufus accepts Alice’s death, his relationship with Dana starts to differ from her relationship with him. His possessive love shifts from Alice to Dana; however, Dana absolutely refuses to accept and allow his feelings. She says, “I could accept him as my ancestor, my younger brother, my friend, but not as my master, and not as my lover. He had understood that once” (260). To give in to Rufus means truly becoming a slave and Dana is not willing to do that because she’s intent on keeping her autonomy. So, in one last attempt to stop Rufus’ forceful fight, Dana stabs him twice. With his hand still on her arm, Dana begins to cross time but something takes ahold of her arm “squeezing it, stiffening it, pressing into it… as though somehow my arm was being absorbed into something” (Butler, 260-261). As a result, she loses her arm to the past.
Dana losing her arm is significant because it symbolizes much more. The death of Rufus allows her to let go of the connection that ties her to the past so her amputation symbolizes apart of her being left in the past, even though it comes at a cost. Butler says, “I couldn't really let her come all the way back. I couldn't let her return to what she was, I couldn't let her come back whole and that, I think, really symbolises her not coming back whole. Antebellum slavery didn't leave people quite whole” (Kenan 498). And Dana doesn’t come back whole. She’s marked by her experience physically and mentally.
The past and present are undoubtedly linked, especially when talking about something as traumatic as slavery, and its impact is still felt across time. Dana’s missing arm will always be a reminder of the past, but it also is a reminder of the freedom that comes with it.