Literary Analysis: “Kindred” by Octavia Butler


Kindred are a science-fiction short-story by Octavia Butler, a renowned author in this genre. The novel chronicles Dana’s experiences, which is the main character. She is an African American woman celebrating her twenty-sixth birthday while moving into their newly purchased suburban house in Los Angeles. Her husband, Kevin, is white, and their union is considered odd due to their racial differences. The narrative is categorized into six main parts – The River, The Fire, The Fall, The Fight, The Storm, and The Rope. The titles are representative of a significant encounter in which the main character, Dana, travels to 19th-century Maryland. Literary themes that emerge from analyzing this text include slavery, racism, freedom and power, and the effects of past trauma. Similarly, the author incorporates literary devices such as similes, metaphors, foreshadowing, and flashbacks, and literary motifs such as imagery, symbolism, and repetitive emphasis to develop the characters.

Literary Devices

The writer incorporates literary devices such as similes, metaphors, foreshadowing, and flashbacks for character development. For example, Rufus tells Dana that she remembers seeing her, and she was wearing pants like a man (Butler 22). This literary device demonstrates Dana’s strength and the difference between the modern black woman and the women who served as enslaved people. The author uses this literary device to develop Dana’s character as the black savior. Despite lacking the freedoms that she enjoys in modern-day California, Dana saves Rufus multiple times, reinforcing the concept of a black savior (Honsova 22). Using this simile emphasizes that in the 19th century; pants were the preserve of men, unlike in the 20th century, where women could wear the same. Men in the pre-civil war south were a symbol of power and authority. Using the simile further develops Dana’s character of strength and resilience, despite the challenges that a woman of color likes her encounters.

Another instance in which the author uses similes to develop a character is when Rufus compares how Dana vanishes and reappears in another place and time to smoke and ghost (Butler 24). The writer uses this literary device to lend credibility to the story and to reinforce the character of invincibility, freedom, and resilience against many odds. As a woman, Dana living in the 19th century is expected to adhere strictly to the rules of her owner. However, defying such odds and having the power to appear and vanish multiple times makes Dana’s character a beacon of hope for a free country without discrimination and racism. Existing within two different realms makes Dana an indestructible character like a ghost because of her ability to survive multiple near-death experiences and still emerge triumphant.

The metaphor of time travel suits the genre of the story, science-fiction. The novel uses the metaphor to develop several characters, including Dana, Rufus, and Tom Weylin. Dana’s character in the novel is capable of transitioning between two historical and cultural eras and surviving in both (Butler 16). Therefore, the author uses the time travel metaphor to predict the future transition from historical post-modernism into modernism, where women enjoy the same freedoms as men and black people are treated with dignity and respect. The writer incorporates this literary device to demonstrate the historical practice of slavery and its complex effects many decades after abolition. The transition is a source of hope for African Americans for a better future typified by freedom and equality.

The novel also uses symbolism as a literary device and motif for the development of the main characters. Symbolism such as the river, the fall, and the fight create consistency and curiosity and demonstrate the characters’ strengths and weaknesses. For example, the river represents her role in saving Rufus from drowning, and the fire represents her role in saving him from torching his house (Butler 19). The repetitive nature in which the author uses these symbols also reinforces Rufus’ character as a selfish boy who exploits Dana’s kindness, irrespective of potential harm, and Tom Weylin’s as a symbol of authority and power. However, Rufus’ depiction as a selfish person is reminiscent of how the masters treated their subjects.

Foreshadowing is another literary device that the author employs to deliver the primary literary themes and develop characters. Using foreshadowing as a literary device reinforces Kevin’s character as a supportive husband even in their unlikely interracial union. Although he does not initially believe Dana, Kevin attends to her when she returns from the first voyage wet and shaken (Butler 18). His support is instrumental in Dana’s transitions between the present day and the pre-civil war period. Kevin accompanies Dana in one of her time travels by holding tightly onto her hand and acts as her protector in the pre-civil Maryland. His character challenges the master/slave label, although he struggles with maintaining his cover when he accompanies Dana on one of her travels (Honsova 35). Therefore, the foreshadowing presents Kevin as a source of hope for a future free of racial prejudice.

The author uses flashbacks as a literary device to develop the characters of Tom Weylin, Margaret Weylin, and Alice Greenwood. The novel itself is a flashback from the first-person perspective of the narrator (Honsova 20). The recollections exhibit Tom as a figure of authority in the antebellum south and Alice as his subject. The recalls emphasize the slave/master relationship between Tom and Alice, among other slaves. The flashbacks depict Margaret as Tom’s subordinate, although she possesses more authority than the enslaved people. Dana utilizes flashbacks profoundly in chapter two of The Fire, where she questions Rufus to determine his understanding of her experiences (Butler 21). This literary device is mainly instrumental in embodying the personality of these characters.

Literary Motifs

The use of literary motifs is also evident in the narrative, which the writer uses to advance literary themes such as slavery, racial discrimination, and their lasting effects on the African American community. The constant disappearance is a recurring motif in the novel. In the first chapter, the River, Dana disappears from her sitting room in the presence of her husband and finds herself along a riverbank (Butler 12). This disappearance is constant throughout the novel, and the author uses it to demonstrate the effects and complexities of slavery and racism. Although Dana currently lives in a free America, she is constantly drawn back to the dark times of slavery and experiences firsthand what her ancestors endured at the hands of white enslavers.

The cultural, historical, social, and literary contexts in which the story is set perpetuate literary themes of slavery, freedom, power, and the effects of historical trauma. There are two contrasting cultural contexts in the narrative, evidenced by the dressing code, morals, and language. For example, Dana noticed that Rufus’s mother spoke with a southern accent, indicating she was from a different era (Butler 16). Comparison between the accents validates impending changes such as freedom and equality for the enslaved people. Similarly, Rufus repeatedly acknowledges that Dana’s accent is different from theirs, which makes him wonder about her background. These cultural differences are essential in showing the changes between the pre-civil war era and the present day.

The historical and social setting of the story is also instrumental in lending the narration credibility and showing relevance to the literary themes. Slavery, racism, segregation, and inequality between the whites and the blacks were evident characteristics of the 19th century. However, slavery was abolished in 1976 in California, and people share almost similar opportunities. It is acceptable to call a black person a “nigger” in pre-civil Maryland, while the same is socially unacceptable in present-day 1976 California. These differences serve as a source of hope for the minority groups facing discrimination and segregation.

Each character plays an instrumental role in perpetuating the themes of racism, freedom, racism, and the horrors of slavery and their effects post-slavery. The author uses Dana’s character to create relevance of the horrors of slavery to the 20th-century reader. The writer uses Dana’s character to bring relevance to seemingly unreal experiences. For example, Rufus pulls Dana into the pre-civil war Maryland, an experience that she finds challenging to explain to her husband to the police because it is incredible. Switching between the two periods and places helps create a link between the horrors of slavery, racism, and sexism and their lasting consequences on African Americans (Behrent 799). Dana encounters both worlds, and although she does not experience racism during her time, she feels the consequences, including physical injuries.

The author uses Rufus and his family’s characters to showcase the seriousness of slavery and racism in 19th century, Maryland. Enslavers were selfish and inconsiderate of other peoples’ feelings and experiences as long as they could exploit them for personal gains (Behrent 804). In addition to the exploitation, the white people mistreated the enslaved people and denied them their basic needs. Rufus’ character in the novel expounds on the concept of selfishness among the slave owners. He keeps pulling Dana into the past, subjecting her to a more hazardous and near-death experience.


In conclusion, Octavia adopts the science-fiction genre to expound on the horrors of slavery through the narrator’s experiences. The author uses literary devices and motifs for character development, further supporting the literary themes she intends to exhibit. The literary devices and motifs personify each character by giving them a matching personality. Characters like Dana and Kevin embody hope for a country free of racism and slavery. Contrastingly, Rufus’ character antagonizes Dana and Kevin as he hinders their possibility of overcoming racial prejudice and slavery in the future. Eventually, Dana realizes that she must kill him to achieve freedom and equality. Although she is immersed in a different era whenever she time travels, Dana adapts quickly, indicating the strength and resilience of a black woman and reinforcing her character as a black savior. Rufus’s characters, father and mother, lend credibility to the story by reinforcing a master/slave relationship between the white slave owners and the black people.

Works Cited

Behrent, Megan. “The Personal is Historical: Slavery, Black Power, and Resistance in Octavia Behrent Butler’s KINDRED.” College Literature, vol. 46, no. 4, 2019, pp. 795-828.

Butler, Octavia E. Kindred. Beacon Press, 2004.

Honsová, Adéla. “The Depiction of Slavery in Butler’s Kindred.” University of Pardubice, vol. 16, no. 4, 2020, pp. 1-50.

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