Impact of Memory in “Kindred” by Octavia Butler
The novel Kindred, by Octavia Butler, narrates an unusual tale about an African American woman named Dana from the 1970. This young lady, for unexplained reasons, spirals back in time to the antebellum south, where she finds herself rescuing a boy named Rufus. Dana finds herself repeatedly hurling back to the past in order to make sure that Rufus, her great ancestor, stays alive. During each visit to the past, she is welcomed to a progressively older version of Rufus and returned to her time anytime her life is in danger. Rufus is the son of a slave plantation owner and eventually takes control of the plantation when his father dies. Rufus falls in love with one of his slaves, Alice, and becomes distraught for not being able to marry her because of their time period. Rufus treats both Alice and Dana with uttermost disrespect. Alice is raped and forced to be Rufus’ mistress while Dana is abused and beaten. Although Alice and Dana are both African American women, their memories and experiences have influence every action and is seen throughout the book.
The utilization of memory is displayed throughout Kindred. Dana and Alice contrast in character but still use memory as justifications for their actions. Their outlook on importance, freedom or life illustrates their character. Dana values life over freedom whereas Alice values freedom over life. Also, Dana and Alice contrast in terms of positions of power. Dana believes that knowledge of situations lead to power as opposed to Alice’s belief that resistance to situations lead to power. Their positions and roles in life are influenced by memories and significant experiences which mold their moral character. Octavia Butler denotes in Kindred that given more or less knowledge of a situation, a person’s behavior will be influenced by their memories. This causes their demeanor to act differently to various situations because of their knowledge or prior experiences. Dana lives as a free black woman from the 1970’s, where equality of blacks and whites is normal within society. Alice survives as a free black-turned slave from the 1800’s, where slavery and discrimination of blacks dominated society. As a result of their different perspectives influenced by their memories and experiences, their behaviors and ideas are completely different. Although they are in similar positions, they both have been free before being forced into slavery.
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The way that people live their lives can be a great factor in influencing their memories. Experiences that are a product of memory are able to influence individuals by determining their willingness to take action and how to do it. Memories greatly influenced Dana’s and Alice’s view on life. Dana, a modern African American woman, firmly believes that the most important thing is life itself. Dana shows that she believes freedom does not compare to the importance of life when she says, “I wanted to stay here and let a letter go to Boston and bring Kevin back to me” (Butler 143). Dana slowly turns into more of a slave as a result of Rufus’s actions. She endures all the demeaning activities he puts her through because her life is directly linked with his. Dana places a greater emphasis on life as opposed to freedom because she wants to survive and bring her husband Kevin back to their modern 1976 life.
The longer Dana stays there, her treatment by Rufus worsens. However, she stays strong because Dana knows that society will change and that slavery will eventually be abolished, unlike Alice who is completely unaware. Alice displays that she is unaware of free slaves when she says “some say they do. It’s like dying though, and going to heaven. Nobody ever comes back to tell you about it” (Butler 145). Since Alice is from the past, she does not know that slavery will end or even that some slaves that ran away and successfully became free. There was no proof to justify to Alice that free runaway slaves existed because she never met one. From Dana’s knowledge of the era, she knows that some runaway slaves found freedom because there were historical accounts of them in her time.
Alice, a African American slave, firmly believes that freedom is the most important thing, even more so than life. The only thing that Alice desires is to be free. Alice had her freedom taken away from her at a younger age. She attempted to run away from Rufus’ plantation with her lover Isaac, but she was caught brought back. Her memories of being beaten, dragged, attacked by dogs, and brought back gave her the impression that freedom was impossible. When she was caught and taken back the first time, her resolve to run away was stained by the memory of her escape. She expresses her pain as she says, “I’m lying. I can’t run again. I can’t. You be hungry and cold and sick out there, and so tired you can’t walk. Then they find you and set dogs on you… My Lord, the dogs…” (Butler 168). The memory of the trauma and pain of her experience overpowered her will for freedom. Alice dreaded her experience and was planning on running away again so soon. This does not stop her later on though, once she had enough time to recover, Alice resolved to run away again. Alice’s position on life or freedom changes from time to time. She cares more about life when her resolve to run away and freedom is broken, but when her will strengthens, she continues to favor freedom over life and plots to escape from Rufus.
Along with their contrasting positions on life, Dana and Alice’s memories have also influenced their positions of power. Dana is a well-educated woman and comes from the age of information where knowledge, when applied correctly, can do almost anything. Knowledge in the information age has the ability to set people apart, and give the ones with knowledge a great advantage over those that struggle. By coming from a society that is structured on knowledge and intelligence, her memories suggests that knowledge gives way to power. At one point, when Dana went back in time, she had brought along a history book that Rufus curiously picked up and flipped through. Dana looked over and realized what Rufus was reading and said “you’re reading history, Rufe” (Butler 140).
Dana had brought back a history book for her to know about the events that would happen around her time. Therefore, it can give her more power over herself and her surroundings. An examples of Dana using knowledge to her advantage can be found when she was tending to Alice’s wounds after she had been brought back after her attempted escape. She says, “I washed it with plenty of soap and water, and I put medicine on it. Here, brine will have to be my medicine” (Butler 147). Dana knew to clean Alice’s wounds with soap and water, and she knew to use brine because salt will prevent infections. Dana also, prior to her attempted escape, believes that with a map, she would be successful in escaping, which was apparent when she said, “he threatened to… destroy a paper that might help me get free” (Butler 142). Rufus held a map of the area hostage against Dana because the map gave her power, the power to leave whenever she wanted and, potentially, the power to be successful in her leaving.
Dana’s high regard for her knowledge quickly dissipates after she gets caught for trying to escape from Rufus’ plantation to find Kevin. “I probably knew more than she did about the general layout of the Eastern Shore. She knew only the area she’d been born and raised in, and she couldn’t read a map. I knew about towns and rivers miles away—and it hadn’t done me a damned bit of good!” (Butler 177). At this point, Dana had abandoned her view that the knowledge she possessed prior to her trips to the antebellum south would bring her power. She believed that because she could read maps and could find her way around easier than most people, that she would have been able to escape unimpeded. Dana stopped relying on her “knowledge” after her beating because she did not trust it anymore, and thus she has lost power over herself and her surroundings.
Alice is from the antebellum south, where slavery and discrimination of African Americans is commonplace. Alice is an uneducated free black turned slave, and views resistance as a method of bringing power to herself and her surroundings. Alice cannot read or write, or do most things that Dana can, like decipher maps or have access to lifesaving information. Alice does not have the luxury of education and knowledge as Dana does, and so Alice resists oppression as much as possible.Alice puts out enough resistance so that she still lives, but is not completely subject to anyone’s will. When Rufus manipulates Dana to convince Alice to sleep with him, she completely refuses, even knowing the dire consequences of defying Rufus.
Following her return and recovery from the failed escape with Isaac, Alice does not resist the wants of Rufus anymore, and thus has been stripped of her power. “She couldn’t do anything at all except make herself more miserable. She said, ‘My stomach just turns every time he puts his hands on me!’ But she endured” (Butler 142). Alice remembers the torture that she went through with her escape, as well as previous beatings from Rufus, and dares not to defy him again so soon. “She forgave him nothing, forgot nothing, hated him as deeply as she had loved Isaac. I didn’t blame her” (Butler 142). Alice does not refuse to obey anymore, yet she never forgives Rufus for all he has done to her. She chooses to remember everything Rufus has done to her and keeps up her unforgiving nature, building up enough hatred until it strengthens her resolve to run away and attain freedom once again.
Though memory may influence the decisions people make, there are times when memory is not heeded and the opposite is done. Dana does not take her past memories into consideration when she trusts Rufus time and time again, though he repeatedly does not hold up to his end of the deal. “I kept forgiving him for things …” (Butler 142). Dana finds herself forgiving Rufus for not sending her letters to Kevin, as well as other mistreatments. Dana waited for a long time to hear back from Kevin, and the letters would not have even been sent if not for Tom Weylin, Rufus’ father. Dana forgives Rufus because she feels it is for the best. “But what good did her hating do? She couldn’t bring herself to run away again or to kill him and face her own death. She couldn’t do anything at all except make herself more miserable” (Butler 142). Dana is criticizing Alice’s unforgivingness because it only serves to make herself more miserable. Despite past experiences of Rufus’ betrayals and empty words Dana finds herself forgiving Rufus because she does not see the point in holding it over him, to live angrily and miserably every day because she cannot leave the past in the past like Alice.
Even though memory influences people’s decisions, sometimes they reject and resist the memory, like Dana. Dana, though time has proven to her that Rufus should not be trusted and forgiven, forgives Rufus and forgets the actions that he has done. Dana should know better than to keep trusting Rufus, only to be hurt again, and then only to forgive him because that is the effect of the environment that he grew up in, that Rufus cannot help but treat Dana as an unequal because she is black and because of his upbringing.
Dana only chooses to reject and resist her prior memories that would normally influence her decision and make her distrust Rufus because she wants to believe that he tries to help her, or because she thinks that it is better for herself to “forget” when Rufus does not deliver on his promises or does something to hurt Dana. Dana mayalso be forced to forget because she has been traumatized by Rufus, since “trauma is thought to disrupt the memory process by severing the connection between past and present” (DeMichele 104). Dana’s trauma can cause her to sever the connection between what had happened that would influence her to distrust Rufus and trusting him in the present.“Asignificant… of survivors are incapable of remembering their trauma, thanks to mechanisms of either dissociation or repression” (McNally 817). Dana may have disassociated her past memories with Rufus, and therefore can trust him regardless of the influence of her memory.
The role of memory is also apparent in real people’s lives. People are influenced by their past experiences, good or bad, to do things the same or differently depending on the outcome. Elaine Richardson, in the book African American Literacies, wrote about an experience she had about her college professor criticizing her writing style and language and thus humiliated her. Richardson did not have the opportunity for quality education like others, and her writing style was influenced by her surroundings and neighborhood. Her street style of writing was not favorable to her professor, so she changed her writing style to what she thought the professor wanted. “I was trying not to write like I really talked because I knew that would be rejected” (Richardson Intro). People do things like this all the time; they format themselves in a way so their future experiences are better than their past ones. If not for memory, the same outcomes can happen over and over again.
Memory plays an important role in Kindred. The actions of Alice and Dana were greatly influenced by their experiences, backgrounds, and knowledge. Dana was influenced by her time, and so was Alice. Though they were both essentially the same, African American women forced into slavery, their memory influenced their personality enough so that they clashed in morals like power and what is important in life. Dana is from a time where knowledge leads to advantage so she valued it higher, and Alice is from a time where slaves are supposed to be submissive, so resisting gave her power. Dana valued life more than Alice, who wanted nothing more than to be free. Dana values life more than freedom because she has reason to continue living; she wants to return to her 1976 life with Kevin. Alice values freedom more because, as a slave, she wants to be in control of her own life and make her own decisions, to be free to do whatever she wants whenever she wants.