Essay: Essay on Octavia Estelle Butler | English Literature

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  • Published on: 1st June 2012
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Essay on Octavia Estelle Butler

Octavia Estelle Butler was born on June 22, 1947, in Pasadena, California. Her father was a shoeshine and died when Butler was a baby. Butler’s mother and grandmother raised her. When she was young, Butler watched her mother work and used to hear her grandmother tell stories of how hard they had it. Octavia’s mother worked as a maid in a large house owned by rich, white people who did not treat her well. Her grandmother had worked a slave in sugar fields. Octavia’s family inspired her to write stories to help people learn about the racism and slavery black people faced every day. She wrote fantasy stories as a way to escape her own life and family troubles.

Octavia was shy as a child. She loved to read science fiction stories and at 10 years old she started writing. She made up characters that were a lot like her and felt painful, disconnected feelings she did. Through her fictitious world, she was able to talk about issues of race, cruelty and poverty.

While going to college and working odd jobs, she got up early every morning write. She is known for her success as a black woman and writer of science fiction, which is usually dominated by white men. In 1995, Butler won the MacArthur fellowship. She was the first science fiction writer ever to receive the award. She often said that she was not writing for other people, just for herself, but she was glad if her work helped others. She said that writing forced her to grow in new ways.

Kindred is one of her most famous books and is one of the only stories to link science fiction and slavery. She said that the idea for the novel came to her as she sat in class listening to a classmate complain about how his parents held him back and how his heritage kept him down. She wrote Kindred an argument against those thoughts. In the novel, Butler tries to describe slaves as single people with individual characteristics rather than stereotypes. She also shows the slaveholders humanity not just their cruelty towards the slaves.

The story of Kindred starts on June 9, 1976, and it is the birthday of Dana, a young black woman. Her and her white husband, Kevin, move into a new apartment in California. Dana unpacks the house and Kevin concentrates on his office. Dana gets dizzy, falls down and passes out. When she wakes up she has been transported back into the early 1800s in Maryland. A young white boy named Rufus is in trouble, drowning in the river. Dana jumps in after him, but he is unconscious by the time she gets to him. She drags him to the shore and revives him. Rufus’s father, Tom Weylin, arrives and he points a gun at Dana, and she passes out again. Then she reappears in her apartment in 1976.

Several minutes later, she passes out again. This time, she is whisked back to the 1800’s. Rufus is now a few years older, and she watches him as he sees his bedroom curtains burn down. He set fire to them because he was angry with his father for selling one of his horses. Dana runs to put out the flames, and talks to Rufus quickly before his dad out she was there. She runs to the home of Alice Greenwood, who Dana thinks may be her ancestor. While Dana is there a group of white men break down the Greenwoods’ door and beat up Alice and her husband. After the men leave, Dana helps Alice’s mother. After she is done helping Alice and her husband, Dana goes outside and one of the white men is there. He beats her and tries to rape her. Dana fears for her life and faints again. She wakes up at her home in her own time.

The next time Dana time travels in time, she tells her husband Kevin and he comes with her by holding onto her. They arrive at Rufus’s house again and Rufus has just fallen out of a tree and broken his leg. Nigel, a young black boy, runs to get helps and Rufus’s father comes with his slave, Luke. Rufus will not let Dana and her husband leave, so they all go back to the house together. Kevin and Dana stay at the house for several weeks and help teach Rufus basic math and reading skills. But when Dana gets caught teaching Nigel to how to read, his father whips Dana. Dana returns to her own time, but Kevin does not arrive in time to go back with her.

After a few days at home in their apartment, Dana travels back in time and finds that her husband has the town and that Rufus has raped Alice Greenwood. Alice’s husband, Isaac, who is also a slave, is beating Rufus badly. Dana convinces Isaac not to kill Rufus, Isaac runs away while Dana carries Rufus home. Rufus lies about why was being beaten and Alice is beaten and attacked by dogs when her and Isaac are caught. As punishment for helping Isaac escape, Alice is forced to be a slave. Rufus, loves Alice and decides to buy her as a slave. He uses Dana by telling her he will help find Kevin and gets Dana to convince Alice to sleep with him after she recovers from the dog attack. Rufus doesn’t mail her letters to Kevin and Dana attempts to run away. When Dana is caught she receives a vicious whipping, which hurts and frightens her so much that she loses the will to run away again. Kevin shows up, as Weylin had written to him, and the couple attempts to escape the plantation. Rufus catches them on the road and shoots at them, but they time travel together back to the ‘70’s and their new apartment.

After a few days, Dana time travels alone back to the 1800’s and finds Rufus very drunk and lying in a puddle. He refuses to see a doctor and Dana nurses him back to health. Meanwhile Rufus’s dad, Weylin, has a heart attack and Dana cannot save him and he dies. Rufus blames her for his father’s death and punishes her by making her work in the fields until she collapses.

Rufus treats Alice much worse than Dana. Alice gets jealous treatment Dana gets from Rufus. Alice has her second child with Rufus, Hagar, who turns out to be Dana’s direct ancestor. She tells Dana that wants to run away as soon as she can. Is growing to like Rufus and is scared he will keep treating her badly. Weylin’s wife, Margaret, returns and Dana is forced to take care of her. Rufus sells some of his slaves, and one that had been flirting with Dana. When Dana tries to stop Rufus from selling Sam, Rufus hits her. She slits her wrists and travels back in time to the future.

Dana is back and she argues with Kevin about Rufus. Kevin is jealous of Rufus’s relationship with Dana and Dana denies it all. When Dana returns to the plantation, she finds that Alice has tried to run away. To teach her a lesson, Rufus told Alice that he sold her children, but he really sent them away to live with his aunt. When Alice hears the news she is devastated with grief and kills herself. Rufus becomes overwhelmed with sadness and guilt and he tries to kill himself too. Dana is by his side every day. One day, he tells her that Dana reminds him of Alice in many ways. He tries to grab her by the wrist as she gets up and she struggles to break free. She goes to the attic space, and tries to slit her wrists to travel back home, but Rufus follows her and tries to rape her. Dana stabs him with the knife in her hand and kills him. She returns back to her apartment in the future immediately. The story ends when she looks down and her arm is cut and bruised in the spot where Rufus was holding it.

There are many issues and themes in this story including power, race, family love, violence and the feeling of home and time travel. Each of them plays a big part in getting across Butler’s message. Rufus is the best example of theme of power and its influence. His race and gender give him some power over the black minority. But when Dana first meets him as a young boy he is powerless and at that point is kind and humane. As a young boy his heart tells him that Alice and Isaac are good people and are worthy of his friendship. But as he gets older society gets to him and he turns into the typical, abusive white man. He comes into an inheritance and becomes a slave owner, and he believes that he has a right to control the lives of others, punish them and make them do whatever he wants. He turns on Alice and Isaac and begins to treat them as slaves too. Rufus takes after his father, Tom, who beats his slaves for any reason. That’s when power goes bad and the greediness for more power turns them into bad people. They do not think about how lucky they are just because of their skin color, and do not have to live a harsh life or be scared of being beaten. They think they deserve all of the power and use it to hurt a lot people, mainly the African American slaves.

In this book, the theme of family closeness keeps slaves in one place and the slave masters use that family love to dominate the slaves. The slaves know that if they make the Weylins angry they could sell them and they would have to go far away from their families. This happens to Sam, who is sold from his family for just talking to Dana. The plantation masters also encourage family as a way to trick them into staying on the farm. By supporting slaves to get married and have children it will make sure that the husband won’t leave. He is obligated to stay and provide for his family. Nigel is a good example of this. He loves his wife and children and wants them to be happy and taken care of so he is not going to talk back or try to run away. Alice is also forced to stay on the plantation because of her children. Once Rufus tells her that he sold her children, she has no reason to live and immediately kills herself.

In a way Dana’s loyalty to Rufus is a family tie. Even though Rufus mistreats her Dana continues to help him and save his life. She feels a bond to him and because he is an ancestor of his she feels attached to him. The connection with family is one of the only happy things slave have to hold on to. Unfortunately it is used against them by the slave masters and the slaves are forced to live under fear and torture to keep the family together.

Obviously race is a key theme in this book because the main story is all about slavery. From the very beginning of the story the issue of racial discrimination is shown through Dana’s adventures to the 1800’s. In Maryland, the only thing that matters is the color of her skin. Her education and independence allow her to have a little different life than Alice’s, but not by much. In everybody’s view she is still a black woman and that is why she is forced to serve at the Weylin’s plantation. Her skin color also represents the strength and courage of black people in the 1800’s. Race also adds to the white character as well. In this story it is obvious that if you are white, you can do no wrong and have the power to hurt people at any cost.

Kindred is a violent book, filled with whippings, rape, hangings, dog attacks, and other kinds of torture. Butler writes these details to bring to life the horrible life African American’s had in the 1800’s. Violence plays a major role in the story. The consequence of being beaten or raped plays a part in many of the character’s decision making. The white characters in the story know how to intimidate and pressure the black characters by threatening to beat them. Knowing this, the black characters have to decide whether to stand up and fight against the slave master or be quiet so they won’t get whipped or hanged. Butler is trying to get across that violence affects everyone, not just the people on the receiving end.

In the novel Dana travels back and forth between homes, her house in California and the Weylin plantation in Maryland. The idea of home can also be used in reference to the two time periods. By the end of the story it seems like Dana feels more at home at the plantation than her own house in the future. I think Butler is trying say that when or where your home is, is not as important as the people are that surround you. In Dana’s case she felt more at home and connected to her ancestry in Maryland.

Similarly, time travel gives Butler a way to tell the story of the two worlds. The story starts with Dana’s traveling backward in time to 1800’s Maryland and closes with her traveling back to 1970’s California. Butler explains the details about time travel or how it is done. She leaves that part to the reader’s imagination. Instead, Butler concentrates on the where Dana lands and her experiences in the 1800’s. Dana gets used to traveling through time and it seems like it an ordinary thing for her. It is also strange that Dana accepts slavery so easily in the story, especially since she is from the future where no slavery exists. Butler purposely made the story a little unbelievable to show how easily people accept the most outrageous things.

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