The Concept of Home
If one hundred people were randomly asked to define what home means to them, the answers would most likely have significant variance. While the traditional meaning of home as the place where a person lives would most likely be one of the top answers, some people may consider home where they grew up or where their loved ones are. Additionally, some people may have multiple answers to the question of what home means to them. In her novel, Kindred, Octavia Butler challenges the traditional belief that home is a concrete place where a person lives and aims to prove that the concept of home has various implications for different people by demonstrating how the concept of home has a fluid, fragmented nature for individuals, especially Dana, in her novel. By having two extremely different settings in her novel, Butler is able to examine the concept of home across different generations and time periods. In the setting on the Weylin plantation, the slaves embody a fragmented concept of home.
The slaves on the Weylin plantation have multiple different concepts of home that change over the course of the novel. For example, Nigel, a slave who was born on the plantation, has never lived anywhere besides the plantation. It would be natural for him to consider the plantation as his home because he has lived there his entire life. However, Rufus tells Dana, “Oh, Nigel ran away. Patrollers brought him back, though, hungry and sick,” (Butler 139). How can a person consider a place home if he or she runs away and has to be brought back to it by force? The answer lies in the fact that Nigel’s life on the plantation as a slave is extremely hard because he is forced to live in a toxic environment where he is considered property. This would lead the readers to believe that Nigel in fact does not consider the plantation home. However, when Nigel marries Carrie and has children with her, he builds a house on the plantation and never attempts to run away again. As Rufus explains to Dana, “Man marries, has children, he’s more likely to stay where he is,” (Butler 139) meaning that if a slave has family on the plantation, he won’t want to run away. This signals a new meaning of home, that to Nigel the plantation becomes home for him not because it is where he lives, but because he has meaningful relationships there.
The concept of home also becomes significantly fragmented for Kevin as the novel progresses. At the start of the novel, Kevin, whose parents have died, has just moved into a new house with Dana. Before announcing his marriage to Dana, Kevin’s only close family that he had left was his sister. However, when Kevin tells his sister about his engagement to Dana, a black woman, his sister reveals, “That she didn’t want to meet Dana, wouldn’t have Dana in her house – or Kevin either if he married Dana,” (Butler 110). Kevin essentially had no family left after he married Dana, meaning that Dana became his only family. At the time of the start of Dana’s trips back to the past, all Kevin had as a home was a brand new house that wasn’t even unpacked yet and Dana.
On Dana’s third trip back into the past, Kevin is holding onto her and is taken back with her. While living on the plantation with Dana, Kevin has to act like he belongs to the time, and he begins to become part of the household. Dana is even scared at “How easy they seem to acclimatize” (Butler 97) to the time and prejudices that were happening around them. The reason that Kevin is able to acclimatize so easily is twofold. For one, he is a white male, which puts him in the highest social class of society at the time. Additionally, Kevin doesn’t think that he will be stuck in the past for that long. Essentially, he thinks that he is just acting until it is time to go back home to the present. However, when Dana is whipped by Mr. Weylin, the pain is too great, and she returns home before Kevin could get to her, stranding him in the past for 5 years. During that time in the past, Kevin is forced to build a life for himself and embrace the time in which he was stuck in. Kevin eventually moves north and begins to help slaves escape to the free states of the north. However, when he returns to the house he only lived in for two days, he does not fully return home right away. Dana says that, “I found him fiddling with the stove, turning the burners on, staring into the blue flame, turning them off, opening the oven, peering in,” (Butler 190) revealing that Kevin does not remember many of the simple things that come with living in the 20th century. Usually, if a person returns to a place he or she calls home, they aren’t very disoriented and uncomfortable as Kevin is portrayed to be. Kevin even says, “If I’m not home yet, maybe I don’t have a home,” (Butler 190) demonstrating the confusion that Kevin is dealing with. This confusion is to be expected, however, because Kevin’s concept of home is significantly fragmented. In addition to the fact that Kevin’s only meaningful relationship in the present is Dana, who he hasn’t seen in five years, Kevin only lived in his new house for two days before spending five years in the past. This fragmentation is even clearer in Dana’s experiences throughout the novel.
Dana’s idea of what home is evolves a great deal as Dana is thrown back and forth between the present and past. At the beginning of the novel, Dana’s idea of home is mainly reliant on a physical place, her new home, because she doesn’t have many real substantive relationships. Both of Dana’s parents have passed away and her only close family left are her uncle and aunt, who basically raised her. Much like Kevin, when Dana tells her uncle and aunt that she is engaged to Kevin, a white man, her aunt is not happy but ‘forgives’ Dana for Kevin (Butler 111). However, Dana’s uncle goes so far to say that he “takes this personally” (Butler 111) and said that he is taking Dana out of his will (Butler 112). At this time period, interracial relationships were still not socially acceptable among many people, especially older people. This left Dana with no meaningful relationships besides her marriage to Kevin. This coupled with only spending two days in their new house before starting her journeys back to the plantation contributes to Dana’s fluid concept of home.
Dana’s concept of home begins to change when she is called back by Rufus for the second time. In talking with Rufus, Dana realizes that somehow she has traveled back in time and is with her ancestors. Dana says, “These people were my relatives, my ancestors. And this place could be my refuge,” (Butler 37) displaying the first time that Dana begins to see a place for herself in the past. When Dana comes back a third time, she tells Kevin that, “I want to … I have to make a place for myself here … And I need friends,” (Butler 79). Instead of wanting to return home as soon as possible like the previous two trips to the past, Dana wants doesn’t want to leave right away. In fact, she wants to stay for a couple months so that she can make friends and develop her relationship with Rufus. As Dana spends more and more time on the plantation, she begins to form relationships with the people on the plantation, especially the other slaves and Rufus. Dana decides to teach Nigel to read and write (Butler 101) with the hopes that someday he could write himself a pass to another town if he ever wanted to run away, showing that Dana is starting to care about the other slaves on the plantation.
When Dana returned to the home without Kevin, she begins to question her concept of what home means to her. Dana says, “Today and yesterday didn’t mesh. I felt almost as strange as I had after my first trip back to Rufus – caught between his home and mine,” (Butler 115). Dana begins to acknowledge that not only does part of herself not feel at home, but that part of herself feels like it is still back in Rufus’s time. Additionally, Dana begins to start living a clearer more purposeful life in the past than she does in the present. When Dana returns back to the present without Kevin, she “slowly became aware of sunlight, shadow, and shapes” (Butler 112). However, when Dana returns to the past, she “was immediately alert and wary” (Butler 117), hinting at the idea that the past is becoming clearer than the present for Dana. One reason for this may be because Dana spends very short amount of times in the present, the longest being eight days, but very long periods in the past. Essentially, Dana ends up just waiting around until she returns to the plantation when she is in the present. Not only is she not really “living” when she returns to the present, but she also feels that she has a purpose when she is living in the past.
Dana also forms meaningful relationships on the plantation that challenge her idea of her home being solely her house in the present. When Dana is called back to save Rufus from being killed by Isaac, Carrie runs to her to hug her. Additionally when Tom Weylin sees them hug and asks what is going on, Dana responds, “We’re old friends, sir,” (Butler 128). This is one of the first times that Dana acknowledges that she has become friends with some of the other slaves on the plantation. She also reveals how much she cares for the other slaves on the plantation when she learns that Tom Weylin sold Luke. Dana asks Rufus, “Luke did his work, how could your father sell him,” revealing that Dana is worried about Luke and feels bad that he has been separated from everyone on the plantation. Luke being sold represents another way that the concept of home is fragmented for slaves. At any time, they can be sold and will be forced to leave their family and friends forever.
The other individuals in the novel also begin to see Dana as “home” when she is on the plantation. Rufus says to Dana, “You’ll be all right here. You’re home,” (Butler143) exposing that Rufus believes Dana belongs on the plantation. Sarah tells Dana, “I hope you stay around for a while, girl,” demonstrating that Dana has had an impact on the other people living on the plantation. Even Tom Weylin believes that Dana is home when she is on the planation. Weylin tells Dana that she will always have a home on the plantation as long as she keeps helping Rufus (Butler 201). Tom Weylin had been the most critical of Dana up to this point in the novel, always being wary of Dana because she was educated. But now, Tom accepts Dana and wants to give her a place on his plantation. These people repeatedly telling Dana that she is home when she is on the plantation and that she belongs on the plantation makes her question if she really is most at home when she is on the plantation.
The concept of what home means to Dana has significantly changed by the end of the novel. Instead of thinking of home as her new house in the present with Kevin, Dana sees the plantation as a place where she feels more at home than when she is in the present. When Dana is reliving her memory of the last time she was called back to help Rufus, she says, “I could recall feeling relief at seeing the house, feeling that I had come home,” (Butler 190). Additionally, Dana says, “I felt as though I were losing my place here in my own time. Rufus’s time was a sharper, stronger reality,” (Butler 191). Dana’s concept home has changed because she not only spent much longer periods of time on the plantation than she did in the past, but she also formed meaningful relationships with people she cared about. However, Dana always sees her house in the present as a home because it is a safe haven for her, a place where she cannot be hurt unlike her home on the plantation.
The concept that home is only a concrete place where a person lives is challenged in the novel as the individuals in the novel struggle with their own ideas about what home means to them. For the slaves, they are forced to work in a terrible environment, but that environment may be the only thing they have ever known. For many such as Nigel, the plantation does not become home until they have family and close friends who live with them on the plantation. However, this can be broken up at any time because they can be sold any day. Like Dana, Kevin has no close family or friends left in his life besides Dana when he gets stranded in the past for five years. Kevin’s idea of home becomes fragmented because he has lived for five years in the past and comes back to a house that he has only lived in for just two days. Dana’s concept of home evolves as the novel progresses and she forms meaningful relationships with the people on the plantation. Dana comes to feel that, while Kevin and her house in the present will always represent home for her, she feels even more at home when she is on the plantation. Home is does not have a singular definition or meaning. Rather, home has a unique meaning to each person based on their own personal experiences and beliefs.