October 15, 2009
The Reality of Things
One of Octavia Butler’s goals in Kindred is to convey to the readers the reality of the situation that Dana is experience in a way that television cannot. This is most evident in the scene in “The Fire” in which Dana witnesses for the first time, the beating of a male slave. In the passage, Butler’s uses Dana as the narrator to expresses her new found reality through this event that was never achieved with television by saying, “I had seen people beaten on television and in the movies. I had seen the too-red blood substitute streaked across their backs and heard their well-rehearsed screams. But I hadn’t lain nearby and smelled their sweat or heard them pleading and praying, shamed before their families and themselves” (Pg. 36). I believe that Butler achieved her goal through the elements of the scene that she focuses’ on, her sentence structure and word choice, and by showing the readers Dana’s reactions to the event.
A huge difference in Butler’s telling of the experience and television’s telling is what the focus of each one is on. In television, the whole scene plays out and the viewer sees and hears all that happens. This forces the viewer to attempt to take in the entirety of the situation in an overwhelmingly short amount of time and thus a detachment from the situation is formed. Butler however has the ability to limit what the reader takes in so no information overload occurs. When mentioning the patrollers, Butler doesn’t focus on them but instead uses them to show how their jeers and torment affected the blacks. Butler rarely mentions the whip and only if it puts into perspective the pain the man is going through. She also focuses on specifically the sound, sight, smell and emotions of the blacks. She shows us the pain of the man through sight, sound, and smell- something that could never be accomplished by television. When watching television everything is seen, however the physical world is not just about sight. The addition to the imagery of sound and smell automatically makes the beating of the man more real to the reader than television ever could. Even though we are given more in depth information and imagery, Butler focuses specifically on the blacks and their pain and shame and removes all other distractions. When the viewer sees everything that is happening on television they don’t know what to focus on and just look at the bigger picture or go from aspect to the other so that no real emotional connection is formed. The emotional connection is a crucial part for the reader to experience for the situation to become a reality. With television the viewer sees the shame and pain of the blacks but with all of the other things going on the viewer cannot focus on it or truly empathize with them. When Butler removes all of the distractions a clear picture is shown. Instead of just watching their pain like a documentary, the reader is now shown the reality that this pain the blacks are experiencing it as a part of their everyday life. Butler shows the readers how unprepared our society would be for this reality through Dana’s thoughts when she says “I was probably less prepared from the reality than the child crying not far from me” (Pg 36). Television’s inability to focus on the details of a situation allows Butler to give the reader a better taste of the blacks and their reality.
Butler makes the situation real for the readers by showing them how Dana reacted to the situation. When Dana describes her reaction she discusses the physical affects that the beating of the man had on her. Butler not focuses the reader’s attention to maximize their perception of the reality of the situation but also shows us how we would be reacting to it through Dana’s reactions. She shows us how our body would be reacting if we had witnessed this up close and personal when Dana says “My stomach heaved, and I had to force myself to stay where I was and keep quiet” (Pg. 36). Just by smelling his blood and sweat and hearing his screams she has the urge to be physically sick and fights to hold it back. When watching television Dana never had this strong of a physical reaction because through it, she had never experienced all of these different aspects. Dana had been watching this new reality unfold before her with the addition of smell and her new focus on the man. Butler goes on to show us how we should be reacting emotionally to the situation when Dana observes how her “face too was wet with tears” (Pg. 36), Up to this point Dana is focusing on what is happening to the man and trying not to be sick. Suddenly she observes that she had been crying, seemingly without noticing. The emotional connection not found through television because of its lack of focus is now established. Here Butler acknowledges that the readers are feeling new emotions because of her new perspective and shows them that this is alright. In a way, Butler gives the readers permission to accept this situation as a reality by showing them how Dana did exactly the same thing. The difference in just watching the event on television and experiencing the event is shown through Dana. The readers reaction to the situation evoked by Butler, though it may not have been as severe as Dana’s, show that they have a better understanding of the dynamic reality of the whipping.
Butler’s sentence structure and word choice played a key role in her ability to make this scene a reality for the reader. Many times in this passage Butler uses short sentences or phrases of about two to three words. This creates and emphasis for what she is saying without leaving the reader needing more information to know what is happening. This is especially evident near the beginning of the passage with, “There was raucous laughter. ‘Seen more and better,’ someone else added. There were obscenities, more laughter” (Pg 36). Combined with her word choice, (i.e. the type of laughter and comments made) these abrupt sentences allow her to have almost complete control over the readers’ interpretation of what is happening. Butler also used the other extreme of sentence length to control the readers’ reactions. One example of this is the sentence “I could see his body jerking, convulsing, straining against the rope as his screaming went on and on (Pg. 36).” When she uses long, run-on sentences, she controls the readers’ breathing and though they are simply reading, their breath becomes strained because they are used to the previous and more common shorter sentences. With this different breathing pattern there is anticipation created and a closer physical connection to the events taking place, thus making them more real. Even more anticipation and a sense of fear is given to the readers by Butler through Dana’s words of panic such as “Why didn’t they stop!” (Pg. 36) and her explanation of how her “mind was darting from one thought to another” (Pg. 36).
Butlers’ goal of showing the reality that television could not is achieved through the focus of imagery, and the way she tells of the experience. By controlling the readers’ reaction and view of the situation a distinct picture of the black family’s pain and shame is clearly shown through the book even though it is a key element always missed in television.