Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
With the stories collected in The Conjure Woman, Chesnutt discovered a way to introduce into apparently humorous tall tales depictions of black characters who avoided the negative stereotypes then current in fiction and to include, beneath the comic surface, a level of social criticism. John, a young white man from the North, goes to North Carolina after the Civil War to find a suitable climate to help his wife Annie’s poor health and to buy a plantation for growing grapes. He and his wife meet Uncle Julius, an elderly former slave, who tells them anecdotes that revolve around instances of conjuring, or magic.
In “The Goophered Grapevine,” Chesnutt’s first major publication and still his most frequently anthologized story, Julius tells in minutely rendered dialect the tale of the slave Henry, whose health and appearance are magically linked with those of the bewitched, or “goophered,” grapes that he has eaten from the plantation that John has come South to purchase. Henry’s master takes advantage of the enchantment by selling him to a new owner every spring, when he is young and healthy, and buying him back every fall, when he becomes old. At one level, the tale is an attempt by Julius, who makes money selling the grapes, to dissuade John from buying the bewitched plantation. At a deeper level, however, the story can be read as social criticism of the owners’ treatment of Henry, who withers away and dies.
(The entire section is 407 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
When the Narrator’s wife begins to suffer ill effects from the severe Great Lakes climate, he looks for a suitable place to take her. He was engaged in grape culture in Ohio, and when he learns of a small North Carolina town that seems to offer what he needs in climate and suitable land, he decides to buy an old, dilapidated plantation and settle there. An untended vineyard is already on the property; with a little care and expense, the vines will flourish once more. On the day that he takes his wife, Annie, to look at the plantation, they happen upon an ancient African American who calls himself Uncle Julius. He advises them not to buy the plantation because it is goophered. Realizing they do not know that anything goophered is bewitched (conjured), the old man asks permission to tell them the story of the vineyard.
Many years before the war, when Uncle Julius was still a slave, the plantation owner made many thousands of dollars from the grapes. Because the master could never keep the slaves from eating the rich grapes and stealing the wine made from them, he conceived the idea of having Aunt Peggy, a conjure woman living nearby, put a goopher on the vines. She made one that said that any black person eating the grapes would die within a year. Most of the slaves stayed away from the grapes, but a few tried them in spite of the conjure, and they all died. When a new slave came to the plantation, no one remembered to tell him about the conjure, and he...
(The entire section is 1191 words.)
Summary (Masterplots II: African American Literature, Revised Edition)
The Conjure Woman is a novel in the form of a collection of short stories about the New and the Old South. John, the narrator, comes to the New South after the Civil War because of the business opportunities and the healthy climate it offers him and his wife. Land and labor are cheap, and the area is conducive to farming. He buys an old plantation and transforms the unproductive vineyard into a lucrative grape business. John and Annie’s boredom with slow-paced southern life is offset largely by Uncle Julius’s stories of the Old South. As John relates these tales, using Uncle Julius’s dialect, readers become aware of the old former slave’s cleverness and wit.
The collection begins with “The Goophered Grapevine.” Uncle Julius tells the story to prevent John from buying the old plantation. Uncle Julius lives in one of the slave cabins and makes a living selling the grapes that he gathers from the run-down vineyard. After Uncle Julius tells John about the plight of an ex-slave named Henry who mistakenly ate grapes from the “goophered” vines and died when the vines withered, John permits Uncle Julius to continue living on the place and gives him a job.
In telling “Po Sandy,” Uncle Julius’s goal is to prevent the narrator and his wife from tearing down an old schoolhouse on the plantation. John’s wife wants a new kitchen, and John wants to build it with lumber from the schoolhouse. Uncle Julius, who has his own plans...
(The entire section is 595 words.)