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.
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 ate some of the grapes. So that he would not die, Aunt Peggy made him a counter-goopher. Then a strange thing happened. Every year, as the grapes ripened, this slave became so young and sprightly that he could do the work of several men, but in the fall, when the vines died, he withered and faded. This strange action went on for several years, until the master hit upon the idea of selling the slave every spring when he was strong and buying him back cheaply in the fall. By this transaction, he made money each year.
One year, the master hired an expert to prune his vines, but the expert cut them out too deeply and the vines were ruined. Soon afterward, the slave who bloomed and withered with the vines also died. Some said he died of old age, but Uncle Julius knew that it was the goopher that finally overcame him. Uncle Julius advises strongly against buying the land because the conjure is still on.
The Narrator buys the plantation, however, and it prospers. Later, he learns that Uncle Julius is living in a cabin on the place and sells the grapes. He always suspects that the story was told to prevent ruination of the old man’s business. He gives Uncle Julius employment as a coachman, and so the former slave is well cared for.
When Annie wants a new kitchen, her husband decides to tear down an old schoolhouse on the place and use the lumber from it for the new building. Uncle Julius advises him against the plan. Strangely...
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...
Andrews, William L. “Dialect Stories.” In The Literary Career of Charles W. Chesnutt. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1980. Focuses on the literary tradition of The Conjure Woman. Chesnutt wrote The Conjure Woman in the popular local-color tradition of the 1880’s. The dialect, cultural habits, and the terrain of the Cape Fear area of North Carolina are faithfully represented in The Conjure Woman.
Ashe, Bertram D. “’A Little Personal Attention’: Storytelling and the Black Audience in Charles W. Chesnutt’s The Conjure Woman.” In From Within the Frame: Storytelling in African-American Fiction. New York: Routledge, 2002. Analysis of the importance of the framing story to the short stories contained within The Conjure Woman and the function of that frame for African American readers in particular.
Babb, Valerie. “Subversion and Repatriation in The Conjure Woman.” The Southern Quarterly 25 (Winter, 1987): 66-75. Compares Joel Chandler Harris’s Uncle Remus stories to The Conjure Woman. Harris uses black dialect to reinforce his views of white supremacy. Chesnutt uses black dialect as a “subversive strategy to undo the ideology of white supremacy.”
Frenberg, Lorne. “Charles W. Chesnutt and Uncle Julius: Black Storytellers at the Crossroads.” Studies in American Fiction 15 (1987): 161-173. Focuses on The Conjure Woman’s representation of the reconstructed South. John and Uncle Julius are at a “crossroad” of surviving during a transitional period in history. Chesnutt establishes a barrier between his white narrator, John, and his black storyteller, Julius, that operates as both “mask” and “veil.”
Gloster, Hugh M. “Negro Fiction to World War I.” In Negro Voices in America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1946. Reprint. New York: Russell and Russell, 1965. Identifies The Conjure Woman as high art and asserts that Chesnutt entertains yet presents a realistic view of plantation life.
Render, Sylvia Lyons. “Business for Pleasure.” In Charles W. Chesnutt. Boston: Twayne, 1980. Discusses character and theme in The Conjure Woman. Uncle Julius is a stereotype who carries unconventional messages about slavery. The stories are connected by a conjure woman and man who reflect the cultural practices of a region.
Wilson, Matthew. “Border Controls of Race and Gender: Crane’s The Monster and Chesnutt’s The Conjure Woman.” In Multiculturalism: Roots and Realities, edited by C. James Trotman. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002. Uses the concept of multiculturalism to unearth hidden themes and the social history behind The Conjure Woman.