Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Chesnutt’s collection of dialect stories is considered to be among the best representations of plantation life in American literature. Chesnutt’s purpose was to counteract the romantic vision of slavery extolled by writers such as Joel Chandler Harris, Thomas Nelson Page, and Harry Stillwell Edwards. In contrast to the kind-master-contented-slave myths perpetuated by these authors, Chesnutt’s stories are about tragedy and heartbreak among the slaves and their efforts to ameliorate these circumstances through the aid of a conjure woman. To emphasize the hardships of slavery, Chesnutt creates Uncle Julius, a character similar in some respects to Harris’s Uncle Remus. Unlike Harris’s character, however, who tells tales about good old days on the plantation, Uncle Julius tells stories that reflect tragic themes.

A common theme is the forced separation of loved ones. In “Po Sandy,” the protagonist suffers this fate twice. Sandy’s master trades the slave’s wife for a new woman. Sandy grieves about this loss, but he adjusts by falling in love with the new woman, Tenie. When Sandy learns that his new master intends to hire him out to work on a distant plantation, he allows Tenie to turn him into a tree so that he can remain stable and be near her. The lovers are separated permanently, however, when the master loans Tenie to another plantation and cuts the tree (Sandy) down while she is away. Like Po Sandy, the title character in “Sis Becky” suffers twice from separation from loved ones. When the plantation master sells her husband, Becky soothes her grief by finding joy in their child, little Mose. Becky’s master, however, trades her for a race horse, forcing a separation between her and little Mose. The sorrow of both mother and child is eased when a conjure woman turns the child into a bird. Periodically, little Mose flies to his mother, who finds solace in his song. In “Hot-Foot Hannibal,” a separation between lovers causes tragedy. When Jeff is sold away from Chloe, he commits suicide rather than live without her. Chloe assuages her grief by returning every evening to the willow tree where she and Jeff used to meet. Her grief is so intense that even after death her “hant” returns and sits under the willow tree.

Another sordid theme deals with the economic interests of slavemasters. In “The Goophered Grapevine,” Mars Dugal does not hesitate to have the conjure woman “goopher” (poison) his grapes to keep the slaves from eating them and limiting his...

(The entire section is 1025 words.)