Summary (Masterplots II: African American Literature, Revised Edition)
Jubilee tells a story of slavery, the Civil War, and the Reconstruction period from the point of view of the black people who were often both victims and pawns in a struggle that convulsed an entire nation. Just as Gone with the Wind (1936) is the story not just of a period but of a woman, the indomitable Scarlett O’Hara, so the narrative power of Jubilee derives from its protagonist, the slave Vyry, modeled after Margaret Duggans Ware Brown, the author’s great-grandmother. The book was inspired by the stories told to Margaret Walker at bedtime during her childhood by her grandmother, Elvira Ware Dozier, who is Vyry’s daughter Minna in the novel. Thus, as Walker points out in her book How I Wrote “Jubilee” (1972), the novel has a solid basis in oral tradition, which was later amplified with the extensive study of slave narratives. In her attempt to ensure the accuracy of her work, Walker invested a solid ten years in research, checking not only the historical background but also minute details of everyday life.
Walker’s novel is divided into three sections, each of which represents a distinct historical period as well as a separate segment of Vyry’s life. The first, “Sis Hetta’s Child—The Ante-Bellum Years,” is the account of Vyry’s childhood as a slave. It begins when Vyry is two years old and her mother, Sis Hetta, is dying in childbirth. Although she is only twenty-nine years old, Sis Hetta...
(The entire section is 881 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
Jubilee follows the protagonist, Vyry, from the age of two, when her twenty-nine-year-old mother dies after having borne fifteen children, many of them to the master of the plantation, through the Civil War and Emancipation, finally leaving her in her own home at Greenville, Alabama, with the knowledge that her children will be educated. The novel is unified by the central character Vyry, who comes to represent all of the thwarted aspirations of the slaves; by the continuing associations of the principal characters who survive into the Reconstruction period; and by the theme of freedom, embodied in the hopeful spiritual from which comes the title of the book.
Jubilee is divided into three equal sections. In the first, the orphaned child becomes accustomed to the loss of those whom she loves: of Mammy Sukey, who had mothered her in infancy and who dies of a “plague” brought by a new slave; of Aunt Sally, the slave cook, sold because of rumors of poisonings on other plantations. Later, this pattern of loss is continued when Vyry’s husband, Randall Ware, a free black man, and therefore suspect, flees North, begging Vyry to leave their two children and escape with him. Because she insists on taking her children Jim and Minna, Vyry is caught, and the section ends with her being beaten almost to the point of death.
The second section involves suffering and loss both for blacks and for whites. John Morris Dutton dies of...
(The entire section is 493 words.)
Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
“Jubilee” is the biblical name for amnesty and forgiving of money debts every forty-nine years. The novel is organized in three parts. Chapter 1 (1837) is titled “Sis Hetta’s Child—The Ante-Bellum Years.” The novel opens with the birth of Vyry in 1837, Hetta’s last child, on the John Morris Dutton plantation, in Dawson, Georgia. The thirty-five-year-old Dutton was her father. Vyry would be able to pass for white. Hetta then died in pregnancy when Vyry was two. Mothered by Mammy Sukey until she is old enough to work at the age of seven, Vyry looks like the twin of Miss Lillian, Dutton’s child with his wife, Salina. In this chapter, nearly all the important characters of the story are introduced.
Chapter 2 takes place in 1844. At age seven, Vyry becomes a house servant, to be brutalized by the jealous Dutton wife, Big Missy Salina. Grimes, the plantation overseer, is a poor, white man. Vyry breaks a dish and is punished by Big Missy by being hung by her wrists in a closet. The beautiful natural landscape of Georgia is described once again.
Chapter 3 (1847) describes ten-year-old Vyry’s world of work, often using the inventories of things such as food, work tasks, animals, sicknesses, and children’s games to go with the folk songs and slave songs that regularly punctuate the narrative and make Jubilee into a discourse for oral telling. The religion of the slaves has a biblical connection, but it is not the same as...
(The entire section is 768 words.)
Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
As a small child, Vyry is taken to the cabin where her mother lies dying, her body worn out from constant childbearing. Mammy Sukey cares for Vyry for several years as she grows up on the Dutton plantation, until Big Missy (Salina, the plantation’s mistress) and Grimes, the overseer, order the child to work in the Big House as Miss Lillian’s maid. The day she starts working as a maid, Vyry sees six new slaves being brought in, one of whom is sick with plague. The disease spreads, and five other slaves die, including Vyry’s beloved Mammy Sukey.
Vyry and Lillian had played together as small children, but Vyry shows no aptitude for working as her maid. When she breaks a dish, Salina hangs her up by her thumbs in a closet. Vyry is rescued only when Lillian tells Marster John what has happened upon his return from a trip and John takes her down. Salina especially hates Vyry because the slave’s resemblance to Lillian reminds Salina of her husband’s dalliances. John is more easygoing than his wife, but, traveling for his political career, he leaves most plantation management to Salina and to Grimes, both of whom hate black people wholeheartedly.
After Vyry’s brush with death, John sends Vyry to live with Aunt Sally, the Big House cook. Vyry works as Sally’s helper and becomes an excellent cook herself. Growing up on the isolated plantation, she learns how the antebellum southern world treats people of color. She sees dogs loosed to maul...
(The entire section is 1100 words.)
Jubilee (1966), by Margaret Walker, is a fictionalized but historically grounded account of the experiences of African Americans in the South before, during, and after the Civil War. This long novel is divided into three sections of roughly equal length.
I. Sis Hetta’s Child—The Ante-Bellum Years
The first section of Jubilee (Chapters 1 through 16) introduces a number of characters and story lines but focuses mostly on the central character, Vyry. The first few chapters jump forward in time, presenting highlights in Vyry’s young life. For example, in Chapter 1, Vyry is roughly two years old when she is brought from one of the Dutton plantations to another to be seen by Hetta, her mother, who is lying on her deathbed. In Chapter 2, she is seven years old and is taken by Mammy Sukey to the Big House to work. She waits on her half-sister, Lillian, and is tormented by Salina Dutton. In Chapter 3, Vyry is ten years old and is living with Aunt Sally after Mammy Sukey’s death.
Numerous story lines are developed in this first section of the novel: John Morris Dutton is beginning to realize his political aspirations. Brother Zeke, the preacher among the slaves, uses stealth and a forged pass to move freely from plantation to plantation. Ed Grimes, the wholly unsympathetic plantation overseer, reacts to the death of his favorite dog and two of his children by murdering an innocent old slave. Two slave women are publicly hanged for allegedly poisoning their owner and his mother. Lillian’s marriage to Kevin MacDougall is celebrated. Two Black men and two White men help slaves escape through the Underground Railroad. Lucy is branded for hiding in the swamps; she subsequently escapes the plantation. The main storyline is clearly the budding relationship between Vyry and Randall Ware, a free and independent Black man who works as a blacksmith. Randall promises to free Vyry if she marries him, but John Dutton refuses to consent, as her marriage to a free Black man would end his ownership of her. In the closing chapters of the first section, Vyry is twenty years old and has given birth to two children by Randall when she learns that she is to be sold at auction; she turns to Brother Zeke for help. He proposes having a White man purchase her using Randall’s money, but the plan is uncovered and fails. Increased hostility from Whites toward free Blacks drives Randall to convince Vyry...
(The entire section is 1955 words.)