Study Guide

Jubilee

by Margaret Walker

Jubilee Summary

Summary (Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

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 has given birth to fifteen children, many of them the offspring of her white master, John Dutton. Although he does not acknowledge Vyry or his other slave children, his wife Salina Dutton, or “Big Missy,” is painfully aware of their existence. Because Vyry looks so much like her own daughter, Lillian Dutton, Salina vents her anger toward her husband by mistreating Vyry on every possible occasion. Vyry cannot expect any help from her father. When she asks permission to marry Randall Ware, Dutton refuses his permission, thus making it clear that, despite his facile promises, he has no intention of ever setting Vyry free, either during his life or after his death. The section ends with Vyry’s...

(The entire section is 881 words.)

Jubilee Summary (Masterpieces of American Fiction)

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.)

Jubilee Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

“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 that of the Southern whites. The slave Brother Ezekiel can read and write. Near the Dutton plantation, white antislavery agitators appear in the late 1840’s.

Chapters 4 through 7, taking place around 1851, depict Ezekiel the minister, who is also an agent of the Underground Railroad. Vyry is more warmly dressed and better fed in winter than many poor whites. Randall Ware, a freeman blacksmith with his own...

(The entire section is 768 words.)

Jubilee Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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 a runaway slave to death and two old black men locked into a shed that Grimes then sets on fire because they can no longer earn their keep. Aunt Sally is sold away because Salina fears poisoning.

Vyry takes over Sally’s kitchen duties. As her mentor had, she sings to dispel her problems. When Randall Ware does some work on the plantation, he meets Vyry, who has become a competent young woman of sixteen. They fall in love. Randall starts to visit Vyry surreptitiously at night. Brother Ezekiel can marry them only in a “broomstick” ceremony. Over the next few years, they have two children. Randall tries to buy Vyry’s freedom, but the attempt goes wrong and puts him in danger. He asks Vyry to flee north with him. On the appointed night, Vyry reaches the riverbank meeting place too late. Grimes has her brutally whipped when she returns.

John Dutton breaks his leg in a carriage accident in early 1860. After several pain-filled weeks, he dies. His son Johnny enlists in the Confederate army right after his West Point graduation. He likes being an officer but is mortally wounded at Chickamauga. Lillian’s husband, a reluctant enlistee, also dies in battle. Randall Ware joins General Dodge’s Union forces...

(The entire section is 1100 words.)

Jubilee Extended Summary

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...

(The entire section is 1955 words.)