Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Joel Chandler Harris combines journalistic integrity and an ear for African-American dialect to reproduce authentic oral tradition in print. The tales themselves are remnants or at least reproductions of the tale-telling traditions prevalent in West Africa, yet this story reflects the social experience and historical perspective of African Americans defining themselves through the trickster hero, Brer Rabbit. It is neither the content nor the interpretation of the meaning but the dialect that may cause initial difficulty in reading this story. Harris attempted to reproduce the story the way he remembered hearing it. It was a “language” he knew well, but one that is difficult to read. Read aloud by someone who knows the dialect, however, it is clear and easy to follow.

The dialectal spelling and sentence structure are only two of the stylistic techniques noticeable in this story. The framework of the story-teller, Uncle Remus, and the small boy, there to ask questions, removes the story from direct contact with the reader; thus, the racial message is rendered less threatening. At the same time, this setting provides a context that makes the story more accessible. Miss Sally, the yams cooking in the ashes, the old black man, and the little white boy sharing secrets provide a background for a story about talking animals. The participant-observer quality of the author provides an authentic writing style that is unique to Joel Chandler Harris. “The Wonderful Tar-Baby Story” is a blend of humor, pathos, and realism, far more than simply a children’s story.