Charles Waddell Chesnutt Short Fiction Analysis
The short fiction of Charles Waddell Chesnutt embraces traditions characteristic of both formal and folk art. Indeed, the elements of Chesnutt’s narrative technique evolved in a fashion that conspicuously parallels the historical shaping of the formal short story itself. The typical Chesnutt narrative, like the classic short story, assumes its heritage from a rich oral tradition immersed in folkways, mannerisms, and beliefs. Holding true to the historical development of the short story as an artistic form, his early imaginative narratives were episodic in nature. The next stage of development in Chesnutt’s short fiction was a parody of the fable form with a folkloric variation. Having become proficient at telling a story with a unified effect, Chesnutt achieved the symbolic resonance characteristic of the Romantic tale, yet his awareness of the plight of his people urged him toward an increasingly realistic depiction of social conditions. As a mature writer, Chesnutt achieved depth of characterization, distinguishable thematic features, and a rare skillfulness in creation of mood, while a shrewdly moralizing tone allowed him to achieve his dual goal as artist and social activist.
“The Goophered Grapevine”
Chesnutt’s journal stories constituted the first phase of his writing career, but when The Atlantic Monthly published “The Goophered Grapevine” in 1888, the serious aspects of his artistic skill became apparent. “The Goophered Grapevine” belongs to a tradition in Chesnutt’s writings which captures the fable form with a folkloric variation. These stories also unfold with a didactic strain which matures significantly in Chesnutt’s later writings. To understand clearly the series of stories in The Conjure Woman, of which “The Goophered Grapevine” is one, the reader must comprehend the allegorical features in the principal narrative situation and the thematic intent of the mythic incidents from African American lore.
The Conjure Woman contains narratives revealed through the accounts of a Northern white person’s rendition of the tales of Uncle Julius, a former slave. This storytelling device lays the foundation for Chesnutt’s sociological commentary. The real and perceived voices represent the perspectives he wishes to expose, those of the white capitalist and the impoverished, disadvantaged African American. The primary persona is that of the capitalist, while the perceived voice is that of the struggling poor. Chesnutt skillfully melds the two perspectives.
Chesnutt’s two volumes of short stories contain pieces which are unified in theme, tone, and mood. Each volume also contains a piece which might be considered the lead story. In The Conjure Woman, the preeminent story is “The Goophered Grapevine.” This story embodies the overriding thematic intent of the narratives in this collection. Chesnutt points out the foibles of the capitalistic quest in the post-Civil War South, a venture pursued at the expense of the newly freed African American slave. He illustrates this point in “The Goophered Grapevine” by skillfully intertwining Aunt Peggy’s gains as a result of her conjurations and Henry’s destruction as a result of man’s inhumanity to man. Chesnutt discloses his ultimate point when the plantation owner, McAdoo, is deceived by a Yankee horticulturist and his grape vineyard becomes totally unproductive.
Running episodes, such as Aunt Peggy’s conjurations to keep the field hands from consuming the grape crop and the seasonal benefit McAdoo gains from selling Henry, serve to illustrate the interplay between a monied white capitalist and his less privileged black human resources. McAdoo used Aunt Peggy to deny his field laborers any benefit from the land they worked, and he sold Henry every spring to increase his cash flow and prepare for the next gardening season.
The central metaphor in “The Goophered Grapevine” is the bewitched vineyard. To illustrate and condemn man’s inhumanity to man, Chesnutt contrasts the black conjure woman’s protection of the grape vineyard with the white Yankee’s destruction of it. McAdoo’s exploitation of Henry serves to justify McAdoo’s ultimate ruin. Through allegory, Chesnutt is able to draw attention to the immorality of capitalistic gain through a sacrifice of basic humanity to other people.
Following the theme of inhumanity established in “The Goophered Grapevine,” “Po’ Sandy” highlights the abuse of a former slave laborer. Accordingly, a situation with a folkloric variation is used to convey this message. Sandy, Master Marabo’s field hand, is shifted from relative to relative at various points during the year to perform various duties. During the course of these transactions, he is separated from his second common-law wife, Tenie. (His first wife has been sent to work at a distant plantation.) Tenie is a conjurer. She transforms Sandy into a tree, and she changes him back to his original state periodically so that they can be together. With Sandy’s apparent disappearance, Master Marabo decides to send Tenie away to nurse his ailing daughter-in-law. There is therefore no one left to watch Sandy, the tree. The dehumanizing effects of industrialization creep into the story line at this point. The “tree” is to be used as lumber for a kitchen at the Marabo home. Tenie returns just in time to try to stop this transformation at the lumber mill, but she is deemed “mad.”
Sandy’s spirit thereafter haunts the Marabo kitchen, and no one wants to work there. The complaints are so extensive that the kitchen is dismantled and the lumber donated toward the building of a school. This structure is then haunted, too. The point is that industrialization and economic gain diminish essential human concerns and can lead to destruction. The destruction of Sandy’s marital relationships in order to increase his usefulness as a field worker justifies this defiant spirit. In his depiction of Sandy as a tree, Chesnutt illustrates an enslaved spirit desperately seeking freedom.
“The Conjurer’s Revenge”
“The Conjurer’s Revenge,” also contained in The Conjure Woman, illustrates Chesnutt’s mastery of the exemplum. The allegory in this work conveys a strong message, and Chesnutt’s evolving skill in characterization becomes apparent. The characters’ actions, rather than the situation, contain the didactic message of the story. Some qualities of the fable unfold as the various dimensions of characters are portrayed. Consequently, “The Conjurer’s Revenge” is a good example of Chesnutt’s short imaginative sketch. These qualities are...
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