With the stories collected in The Conjure Woman, Chesnutt discovered a way to introduce into apparently humorous tall tales depictions of black characters who avoided the negative stereotypes then current in fiction and to include, beneath the comic surface, a level of social criticism. John, a young white man from the North, goes to North Carolina after the Civil War to find a suitable climate to help his wife Annie’s poor health and to buy a plantation for growing grapes. He and his wife meet Uncle Julius, an elderly former slave, who tells them anecdotes that revolve around instances of conjuring, or magic.
In “The Goophered Grapevine,” Chesnutt’s first major publication and still his most frequently anthologized story, Julius tells in minutely rendered dialect the tale of the slave Henry, whose health and appearance are magically linked with those of the bewitched, or “goophered,” grapes that he has eaten from the plantation that John has come South to purchase. Henry’s master takes advantage of the enchantment by selling him to a new owner every spring, when he is young and healthy, and buying him back every fall, when he becomes old. At one level, the tale is an attempt by Julius, who makes money selling the grapes, to dissuade John from buying the bewitched plantation. At a deeper level, however, the story can be read as social criticism of the owners’ treatment of Henry, who withers away and dies.
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When the Narrator’s wife begins to suffer ill effects from the severe Great Lakes climate, he looks for a suitable place to take her. He was engaged in grape culture in Ohio, and when he learns of a small North Carolina town that seems to offer what he needs in climate and suitable land, he decides to buy an old, dilapidated plantation and settle there. An untended vineyard is already on the property; with a little care and expense, the vines will flourish once more. On the day that he takes his wife, Annie, to look at the plantation, they happen upon an ancient African American who calls himself Uncle Julius. He advises them not to buy the plantation because it is goophered. Realizing they do not know that anything goophered is bewitched (conjured), the old man asks permission to tell them the story of the vineyard.
Many years before the war, when Uncle Julius was still a slave, the plantation owner made many thousands of dollars from the grapes. Because the master could never keep the slaves from eating the rich grapes and stealing the wine made from them, he conceived the idea of having Aunt Peggy, a conjure woman living nearby, put a goopher on the vines. She made one that said that any black person eating the grapes would die within a year. Most of the slaves stayed away from the grapes, but a few tried them in spite of the conjure, and they all died. When a new slave came to the plantation, no one remembered to tell him about the conjure, and he ate some of the grapes. So that he would not die, Aunt Peggy made him a counter-goopher. Then a strange thing happened. Every year, as the grapes ripened, this slave became so young and sprightly that he could do the work of several men, but in the fall, when the vines died, he withered and faded. This strange action went on for several years, until the master hit upon the idea of selling the slave every spring when he was strong and buying him back cheaply in the fall. By this transaction, he made money each year.
One year, the master hired an expert to prune his vines, but the expert cut them out too deeply and the vines were ruined. Soon afterward, the slave who bloomed and withered with the vines also died. Some said he died of old age, but Uncle Julius knew that it was the goopher that finally overcame him. Uncle Julius advises strongly against buying the land because the conjure is still on.
The Narrator buys the plantation, however, and it prospers. Later, he learns that Uncle Julius is living in a cabin on the place and sells the grapes. He always suspects that the story was told to prevent ruination of the old man’s business. He gives Uncle Julius employment as a coachman, and so the former slave is well cared for.
When Annie wants a new kitchen, her husband decides to tear down an old schoolhouse on the place and use the lumber from it for the new building. Uncle Julius advises him against the plan. Strangely...
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