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.
(The entire section is 407 words.)