The Conjure Woman is Charles Waddell Chesnutt’s first collection of short fiction. It includes seven short stories that are loosely connected but unified by parallel format, characters, and thematic similarities. Each story is presented against the unifying background of postbellum Southern life. The apparent model is the Joel Chandler Harris collection of Uncle Remus tales. Chesnutt’s method differs from that of Harris by presenting an outside story providing the framework for the inside narrative, which is an original tale. Harris, on the other hand, based his inside material on existing folktales. An African American, Chesnutt places a distinctive black perspective on his folk material, which is liberally sprinkled with dialect. The Conjure Woman preserves a relatively inaccessible and easily overlooked portion of American social and literary history.
The outside narrative usually consists of some type of journey that offers an opportunity to relate the inside narrative in dialect by Uncle Julius. Each inside narrative, which usually involves a major change in a newly introduced character, can stand alone. Chesnutt uses the frame-within-a-frame technique to mute the racial implications of the inside narrative.
Chesnutt also contrasts The Conjure Woman’s outside and inside narratives. The outside narrative is solidly based in the real world, one that treats the weak harshly and rewards the wealthy and powerful. The inside narrative is more imaginative and entertaining than didactic. This complex method masks much of the intent to educate the reader about the plight of the African American without becoming offensive or maudlin.
Uncle Julius relates to his white employers in a manner that parallels that with which the artist relates to his audience. Using this paradigm, Chesnutt educates his white audience by correcting the flawed vision of the outside narrative. In a very real sense, Chesnutt conjures his readers by employing this complex...
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