The Goophered Grapevine by Charles Waddell Chesnutt

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Themes

The Goophered Grapevine is one in a collection of short stories about the African American experience written by Charles W. Chesnutt in 1887. The stories are set in the state of North Carolina around the time of the Civil War and narrated by a white man named John. Even though John is the first voice we read, the majority of the dialog is spoken by another character.

John and his wife travel to the Carolinas after the Civil War with the intent of buying a vineyard. In their travels, they meet a former slave named Julius, who advises them against buying a property they are considering because it is "goophered." By this he means that the place is haunted or vexed in some way. Julius recounts the history of the plantation and how it came to be "goophered" in the first place. While John does not necessarily believe in the validity of the story, his wife looks concerned and Julius duly notes this.

John and his wife decide to buy the plantation anyway and end up making it into a successful and thriving enterprise. It turns out that Julius has been making money off the seemingly neglected vineyard for some time, so John employs Julius as a coachman so that Julius does not lose his income stream.

When Julius speaks in the story, a local North Carolina dialect is used. This manner of speaking is very different from how John and his wife speak; I believe that many of the whites in this story use this fact to bolster their opinions of blacks as "other." It is one of the many ways to chip away at African American humanity; if the whites do not regard them as human, it becomes easier to perpetrate and ignore social injustice.

Another theme that runs throughout the novel is the idea that something bigger than us is at work in the world—something over which we have no control; this is best shown in the scene when Julius relates to John the tale of the curse of the grapevine. Although Julius may well believe this story to be true, he is also using this information to try to dissuade the newcomers from buying the plantation. Julius sometimes plays dumb to be smart.

Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The ostensible purpose of Charles Waddell Chesnutt’s story is to entertain its readers, providing no serious or profound message about the complexities of life. Chesnutt wrote the story at a time when local-color literature had gained popularity and after Joel Chandler Harris began publishing his “Uncle Remus” stories. At that time the white reading public was in the mood to read folksy, humorous tales about African Americans, and Chesnutt’s short stories satisfied that mood.

On the surface, the tale told is in the tradition of the black folk hero putting one over on an old master. Brer Rabbit, High John the Conqueror, and Stagolee were all African American folk heroes known for fooling the rich and powerful. When McAdoo cannot stop the slaves from eating his grapes, he tries to control them by playing up to their fears of the unknown and their respect for the powers of the conjurer. He almost succeeds, but Aunt Peggy and Henry outsmart him. Aunt Peggy conjures the grapevines in such a way that Henry can eat all the grapes that he wants without suffering any ill consequences.

This first work published by Chesnutt reveals hints of the racial themes and topics that were to permeate his later works and make him increasingly unpopular with white critics and readers alike, causing him to cut short his writing career...

(The entire section is 901 words.)