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Conjure Woman


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A collection of seven short stories by Charles Waddell Chesnutt published in 1899, The Conjure Woman focuses on plantation and slave life in eastern North Carolina. Written in the local color tradition, the work reveals Chesnutt's mastery of the dialect story and the plantation tradition popular in the late nineteeth century. Unlike the fiction of such white writers as Thomas Nelson Page and Joel Chandler Harris, Chesnutt's stories do not sentimentalize plantation life in the Old South. Instead, The Conjure Woman reveals the destructive and dehumanizing force of slavery.

Set in Patesville (Fayetteville), North Carolina, the stories contain both a frame narrator and a folk narrator. John, a midwestern businessman transplanted to the South, takes up grape cultivation as a living and hires Uncle Julius McAdoo, an aged ex-slave, as his coachman. John's narration provides the outer framework for the stories, while Uncle Julius's tales about slave life, conjuring, and superstitions create a complex inner structure.

As a newcomer to the South, John's favorable descriptions of the countryside, the agricultural potential of the area, and the pleasing manners and customs of its people render an idyllic portrait of the New South. In certain respects, The Conjure Woman can be viewed as part of the reconciliation movement in southern literature that developed after the Civil War to appeal to both northern and southern readers. Uncle Julius enhances this conciliatory effort to a small degree, as one of his purposes is to instruct John, his wife Annie, and the reader about southern life and culture. On the surface, he seems simple and naive, but he successfully uses his wily storytelling gifts to outwit his employer. Moreover, the stories Julius tells subtly undercut the wholesome picture of the New South that John describes in his frame narration.

A masterful trickster, Julius tells stories that reveal the inglorious past of the plantation South. His stories center on the conjuring activities of Aun' Peggy, a freewoman who earns her living through working spells and magic. In most of the stories, Julius describes the plight of slaves whose only real defense against the inhumanity of slavery lies in Aun’ Peggy's conjure spells. In “Mars Jeems Nightmare,” she turns a plantation owner into a slave, and he learns firsthand of his overseer's cruelty. In “Po’ Sandy,” “Sis Becky's Pickaninny,” and “Hot Foot Hannibal,” slaves turn to Aun’ Peggy's magic to help keep their loved ones close, sometimes to no avail. In “The Goophered Grapevine” Aun’ Peggy's conjuring serves less sympathetic purposes when she casts a spell on Mars Dugal's grapevines to keep the slaves from stealing the scuppernongs. Henry, an aged slave, falls victim to her conjuring and finds that his life mysteriously and tragically parallels the growing process of the vines.

In “The Conjurer's Revenge” and “The Gray Wolf's Ha’nt,” Uncle Julius shifts the focus from Aun’ Peggy to free black conjure men, whose spells are used for spite and revenge against plantation slaves. In “The Conjurer's Revenge” a slave is transformed into a mule for stealing from the conjurer, while in “The Gray Wolf's Ha’nt” another slave suffers a conjurer's evil and vengeful retaliation for the death of the conjurer's son.

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Subjects: Literature.


Reference entries
Authors

Charles W. Chesnutt (1858—1932)


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