Charles W. Chesnutt

The Conjure Woman

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The Conjure Woman Summary

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The Conjure Woman is the first book by the African-American author Charles W. Chesnutt, and like all of Chesnutt’s writing, it deals with issues of racial identity in the post-war South. Published in 1899, this book is a collection of seven folktale-style stories told by a freed slave to a white couple who hire him as a farm hand after they move south from the North after the Civil War. This frame narrative lightly satirizes the carpetbagging newcomers and positions the storyteller as a trickster figure familiar from folklore, whose tales usually serve as cover for manipulating the couple. At the same time, the book contrasts the couple’s idealistic and vague notions of the post-war South with the storyteller’s much less rosy descriptions.

In the frame narrative, John and Annie are white Ohioans who have moved south to the fictional Patesville, North Carolina. Romanticizing pre-war plantation life, John is interested in buying an old vineyard. John hires Julius McAdoo, an elderly black man who had been enslaved on the vineyard and who regales his employers with stories about the supernatural. John tends to hear the tales with skepticism, but Annie tends to be emotionally affected by them. Most of the time, Julius has an ulterior, self-serving motive for having told the story.

The first story, “The Goophered Grapevine,” is how Julius tries to keep John from buying the McAdoo vineyard so that Julius can keep selling its grapes himself. To prevent his slaves from eating the grapes, Marse Dugal McAdoo asks the conjure woman, Aunt Peggy, to hex the vineyard. One day, Henry, a new slave who hasn’t been told of the hex, eats the grapes. Aunt Peggy unhexes him, but also ties his life to that of the vines. In the spring, like them, he gets younger, but in the winter they and he shrivel up. Marse Dugal decides to arbitrage this, selling Henry for a lot of money in the spring, and buying him back cheap in the winter. Later, a Yankee bamboozles Marse Dugal killing his vines, Henry also dies. Julius advises John not to buy the property, since the hex is still active, but John buys it anyway.

Julius uses his next story, “Po Sandy,” to prevent John from demolishing a plantation schoolhouse building for lumber. Mars Marrabo McSwayne owns Sandy, a slave who rotates between plantations. While Sandy is away, his wife is sold in exchange for another woman, Tenie. Tenie is a conjure woman who turns Sandy into a tree to protect him. Unfortunately, Mars Marrabo’s wife has the tree cut down to build a kitchen. When the kitchen makes creepy moaning noises, Mars Marrabo dismantles it and builds a schoolhouse instead. Annie is horrified by the idea that a man’s wife could simply be sold off. She insists on new lumber for her kitchen, and Julius can keep the old schoolhouse for his prayer group.

The point of Julius’s next story, “Mars Jeems’ Nightmare,” is to make amends for the poor work ethic of his 17 year old grandson Tom. Mars Jeems works his slaves so abusively that his sweetheart refuses to marry him. Mars Jeems takes his anger out on his slaves. One of them, Solomon, asks Aunt Peggy to help, so she hexes Mars Jeems’s okra soup. Jeems disappears – and just then, a confused and seemingly amnesiac black man appears. He doesn’t know who he is, or that he is a slave, and is beaten into compliance. A month later, Aunt Peggy gives Solomon a magic sweet potato to feed to this new slave – and the next day, Mars Jeems returns in ragged clothes. After this, Jeems is much kinder to his slaves, and his fiancée agrees to marry him after all. Hearing this, Annie and John agree to give Tom another chance.

When John tells Julius that he plans to buy a mule, Julius tells him the story of “The Conjurer’s Revenge,” in which a conjurer turns Primus, a slave who steals a pig, into a mule. The conjurer sells this mule to Primus’s owner, and the mule gets drunk and attacks Primus’s girlfriend Sally’s new lover. The conjure man dies midway through undoing this hex, and Primus is left with a club foot. Julius proposes that John buy a horse instead of a mule – but the horse turns out to be a dud, and Julius only urged its sale because he got a cut of the proceeds.

In “Sis’ Becky’s Pickaninny,” Julius tries to prove that his rabbit’s foot is lucky. Becky is a slave whose husband works on a nearby plantation. Her master, Colonel Pen’leton, wants to buy her husband, but loses all his money on a horse race. Colonel Pen’leton then trades Becky for a race horse, and the separation makes her son Mose sick. Aunt Peggy lames the horse and sickens Becky so that Colonel Pen’leton and the horse dealer trade back – and Becky is reunited with Mose. Julius says that this story proves the rabbit’s foot is lucky, since if Becky had had it with her, none of this would have happened. Annie has been feeling melancholy but soon gets better – and realizes that Julius slipped the rabbit’s foot into her room.

The sixth story, “The Gray Wolf’s Hant,” is Julius’s way to get John not to cultivate a piece of land where Julius has found honey bees, which he is using to make some money on the side. In the story, a conjure man named Uncle Jube gets his revenge on a wife and husband that he blames for his son’s death. He turns the wife into a black cat and the husband into a gray wolf, and according to him, their ghosts still haunt the plot of land where the bees are.

Julius’s final story is “Hot-Foot Hannibal,” which serves as a way to help Annie’s sister Mabel resolve her issues with her boyfriend. Hannibal wants to marry Chloe, but she is instead in love with Jeff. When Chloe and Joe ask Aunt Peggy to help them get rid of Hannibal, he retaliates by convincing Chloe that Jeff no longer loves her. By the time Chloe learns about Hannibal’s deception, it’s already too late – Jeff has died. After she dies of a broken heart, Chloe is trapped between the world of the living and the dead because of her grief and guilt. Catching Julius’s meaning, Mabel makes up with her boyfriend.