The Goophered Grapevine Summary Charles Waddell Chesnutt

The Story
“The Goophered Grapevine” is a story within a story in which each story is told by a different narrator. The first story has a nameless narrator, a vintner who lives in the Great Lakes area during the post-Civil War era. His wife's ill health forces him to move to a warmer climate, so he selects Patesville, North Carolina, as the place to continue his career. He purchases a plantation that formerly belonged to a wealthy planter named McAdoo. One day he takes his wife to see the plantation, and it is at this point that the second story commences. At the plantation, they encounter an old former slave, who introduces himself as Uncle Julius and informs them, in a strong dialect, that the vineyard on the plantation is “goophered,” that is, bewitched. He tells them how the vineyard was goophered during the days of slavery, when old Mr. McAdoo's grapes were being eaten constantly by the slaves from miles around. Despite the best efforts of Mr. McAdoo and his overseer, no one was ever caught. In his desperation, McAdoo appealed to a free black conjure woman, Aunt Peggy, to help him out. Aunt Peggy was renowned far and wide for her ability to conjure, that is, to work magic. After she went into the grapevines and goophered them, she let all the slaves know that any slave who ate grapes from that vineyard would be dead within twelve months. Shortly after this took place, a new slave by the name of Henry was bought to work on the plantation. No one told him about the goophered vineyard until he had eaten some of its grapes. The overseer took Henry to Aunt Peggy to see if she could do some conjuring to keep him from dying. She told Henry he would be saved if every spring, when Mr. McAdoo began to prune the grapevine, he would scrape the sap from the vine and anoint his bald head with it. Because Henry brought Aunt Peggy a ham on his visit, she told him that he could eat as many grapes as he wished without suffering ill effects as long as he anointed his head as she instructed. When Henry rubbed the sap on his head, he became young and spry, but by the end of the summer, when the sap began to go down on the grapevines, he got old and stiff once again. This transformation took place regularly over the next few years. Each spring McAdoo sold the youthful Henry for a high price to an unsuspecting buyer and each fall he bought the old Henry back for a song. Henry never revealed the secret of his temporary youthfulness, because he knew that he would be bought back and be well taken care of by McAdoo until his next sale. McAdoo might have been able to enjoy his game longer had his greed not won out over his good judgement. One year, he followed the advice of a quack on how to improve the productivity of his vineyards and ruined the soil in the process; the vineyard withered and

died and so did Henry. Uncle Julius concluded his story by advising the narrator against buying a goophered vineyard, suggesting that because the old vines were still goophered, death would surely come to anyone who ate from them. The narrator ignores this advice, however. After making his purchase, he learns that Uncle Julius occupied a cabin on the plantation for many years and made a good income from the products of the vineyard—a fact that he believes accounts for the tale of the goophered grapevines.

Themes and Meanings
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 in 1905. Chesnutt's works comment about the hardships of slave life so subtly that they might easily be overlooked by those reading the story in order to laugh at the expense of foolish and ignorant African Americans. Early in the story, Chesnutt, in describing Uncle Julius, tells us “he was not entirely black” and definitely has “a slight strain of other than negro blood.” Because marriage between blacks and whites was illegal in all slave states in the pre-Civil War period, it was clear that Uncle Julius's ancestry reflects the sexual exploitation of slave women. Chesnutt also hints at the physical hardships endured by slaves. For example, Uncle Julius tells how the slaves were willing to walk five or ten miles to get something good to eat. Clearly this tells of the lack of availability of good food for the slaves. When the slaves succeed in eating McAdoo's grapes, he sets spring guns and steel traps to catch them. Uncle Julius also describes how a runaway slave was hunted by McAdoo and his neighbors with guns and dogs. Although Uncle Julius recites his descriptions of McAdoo's brutalities in black dialect and with a touch of humor, the events themselves are anything but humorous. Based on Chesnutt's later works, we can be sure that he did not consider these inclusions irrelevant asides. The story also shows how the white slaveowner's greed is his ruination. McAdoo not only has no scruples about how he treats his slaves but also cheats his peers with his repeated

sales of Henry. Although his grape business does well, he always wants more until he ruins his own vineyard through overcultivation. A careful reader can examine the harsh realities of slave life while being amused by a well-told, well-narrated folktale.

Style and Technique
The most obvious stylistic technique used by Chesnutt is the pronounced dialect speech of his African American characters. Critics of his day, William Dean Howells in particular, praised Chesnutt highly for his use of dialect, which they hailed as accurately reflecting the speech of blacks. In his later works, Chesnutt used dialect far more sparingly. No doubt this was in large part because the use of this dialect often aroused condescending laughter at the black characters, enabling the readers to feel a sense of superiority over those whom they considered poor, ignorant blacks. Uncle Julius, in the language he uses, the tales he tells, and the mannerisms he possesses, plays the role of the clown, the buffoon, a role Chesnutt and other black writers hesitated to assign their characters for the purpose of entertaining white readers. Thus, Chesnutt did not use this folksy style of writing in his later works.