This lesson will summarize the short story ‘The Goophered Grapevine’ from Charles Chesnutt’s book, ‘The Conjure Woman.’ Read the lesson, then test yourself with the quiz!
Popular Types of Characters
Every few years, a certain type of character begins popping up in books everywhere. In 2015, it was a misunderstood teenage girl living in a dystopian society that she must save from evil people. A few years earlier, it was all vampires, all the time.
In the late 19th century after the Civil War, it was the magical former slave, either a man or a woman, who told stories of incredible events that may or may not be true. ‘The Goophered Grapevine’ was a story published in the book The Conjure Woman by Charles Chesnutt in 1899. It is nominally about a character named Uncle Julius. He tells the story of Henry, a man who would gain and lose strength based on the seasons, due to an accidental eating of some magical grapes. In actuality, the story is about the shrewd behavior of Uncle Julius, and his usage of storytelling to achieve his means.
Let’s look at a summary of this story.At the opening of ‘The Goophered Grapevine,’ the narrator, a Northern man named John, is looking for property in Patesville, North Carolina, with his wife, Annie. They need to move from Ohio, as Annie is not in good health there. John grows grapes for wine in Ohio and is looking for such a place in North Carolina. He finds a plantation that he thinks would be perfect for grape growing, but it has been neglected for several years.When John and Annie ride out to the grapevines on the property, they encounter Uncle Julius, a former slave who lives close to the grapevines. He tells them that buying the plantation and the vineyard would be a mistake, because the grapevines are ‘goophered’, or under a spell.
John is obviously skeptical, but Annie is intrigued and asks Uncle Julius to tell them the story.The story begins with Dugal McAdoo, the owner of the plantation. Before the Civil War, McAdoo grew great quantities of scuppernong grapes, which made a large amount of wine. He quickly realizes that the slaves in the area love the scuppernongs and are stealing them to eat them.
He tries several methods of preventing this, and when none of them work, he goes to see the conjure woman, named Aunt Peggy. She puts a spell on the grapes so that if any slaves steal them and eat them, they will die within a year. After several slaves die after eating the grapes, it’s accepted to be true that the spell worked. McAdoo is extremely happy because he makes a record amount of wine that year.McAdoo buys a new slave, an older man named Henry, to work the following season. Everyone forgets to warn Henry about the grapes. He eats some, and then is told about the curse.
Aunt Peggy gives him medicine to ward off the curse, telling him to come back during the pruning season for the grapes. Henry goes back to Aunt Peggy during pruning season, and she tells him to wipe the sap from the pruned vines on his bald head every year, and he will not die. Henry does so, and begins to grow hair on his head, and gets younger as the grapes grow in the spring and summer. But in the fall and winter, when the grapevines die, Henry gets old and feeble, and loses his strength.This is repeated for a couple of years, and McAdoo notices the changes in Henry. He begins to sell Henry in the spring for fifteen hundred dollars, while he is strong and healthy.
When Henry begins to lose his strength, McAdoo buys him back for five hundred dollars, as a so-called favor to the man he sold him to, making a thousand dollars in the process. He repeats this process for several years, until a Northern man comes to the plantation and advises him of a new technique for his grapevine that would produce more grapes and make more wine. McAdoo listens to the Yankee man, and his grapevine dies, leading supposedly to the death of Henry as well.McAdoo is enraged that both the grapevines and Henry are now gone.
When the Civil War breaks out, McAdoo raises a regiment and goes off to fight, but dies in the war. Afterwards, his heirs fight over the land.Uncle Julius again tells John and Annie that he would not buy the plantation, in case the curse was still on the grapes.
John decides to buy the plantation despite the warning, and he makes money from the sale of the grapes. He finds out that Uncle Julius was making money from his own usage of the grapes before John bought the plantation, which may have contributed to him telling the story. To make up for any lost income on Uncle Julius’s part, John hires his as his coachman.
Now, let’s do some analysis of this story.
The idea of a magical former slave was one that was prevalent in the years leading up to and immediately following the Civil War. There was also the idea of a former slave that would tell stories and pass down events through the lenses of memories and magic. Both of these can be found in this story through the characters of Aunt Peggy, Henry, and Uncle Julius. Another is the self-serving role that Uncle Julius takes by telling the story, and supposedly trying to help John and Annie. He seems to be attempting to help but is actually trying to protect his own interest in the vineyard.
Charles Chesnutt’s story, ‘The Goophered Grapevine,’ is a great example of the idea of the magical former slave that impacts events. This story is told from the perspective of Uncle Julius, another former slave that may have his own reasons for trying to convince John and Annie, a couple from Ohio, not to buy the plantation that the titular grapevines reside upon.