Charles Chesnutt’s The Conjure Woman

June 4, 2008

Read it at Wikisource.

Real literature! Yes, I do more than listen to speculative fiction podcasts.

I’m a little burned-out when it comes to this work. I’m in the process of finishing a paper on it, and this article is as much for me as it is for whoever wants to read it–this is just going to be a brief summary of the 2000-odd words I’ve written over the past two days.

I always find it difficult to read texts like this. In case you haven’t heard of The Conjure Woman (and the chances are substantial, to say the least), it’s a series of connected short stories, using a frame narrative structure. It’s regional fiction, or at least I think it is. It’s got that frame structure, and it’s written in the vernacular–the heart of each tale is told by Uncle Julius, a former slave. And yes, it’s written out how he would have spoken it at the time.

When I read this, and when I read Huckleberry Finn, I felt a little offended. To me, the texts feel racist. Not that strange, seeing as it’s about slavery, and the n-bomb is dropped just about every other line. However, I keep reminding myself that I’ve got to put it in context (you knew context was going to pop up, didn’t you?). At the time, the things presented in the narratives were not out of the ordinary. No one was shocked by the use of certain words or stereotypes–if anything, the ommitance of said words and stereotypes would have drawn attention. It’s similar to the antisemitism present in The Sun Also Rises: at the time, people just didn’t know better. You live, you learn, and if you’re lucky, the next generation applies the knowledge you’ve garnered.

When I started analysing the stories, I started picking up on unusual messages within the text. Well, I say unusual–Charles Chesnutt was himself the son of two free black people. He had a light skin, but he was very much aware of his heritage. It’s unlikely that he would have written racist texts.

The Conjure Woman contains many empowering messages, both on race and gender. The most obvious example of this is Uncle Julius. Every time, he manages to get his way with John and Annie, manipulating them with his stories. Well, the one he truly manipulates is Annie, but nevertheless, it gets the job done. You could ask yourself why it is he keeps on getting away with this–after all, John is only truly taken in the first time, the only time that Julius didn’t succeed in getting his own way. It could be because John patronises the former slave, tolerating his trickery because he thinks it inherently harmless. It could also be because he likes and respects the old man, and sees no point in correcting this behaviour which doesn’t really harm him, and greatly benefits his wife, who is comforted and amused by Julius’ tales.

The strongest positive message regarding gender lies in the very title, though. Each of Julius’ tales has a conjure man or woman. The conjure men are potrayed as petty and malicious, even if one does eventually realise what he has done and tries to make amends. Tenie, the conjure woman in Po’ Sandy, makes a dog’s dinner of her lover’s life, but she does so with the best intentions. Although she was acting in her own interest, she was trying to save Sandy, rather than trying to punish him, like the two conjure men did.

Aunt Peggy, the titular conjure woman, is presented as a wise and compassionate woman. She does gain from her powers, but not directly. She does not curse those who wrong her, rather, she asks for a fee when she helps others. She does not know the people she affects. She does not want to know. She is not really the one who does the harming: she merely provides the means. Morally, she is superior to the conjure men.

That is what I have on gender in The Conjure Woman, in a nutshell. I’ve also blathered on a bit about race, but my mind is already a bit frazzled, so I might post about that at a later date

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