Friday, June 17, 2011

"The Goophered Grapevine"

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Differences in expression, whether creative or non-creative, is an evident device in most literary works �a difference that includes not only the content of a work, but its language. Use of language can help an author construct an idea without explicitly identifying the main point. Charles W. Chesnutt’s “The Goophered Grapevine” enlists language to express many deep and profound fundamental problems that existed during Post-Civil War America. His point was made by interrelating two narrative viewpoints�that of a Northern entrepreneur (John) and an ex-slave (Julius). Chesnutt’s narrators who possess warring viewpoints are used to divide many social, economic, and racial classes. Chesnutt’s literary use of language comes from the differentiation in narrative style. The story is written from two opposing viewpoints John who represents that which is white, rich, and Northern, and Julius who stands for what is black, poor, and Southern. The problem that Chesnutt examines through his narration is the racial injustices brought upon the black slaves, and differing ideologies and perspectives from one group to another in the time period shortly after the Civil War.

The story begins as John a carpetbagger, sets out for a change in climate because of his wife’s poor health. John, engaged in the grape-culture in Ohio, decides to look for a more southern atmosphere to continue business. On the advice of a cousin who had moved to North Carolina he also did the same. Upon looking around town and deciding and looking several times at one place that he thought would suit him he ventures up to the plantation to show his wife. They come across Julius, a former slave who tries to advise why John should not be buying the vineyard. This is where we find our second narrative viewpoint, Julius, who tells a story inside the story.

Julius catalogs a story how a plantation owner, Mars Dugal McAdoo, hires Aunt Peggy, a free black woman living nearby to put a spell on his vineyards as a way to keep slaves from stealing his grapes. Peggy’s spell causes anyone who eats the grapes to die within twelve months of eating them. Just the threat of this magic convinces the local slaves not to eat the grapes, until Henry, a recently acquired slave who has not been warned of the spell, eats grapes from the vines. Since Henry knew nothing of the goopher, Aunt Peggy decides to spare him by putting a protective spell on him, but one that links him directly with the vine’s well-being. When the crops thrive in the summer, Henry thrives, but when the off-season saps the vines of their strength, Henry is likewise weakened. The spell therefore coincided with the growth, dormancy and regeneration of the grapevines.

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Dugal McAdoo the slave owner/plantation owner-for whom, Julius explains, “it ha’ ter be a mighty rainy day when he could n fine sump’n fer his niggers ter do, en…ha’ ter be a monst’us cloudy night when a dollar git by in de darkness’” (1645) - notes the pattern of Henry’s deterioration and renewal and comes up with a plan to profit from the imbalances in his strength. So he sells Henry off in the summer for a large sum and then in the fall buys him back for a less considerable amount. The plan works so well that McAdoo is able to purchase another plantation from his proceeds from Henry. But his greed gets the best of him when he takes the advice from a Yankee the crops and Henry die.

Thus Julius’s embedded narrative about Henry offers John (and the reader) a commentary on the treatment of blacks and the worth of slaves in the Old South. Henry is just another piece of land or equipment that McAdoo profits from every season. It was made clear in many instances that is how the author felt why McAdoo even took care of Henry during his “off-season” “He tuk good keer uv ‘im dyoin’ er de winter, give ‘im w’iskey ter rub his rheumatiz en terbacker ter smoke, en all he want ter eat, -‘caze a nigger w’at he could make a thousan’ dollars a year off’n did n’ grow on eve’y huckleberry bush.” (1645) And Julius emphasizes the coexistence of Henry and the land once more when McAdoo went to war against the Yankees “Mars Dugal tuk on might’ly ‘bout losin’ his vimes en his nigger in de same year… he say he wuz mighty glad dat wah come, en he des want ter kill a Yankee fer eve’y dollar he los’ ‘long er dat grape-rasin’ Yankee’” (1647) Once again, the life of a black human being is measured in economic terms.

The differences in beliefs are also quite evident in the story. Julius nearly directly comments upon what John told us in the introduction that he had moved south on the advice of a doctor, “in whose skill and honesty I had implicit confidence” (1640). This tells us of John’s white, conventional beliefs in science, which Julius clearly does not believe in. The first time occurs when the spell claims two unwary victims, deaths the white folks claims were the “fevuh, but de niggers knowed it was goopher”(164). Julius also establishes his belief in the spells and folklore when he explains Henry’s first ebb in strength “He sent fer a mighty fine doctor, but de med’cine did n’ ‘pear ter do no good; de goopher had a good holt.” (1644) While John remains skeptical about the goophering, Julius here puts his own beliefs into the story with the same relevancy that science is seen in Julius’s world.

When Julius finishes his story we see the power that Chesnutt has to characterize each person in the narrative through his literary use of language. Annie asks the question “Is that story true? Asked Annie doubtfully, but seriously, as the old man concluded his narrative,” (1647) with three words he has just characterized Annie, unable to believe either side of the tracks �doubtfully, but seriously. Annie is the middle way in the story not on one side or another not only believing in science or not only believing in the folklore.

The language is so unmistakable for each individual in the story and precise that we build our views of each person through their speech patterns, dialect, and ways of telling stories. We see John the rich, white, Northern man with all his intelligence and entrepreneurship narrate so beautifully and gracefully. Then there is Julius who can barely speak correctly and sometimes one is not sure of what he is even saying so that is our black, indigent, Southern man. Now we also have Henry and McAdoo who are only described by Julius which could not have been half as effective if only one narrator was present. Chesnutt’s narrative skill of language made the story what it is, a story about a man from the North who has his own sets of beliefs comes to the South to start a business who runs into a former slave who tells him of a spell set upon a vineyard he was ultimately interested in and buys and helps support the ex-slave. The complex underlying tales of unjust treatment of slaves in the South during this time period before and after the Civil War, and the different sets of beliefs between the races and how they set relations apart, makes to me how the literary use of language can be used to offset and identify two sub-cultures of the United States during Chesnutt’s time period.

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