Daisy’s Desire for Independence in “Daisy Miller”

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While I was reading Daisy Miller by Henry James, I was struck by how Daisy is portrayed in a negative light for being so scandalous, especially in comparison to the behaviors of Winterbourne. From the initial description of Winterbourne, it is evident that his motives for being in Geneva are flawed: he spent so much time there because “he was extremely devoted to a lady who lived there—a foreign lady—a person older than himself” (4). This fact is barely mentioned again in the novella, which instead focuses on diminishing Daisy for her escapades.

The narrator and Winterbourne are concerned with Daisy’s Americanness and how it enables her to act so relaxed. When Winterbourne and Daisy’s first meet, Winterbourne is “inclined to think Miss Daisy Miller was a flirt—a pretty American flirt” (10). Daisy was part of a generation of women that had had some freedoms, but not full independence. Winterbourne understands Daisy’s desires to be bold and unconventional as wrong, and worries about the path she will go down. Because she is so charming and sociable, Winterbourne sees Daisy merely as “very unsophisticated” (11) and as someone who could never be his equal.

Winterbourne tries to paint himself as above others in his social/economic class: he does not feel compelled to listen to his aunt, Mrs. Costello, when she worries about the Miller family’s status. When Mrs. Costello refuses to meet Daisy because she seems improper and immature, Winterbourne continues to seek Daisy out, and his aunt’s opinions do not seem to weigh heavily on him. Strangely, his thoughts Daisy are not much different from those of his aunt. While he is less concerned about Daisy’s social standings, he spends much time dwelling on her interactions with other men.

After Daisy and Winterbourne meet in Vevey, Switzerland, Daisy, her mother, and her young brother travel to Rome. Winterbourne promises to come visit Daisy when he stays with his family, Mrs. Walker, friend in Rome, but upon his arrival, it becomes clear that Daisy has been involved with other men. Mrs. Walker shares Mrs. Costello’s concerns, and warns Winterbourne about what Daisy has been doing in Rome. Daisy has been “flirting with any man she could pick up; sitting in corners with mysterious Italians; dancing all the evening with the same partners; receiving visits at eleven o’clock at night” (36). While some of these behaviors might be dangerous in a foreign city, it seems evident that Daisy is merely learning to test the limits of her independence and authority. No poor interactions are explained, and Daisy takes accountability for her actions.

While in Rome, Daisy, her mother, Mrs. Walker, and Winterbourne quarrel about Daisy’s desires to go for walks outside on her own. She defies their wishes and is often out at strange hours getting some fresh air. This, in particular, infuriates Winterbourne, and leads him to wonder “whether Daisy’s defiance came from the consciousness of innocence or from her being, essentially, a young person of the reckless class” (45).

Daisy becomes “dangerously ill” (50) from walking around Rome at midnight, and later dies from Roman Fever. Daisy is young, smart, and inquisitive. Her desires for greater independence do not stem from wanting to push back on her mother and family friends, but rather from wanting to except her role as a young woman in a culture that was quickly changing. Daisy’s death brings her trials to an abrupt end, and one that seems related to her perceived foolishness.

Narrator/reader relationship (a matter of principle?)

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In reading “A Matter of Principle,” I was most interested by the narrator’s asides to the reader, which function to encourage further consideration of Mr. Clayton’s prejudice. Though Mr. Clayton advocates for the “brotherhood of man” so often as to be nicknamed “Brotherhood Clayton,” it is quickly evident to the reader that Mr. Clayton in fact considers himself part of, not a universal brotherhood, but some brotherhood of white men. In contextualizing this glaring inconsistency, the narrator leaves it to the “discerning reader” to determine  “whether or not… Mr. Clayton meant no sarcasm.” At a later point in the story, the narrator excuses Mr. Clayton’s use of a racist term, arguing that “some allowance must be made for his atmosphere.” Interestingly, the narrator interrupts themselves, leaving their quotation incomplete “in deference to Mr. Clayton’s feelings.” In this instance, the narrator seems to be in a position of subordination to Mr. Clayton, speaking in a tone of politeness that causes the narrator to seem almost embarrassed of him. 

The use of the narrator as an intermediary who functions to explain and make excuses for Clayton’s deeply racist statements implies a willingness of the reading audience to align themselves with Clayton’s beliefs. It is assumed that the reader will be on the side of Clayton once they have been properly convinced by the assurances of the narrator. In another sense, however, the suggestion that an intermediary is needed in the first place indicates that the narrator believes the reader to be critical, or at least skeptical, of some of Clayton’s more overtly racist and disgusting statements. This technique lends a clever and engaging satirical element to a work whose characters masquerade as prim, proper, and, as the title would,  suggest “principled.”

Chesnutt’s Use of Satire

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          These three short stories from Chesnutt’s The Color Line have been some of my favorite texts that I have read over the course of this semester. This is largely due to Chesnutt’s witty and unique use of satire. Particularly, he is able to use satire as a tool to discuss uncomfortable and disheartening moments that many black and mixed-race people, including himself, are experiencing during the time of publication. In my opinion, he is extremely clever for using satire as it allows a wider audience to fully grasp how ridiculous the legal and societal precedent involving racial discrimination can be.

          In the story “A Matter of Principle”, Chesnutt satirically conveys the unfair reality that people often get treated worse by society if their skin is darker. After doing some research, I learned that characters like Cicero Clayton and members of this “Blue Vein Society” are meant to mock a real-life elite social club for “better educated people of color” that Chesnutt was apparently once a part of (Library of America). Some of the satirical dialogue within the text seemed so outrageous to me that I had to read it a second time. For instance, when the Clayton family discusses whether or not the Congressman will be “an acceptable guest” for their estate (Chesnutt, 79). The most laughable part to me is on page 79 when Mr. Clayton states “and we’ll have to do this thing thoroughly, or our motives will be misconstrued, and the people will say we are prejudiced and all that” (Chesnutt, 79). Meanwhile, they went through extremely great lengths to prevent a man from being a guest at their house simply because they thought he may be of a darker complexion. They are the definition of prejudice during this time.

          I also found Chesnutt’s story “Baxter’s Procrustes” to be an exemplary form of satire and mockery towards elite, white social groups. I also found this story to be humorous, particularly the part when Baxter reveals that he actually submit a blank text to fool the members of the literary society. The members are so fixated on the publication of the book and the publicity of Baxter himself that they do not even open the book to see that it is blank. Some of them even make comments regarding the significance of the themes within the text and its comparison to other great thinkers (103-105). I admire Chesnutt’s ability to poke fun at these elite and predominately white institutions, however I wonder if these stories got him into any sort of trouble. Regardless, his use of satire as a tool to convey real societal discrimination and hypocrisy is significant.

The Portrayal of Prejudice and Racism Within Their Race

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The Tales of The Color Lines focused primarily on the social, racial, and political injustice and prejudice African Americans faced after the end of the Civil War. Chesnutt uses The Tales of the Color Lines to explore America’s racial divisions and complexities. In particular, I found “A Matter of Principle” interesting as it reveals the line or racial prejudice present within their own race. 

Mr. Cicero Clayton is of African descent but states, “I don’t accept this classification, for my part… People who belong by half or more of their blood to the most virile and progressive race of modern times have as much right to call themselves white as others have to call them ******” (67). He denies his racial identity and disassociates himself from any colored people. They “attended, too, a church, of which nearly all the members were white, and… they came into contact with the better class of white people, and were treated, in their capacity of members, with a courtesy and consideration scarcely different from that accorded to other citizens” (68). Ironically, although Clayton is of African descent, he tries to reject his background and be recognized as white. Through this rejection, he exemplifies and conforms to the stigma and discrimination against people of color, despite being considered black by white society. 

He continues his racial prejudice when choosing a suitable prospective partner for Alice. “If the Congressman had turned out to be brown, even dark brown, with fairly good hair, though he might not have desired him as a son-in-law, yet he could have welcomed him as a guest, but… for the man in the waiting-room was palpably, aggressively black… it would be bad enough for them to learn of the ghastly mistake, but to have him in the house would be twisting the arrow in the wound” (76-77). He possesses a strong aversion against darker-skinned people, whom he regards to be beneath him. Hence, even though the Congressman was someone of status, the color of his skin caused Mr. Clayton to reject the Congressman. However, it is ironic that Mr. Clayton states, “of course I have no prejudice against his color,—he can’t help that,—but it is the principle of the thing” (78). His “principle” contradicts his beliefs and actions, as the installed prejudice against colored people has influenced his actions, resulting in him rejecting to host the Congressman in his house. 

Chestnutt satirically illustrates the difficulties that mixed-race people face, but also the intense prejudice and racism against those of even darker-color skin. At the end of the text, Chesnutt skillfully ends with “For of one blood God made all of the nations of the earth,” which criticizes those that discriminate and suggest that people are all made equally and, therefore, should be treated with dignity and respect regardless of color (82). 






Baxter’s Procrustes and arbitrary checkpoints

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I absolutely loved “Baxter’s Procrustes.” I found a PDF online, but if I hadn’t been able to, I would have bought my copy of the book just to keep it around. I’ll probably wind up irritating a lot of my friends by making them read it, and irritating all of you by writing a far longer blog post than is necessary. Sorry!

I did a little bit of background digging, and apparently the Bodleian Club is based on the real-life Rowfant Club, which published a fine edition of a collection of Chesnutt’s work in 1899. Later, he applied to join the club that had already published his work, but was denied on the basis of his race. He wrote “Baxter’s Procrustes” as a riposte to them, and some years later, they changed their minds and admitted him. In 1966, long after Chesnutt’s death, they printed a limited run of a fine edition of “Baxter’s Procrustes,” and the author of the introduction to that volume acknowledged the irony. (source)

I really feel Chesnutt’s frustration with the sort of mob-mentality elitism that seems to accompany literary study. I’m a creative writing major, and I’ve noticed a tendency both in my peers and in myself to give the benefit of the doubt to any story or poem that comes to us in book form or from anyone who’s been published, while putting minimal effort into comprehending nuance in the work of other students in our workshops. I think we assume that if we don’t understand something written by a peer, it’s because the peer is a bad writer, while if we don’t understand something written by an Author, it’s because we’re bad readers. I’ve witnessed excellent, nuanced manuscripts be dismissed in class as “confusing” because nobody (and I’m ashamedly including myself in that) was willing to give them the sort of close reading required to fully understand them, and I strongly suspect that if Emily Dickinson or James Joyce turned up anonymously in a college creative writing class unfamiliar with their works, they would be torn to shreds. In my own case, I think I can trace the tendency back to a lack of faith in my own work. I think of myself as a poor writer, and so all of my classmates, since they’re my peers, must also be poor writers. To be published is to pass a checkpoint that I think of as far more objective than it actually is, and it’s always jarring to learn that one of my classmates has passed it. It’s even weirder to remember that I myself have passed it with work that’s far from my best, while pieces of which I am actually proud have been rejected.

In the case of the members of the Bodleian Club, I think they have the same problem as I do, only with an excess rather than a dearth of self-confidence. They all think of themselves as intelligent, sophisticated, worldly judges of literary merit, and so if one of their members produces a manuscript, it must be a meritorious work of literature indeed. The main target of the story’s satire is, of course, the culture surrounding books as physical objects, but the characters are still willing to confidently discuss what they assume are the contents of the poem with sprawling lists of allusions, proving to one another how well-read they are and, critically, how well they know Baxter. Baxter himself becomes the subject of a sort of cult of the genius, elevated from a mere member of the club to someone whose association with the club becomes something for the other members to brag about (106). Chesnutt shows that whether or not a text is considered good is dependent more on the reputation of the author than on the text itself, and that the reputation of the author does not necessarily follow strictly from the quality of their previous work. Once you have a reputation as a Good Author, it seems very difficult to lose it because nobody wants to admit that they don’t “get” your work, and even when a visitor from England, in whom this culture has not yet been inculcated, breaks the seal and reveals the ploy, the work just takes on a new type of value. We might be willing to admit that Huckleberry Finn isn’t a very good novel, but I doubt anyone would deny its importance.

Religion in “A Matter of Principle”

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This tale differs greatly from the others by Chesnutt that we have read so far. There is no mention of magic, no appearance of folk tales, and no dialect. Chesnutt has departed from discussions on slavery and the relationships between black and white people, and instead focused on the dynamics between black people of different complexions. In previous stories, Chesnutt left it to the audience to decide the morality of his characters. In “A Matter of Principle,” however, his authorial voice is much stronger. Perhaps this is because Chesnutt himself is a light-skinned black man, and expresses his authority accordingly. 

The unexpected parts of this story, for me at any rate, were the amount of humor and the focus on religion. The obvious faults of the main characters, the Claytons, are exposed as ignorant because of sarcasm and allusions to the bible. The joke that first stood out to me was near the end of the story when Mr. Clayton hides the newspaper “under the family Bible, where it was least likely to be discovered.” (81). This is an obvious jibe, exposing the lack of (Christian) morals in the house, due to the family’s neglect of scripture. I also felt the sting of this critique, though, and after re-reading the story I realized I had missed another joke for the reason that I am also unacquainted with the bible. Earlier in the tale, the narrator steps in to excuse Mr. Clayton of his prejudice, explaining that, “some allowance must be made for his atmosphere; he could no more escape from it than the leopard can change his spots, or the – In deference to Mr. Clayton’s feeling the quotation will be left incomplete.” At first the statement seems to defend Clayton, though not supporting him, it treats his ignorance as a kind of disease. The meaning changes when the rest of the quotation, from Jeremiah 13:23, is provided: “Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots? Then may ye also do good, that are accustomed to do evil.” It’s now apparent why the narrator omitted the rest of the line. Chesnutt is using the bible to critique the Claytons; he expresses that their desire to ‘become’ white is both impossible and connected to evil.

The irony of Mr. Clayton depriving his daughter of a notable husband based on skin color is where the plot and moral of the story overlap, but the narrative itself holds much more scathing remarks on the Clayton family’s character. The jokes and moral assessments of the family are all connected with religion. This stood out to me because in Chesnutt’s earlier tales, there was a focus on conjure as opposed to Christianity. If anything, the white Christians in his other tales are depicted as foolish, whereas in “A Matter of Principle” the Claytons are depicted as ignorant in conjunction with their preoccupation with racial principles over religious ones. 



Selfishness and “The Passing of Grandison”

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Reading the short stories from Tales of the Color Line was a very different experience from reading those of Tales of Conjure. Based in our class conversation, I assumed that the Tales of the Color Line short stories would only have racist undertones, but instead the stories were overtly racist. I found “The Passing of Grandison” particularly troubling.

What struck me about this short story was how it related to the idea that all good deeds can be perceived as selfish. Dick Owens, an “intelligent, handsome, and amiable, but extremely indolent” (83) young man is completely enamored with Charity Lomax, but she cannot get over his flaws. She says that she could not love Dick unless he did something heroic, and she believes that he will never do anything heroic because he is so lazy. Dick is determined to win her over, and asks “’will you love me if I run a negro off to Canada?’” (85).

Dick seems at least somewhat aware of how terrible slavery is, but he does not seek to become involved with the abolition movement or withstand his father, a slaveowner. Dick’s father looks down on abolitionists, and believes “they’re becoming altogether too active for [his] comfort, and entirely too many ungrateful ******* are running away”” (86). Dick does not seek to free one of his father’s slaves in order to improve their quality of life, but rather to prove to Charity that he is caring and energetic. It is unfortunate that his desires could be misconstrued; he helps Grandison cross the Canadian border in order to help himself.

Dick doesn’t even do a good job trying to help Grandison run away; he merely leaves for a few days and returns to find that Grandison is still there. In fact, when he realizes Grandison hasn’t left, he is “seriously annoyed” (91). Throughout the short story, it becomes evident that Dick truly is lazy. He puts together an unstable plan, does little to see it through, and then is upset when it doesn’t work the way he wanted it to. By the end, he even worries that he is “’not worthy of Charity Lomax, if [he is] not smart enough to get rid of’” (93) Grandison.

The story ends strangely. After all, Dick gets his way and marries Charity three weeks later. I found it shocking that, throughout, Grandison was so loyal to Dick and his father. He agreed that abolitionists were bad people and did not understand why enslaved people wanted to escape.

A problematic ghost story

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In reading the opening pages of “The Goophered Grapevine,” I was fascinated by the narrator’s choice to obscure the true name of the town in which the story takes place. Instead of revealing the name of the area, the narrator explicitly notes his decision to call it “Patesville because, for one reason, that is not its name.” Recalling some of our earlier course readings, I noted that this deliberate drawing of attention to the concealment of establishing information from the reader felt very similar to much of the deception seen in Poe’s work. This observation, along with the work’s title, “Tales of Conjure,” and its thematic content, impressed upon me the fact that Chesnutt has in fact written a collection of ghost stories. The initial descriptions of a warm, sleepy, formerly-thriving Southern industrial town create that slightly unsettling sense of overt harmlessness that suggests a deeper lurking unease. Though the pieces are told in the narrative voice of a presumably white man, a majority of the plot elements of each story are conveyed retroactively to the reader through McAdoo’s dialogue, an expositional device which evokes the telling of a ghost story. Further, the textual descriptions of McAdoo, a man tall but stooped, hairy yet bald, and potentially of mixed race, characterize him as strange and out of place. The role he plays in the story, therefore, is as the prophetic deliverer of misfortune. 

The story’s depiction of McAdoo as the central “scary” figure in “The Goophered Grapevine” is, unsurprisingly, deeply motivated by race. In addition to the coded textual descriptions of his appearance (he is described as “shrewd” in a way that is “not all together African”), McAdoo’s extreme dialect most overtly characterizes him as foreign or “other.” Because that which is unfamiliar is often scary, Chesnutt manipulates dialect to further other McAdoo, making him a more fear-inspiring figure. Thus, Chesnutt seems to play on white fear of blackness in an attempt to lend his works their spooky quality. Though one could argue that, in doing so, Chesnutt intends to call attention to, and subsequently critique, this fear, I believe this would be ascribing him undue credit. It seems much more likely that Chesnutt exploits racism, as such, purely for entertainment value.

Chesnutt and Twain similarities and the privilege in The Goophered Grapevine

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The short story of “The Goophered Grapevine” by Charles Chesnutt, show us the side of Afro-American folklore and its impact on American literature. Just like Mark Twain, Chesnutt also uses realism and writes after the end of the Civil War about the struggles and difficulties of African-Americans. Another thing I found similar between Twain and Chesnutt is the depiction of how a black person talks and how both authors show us purposely the dialect of them. For example in Twain’s “The Adventures of Hucleberry Finn” Jim talks in a dialect “Dey’s two angels hoverin’ roun’ ’bout him”; while in “The Goophered Grapevine”, Uncle Julius talks a similar way, “but de truf er de matter is dat dis yer ole vimya’d is goophered.” I am not sure why they decided to write the talking of black characters like this, but I can say that from other literature that I read some authors use this language extremism to depict the inequality between black and white people. Spoken dialect is phonetically transcribed into literature often as an indicator of lower-class or, under white authorship. As a result, these representations of African Americans are often satirized and mock.

In this story, we see a common concept of ignorance and also white privilege that is use to dominate over African Americans. For me personally, I saw the story as a how the white privilege manipulates the African-American society. The couple who wants to buy the plantation/property is the white side of society while Uncle Julius represents the African-American side. Throughout the whole story, the white couple both uses their white privilege to ask from Julius information about the property and demand from him more and more. The ignorance of the couple helps them disregard anything Julius is saying to dominate him and finally buy this land.

By taking over the property, Uncle Julius is taken under control and the white couple continue to tyrannize him. Uncle Julius is being exploited for cheap labor, but this is all he can do because although slavery is over, there is discrimination still happening and he will not be able to get a better job than here. Here we see the realism of the story and the regionalism writing that Chesnutt wanted to highlight. After the Civil War ended, slavery “ended” but there was still the domination over black people. At the end of the story we see that Uncle Julius is pretty much forced and obliged to their conditions because white society continues to dominate and utilize racism to oppress black people. 

Po’ Sandy – a bit about symbolism and the context for black eye dialect

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Chesnutt reinvented the popular genre of Uncle Remus stories. These stories include tales about Brer Rabbit, which I remember from my childhood; they are stories about animal tricksters. Upon reflection, I realize the tricksters, like Brer Rabbit, are meant to be analogous to enslaved people, who outsmart their oppressors/predators. While the Uncle Remus stories were written by a white man, they aimed to imitate oral traditions found in the South on plantations, so they use the same sort of written-out dialect that Chesnutt employs. After some quick research I found that Chesnutt wrote his stories after the tales of Uncle Remus were published, meaning it’s more than likely that he wrote in response to them.

Chesnutt undoes the childlike associations with african american folk tales put in place by Uncle Remus. Instead of focusing on animals and simple hunting plots, Chesnutt exposes the terrors of slavery more explicitly. Po’ Sandy is extremely straight forward in this sense: the story revolves around the terrible irony of a man changing into a tree to escape slavery, but ultimately being used for an eternity due to the transformation. Sandy chose to become a tree because, if he were an animal, he would then be vulnerable to all sorts of predators. As a tree Sandy escaped the dangers of freedom, (and the troupe established by Uncle Remus whereby slaves are parallel to animals) but was also forced to stay on the plantation. This seems to symbolize that, when free, he was still bound to slavery, and still within the scope of ownership. Tree-Sandy was then mauled, and his body used for/by his masters. Even with the help of magic, Sandy was unable to escape the terrible conditions of slavery. He then haunted the structure he was used to make, which seems to echo the concepts of generational trauma and the unerasable history of slavery. 

The story that Julius tells is heartbreaking and rife with symbolism. Chesnutt appears to have undone the innocent, anthropomorphic tales of Uncle Remus. Yet, at the end of the story, it is revealed that Julius wanted to keep Sandy’s building for his own use. It looks as though the white folks, John and Annie, have been swindled, which falls in line with the established trickster narratives. The sudden ending seems to reduce Sandy and his ghost to a joke, and Julius and his way of talking to a level of reprehensibility. I find this hard to reconcile. 


Untitled (1994)
Illustration by Jerry Pinkney for The Tales of Uncle Remus as retold by Julius Lester
Dial Books, New York

Lapse in the pattern

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In “The Goophered Grapevine,” we the readers are introduced to three characters. In “Po’ Sandy,” they came back, which I’ll admit surprised me, since I expected these all to be completely distinct stories, and they even seemed to make chronological sense, as if they were chapters. “Dave’s Neckliss” reinforced that pattern, and I was just gearing up to think of this text as a novella when I read “The Sheriff’s Children,” which is told from a new perspective, features all new characters, and, as far as I can tell, takes place somewhere different. I flipped through the rest of the book and found Julius’s name, so he comes back in some capacity, but I also found references to other characters that don’t seem to belong to his, John’s, and Annie’s stories, including passages that seem to be from their perspectives.

It is sort of useless to speculate on what Chesnutt is doing with these characters, since we’ll be getting definitive answers for Thursday, but I do find it strange that he starts to set up a cohesive story, breaks out of it, and then later re-enters it. Any of Julius’s stories could have been stand-alone chapters told in the style of “The Sheriff’s Children,” but Chesnutt seems to be going out of his way to wrap his morals in rapport, at least at first. I wonder if the sheriff or other characters from his story will meld with the main storyline, or whether it’s truly just a standalone chapter in an otherwise linear text. I wonder, too, why Chesnutt thought that his usual format was not the best way to deliver the moral of the sheriff’s story, since Julius never has much of a problem telling John what other people are thinking; it isn’t the case that the usual format can’t provide omniscience into the sheriff’s struggles.

Structure & John/Annie

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In reading Chesnutt’s Tales of Conjure, it seems like the stories, for the most part, is structured the same. John, the white narrator, opens the story, then Julius, a former slave, tells a tale, and then John comes back in at the end and concludes the story. John typically presents some type of business problem, like whether or not he should buy the vineyard in “The Goophered Grapevine” or what lumber to use for his wife’s new kitchen in “Po’ Sandy.” Then Julius tells tales from slaves that serve almost as advice for how John should proceed. These tales include “Aunt Peggy,” the conjure woman who has supernatural powers to heal and help slaves. Chesnutt has Julius tell these stories and speak in a dialect that emulates how a former enslaved person would have told the story. By having John open and close the stories and putting Julius’s voice in the middle of John’s opinion, Chesnutt is giving John, the white man, the first and last say. This structure gives John a level of authority, especially when he often does not believe the stories Julius tells, which gives the sense that John thinks he is superior. 

What is interesting, though, is how John and Annie listen to Julius’s stories and react to them differently. John listens to these stories and is skeptical, while Annie is affected by these stories even if she claims she does not fully believe them. In “Po’ Sandy” for example, she no longer wants her new kitchen to be built out of the old school house after hearing Julius’s story. She says, “I know the story is absurd… and I am not so silly as to believe it. But I don’t think I should ever be able to take any pleasure in that kitchen if it were built out of that lumber” (20). While Annie claims she does not believe the story, she is still somehow emotionally affected by it if she refuses to use the wood for the new kitchen she wanted. John’s quickness to comply with Annie’s request, even though he does not believe in the story, points to an interesting relationship between the two of them. He says, “Of course she had her way” and went and bought new lumber (20). The role Annie plays in how Julius’s stories affect what John does is interesting.

Truth, storytelling, dialect, and white ignorance in “The Goophered Grapevine”

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In reading Charles Chesnutt’s short story “The Goophered Grapevine,” I was shocked by the white privilege and ignorance in the face of Black storytelling. At the beginning, when the narrator and his wife happen upon Julius, he tells them “’f I ‘uz in yo’ place, I wouldn’ buy dis vimya’d’” (4). Nonetheless, the narrator asks “’why not?’” and “’how do you know it is bewitched?’” (4). Julius tells the whole story because the narrator and his wife want to know, but at the end, it does not sway them. He admits, “I bought the vineyard, nevertheless” (11).

I found it upsetting that from the beginning, the narrator and his wife were skeptical of the bewitching about which Julius spoke. They wanted to know the story, but they never seemed fully convinced. When he speaks about Henry, the former slave who would gain and lose strength (and hair) based on the ripeness of the grapes, I thought that the narrator and his wife would have been convinced, but they are hesitant to accept Julius’s account. Julius tells them that, after all, Henry dies when the big grape vine dies, proving the presence of some sort of sorcery. Nonetheless, the narrator’s wife, Annie, asks “’is that story true?’ […] doubtfully” (11).

Even though Julius advises them against purchasing the plantation, the couple stands by their decision. They let Julius continue to live on the property, but believe that he tried to convince them not to buy the plantation because he “derived a respectable revenue from the product of the neglected grapevines” (11).

Reading “The Goophered Grapevine” reminded me a lot of our conversations about Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Similarly, the portrayal of Black dialect makes it very difficult to understand what Julius and Jim are saying, and likely makes many readers think less of the characters and their abilities. I will admit that before reading the short story I did not know what “goophered” meant, but I did some research to understand it better. The Oxford English Dictionary cites Chesnutt’s short story as the first publication of the word, which makes me wonder if it is a word that Black people used to talk about spells or curses which did not previously exist in the literary world, or if Chesnutt came up with it on his own. Either way, the repeated use of the word, which the couple had not heard before, discredits Julius’s storytelling and truth.

Huck’s moral compass

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An aspect of Twain’s “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” that stuck out to me while reading was Twain’s construction of Huck’s Morality in the story. From the beginning of the piece, it is clear that Huck, despite living in a society deeply intrenched with racism and inequality, has a unique and personal sense of morality. Though it is far from perfect, Twain constructs Huck as a character who is deeply concerned with what is fair in his view of the world. This idea of fairness shows itself subtly in the early chapters of the story, such as Huck offering Miss Watson as a sacrifice for if he ever breaks the oath of his gang, “or else it wouldn’t be fair and square for the others.” What is particularly interesting about Huck’s moral compass is that it doesn’t seem to be guided by religion or the societal norms of the time, rather it is guided by a very personal sense of fairness and compassion. His unique sense of morality comes in part from his ability to challenge norms and question authority. Other moments in which we see Huck’s imperfect morality are when he plays tricks on Jim throughout their journey. When Huck tries to scare Jim with the dead rattlesnake and this backfires, he feels badly for his mistake, but he views his mistake as “to not remember that wherever you leave a dead snake its mate always comes there and curls around it,” not that he is playing practical jokes on someone in a somewhat helpless state. Later in his journey, Huck lies to a group of men looking for escaped slaves and says that he is with his father who has smallpox which depicts a moment where he must grapple with the differences in his own morality versus his notion of society’s morality.

The discussion of Huck’s morality is especially interesting when considering Twain’s notice at the beginning of the story: “Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.” To me, this notice in the context of Huck’s moral compass tells the reader that there is no overarching meaning or message within the evolution of Huck’s morality. Twain tells the story of a kid figuring out what is right and wrong in a world that is morally corrupt, and this evolution should not be intellectualized – according to Twain.

Digesting the Ending of Huck Finn

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The ending of the novel came as a surprise to me. I expected Jim to be freed in the end, but the reunion of Huck and Tom derailed my predictions for Huck having a concrete epiphany. Perhaps ‘concrete’ is the wrong word, I simply expected that Huck would prove his maturation by defending Jim, maybe or maybe not accompanied by some boyish-wise words about the evils of slavery.

The reappearance of Tom Sawyer struck me as particularly odd. In the beginning of the book, Tom provides a childlike version of societal pressure for Huck to be influenced by. Similar to the Widow or Miss Watson, Tom provides strict rules for Huck to be confused and somewhat disturbed by, though his are romantic and fantastical, rather than religious and civil. Throughout his trip with Jim, we see Huck start to awaken to the immorality and absurdity of societal conventions. His resistance to normative behavior, especially related to slavery, comes to a head in chapter thirty-one when he declares that he will “go to hell” rather than turn Jim in (252). He sacrifices his soul to save Jim, as he sees it. This development is essentially erased when Tom reappears.

Huck, once again, follows Tom’s lead, through a ridiculous plan to rescue Jim that nearly fails. He voices his objections but doesn’t really put up a fight against the “right way and … the regular way” of doing things (282). It seems that Tom has matured alongside Huck when he agrees to free Jim. However, Huck’s glowing description of Tom as a boy who “knowing and not ignorant; and not mean, but kind,” who joined the cause even though he “had a character to lose” is completely upended when Tom reveals Jim has been a free man all along. Not only has Tom deceived Huck and Jim, he treats Jim like a play thing, exploiting him for personal adventure. Tom’s treatment is certainly opposed to Huck’s increasingly respectful and even loving attitude towards Jim. 

Their journey down the river seem all in vain, like the entire novel charting Huck’s development seem to be undone. Jim was a free man all along. In the end, Huck does not try and change the ‘sivil’ world, or his friend, instead he decides to ditch it all and start over out West. I’m not sure what to take away here. That the white social world is confining and irredeemable, similar to the condition of slavery it created? That seems kind of gross. Is the point that an Emersonian sense of individuality is sovereign, and it’s no use trying to sway other people? That seems awful bleak. I should probably stop wondering and reread the title page.