“Are you seriously considering the possibility of a man’s being turned into a tree,” questions John of his wife in Charles Chesnutt’s novel The Conjure Woman. His attention to the supernatural in the stories told by Uncle Julius lead him to miss the significance of the themes behind the stories. Rather than understanding, the humanity of the slave and his need for love he simply focuses on the fact that he Sandy becomes a tree. This is just one example of John’s misunderstanding of the stories told by Uncle Julius.The character’s inability to look beyond the surface of the stories he hears, influences his perception of the validity of these stories. Further, because he refuses to look beyond the rational, he is unable to see the essential elements of evil in slavery. In addition, the protagonist’s faults are representative of society’s ability to romanticize and gloss over the institution of slavery and are a negation of the sentimentality of slavery, prevalent in society during that period. The stories within the stories, as told by Uncle Julius, relay several themes important in rebutting the sentimentality of slavery.
One theme Uncle Julius’s stories rebut is that of the relationship between families. One way in which the author addresses this issue is in “Sis’ Becky’s Pickaninny.” Chesnutt condemns the treatment of slaves as capital, while confirming their need for family. To illustrate, when Becky is traded for a racehorse she is devastated by the loss of her son. In order to keep the family together the aunt resorts to hiring a local conjure woman to bring the family together again. Only after Becky and Mose are reunited, is she able to find some semblance of happiness. Becky’s desire to remain with her son dispels the myth that African American’s were inhuman, incapable of caring about their children. At the same time, the story indicts the nostalgia for slavery as a good and fair institution. John appears to miss the implication a he is too busy focusing on the practical matters of the story. Annie on the other hand, searches for the true meaning behind the story and finds truth in it. When her husband points out the unearthly qualities of the story she responds, “Oh well, I don’t care. Those are mere ornamental details and not at all essential. The story is true to nature, and might have happened half a hundred times” (159).
Another denunciation of slavery as beneficial to the slave made by Chesnutt in his stories is that of love between slave men and women. Because the slave is viewed as a piece of property, they are thought to be unable to love one another. In the stories “Po Sandy” and “Mars Jeem’s Nightmare,” the slave owner is condemned for forbidding marriage between slaves. For example, in the former Dunkin loses one of his best slaves because he treats him as an animal, shuffling him back and forth between families. In addition, Jeems suffers a hellish “nightmare” because he is unwilling to treat his slaves as anything more than chattel. While John again misses the point of these stories due to his refusal to see the stories as anything more than amusement, his wife stays true to form and looks past the exterior of the stories, rebuking the institution of slavery. Regarding slavery and the destruction of families Annie states, “What a system it was” (60).
Finally, Uncle Julius’s stories address the destruction of nature and the black man at the hands of the slave master. To illustrate, in “The Goophered Grapevine” their greedy owner destroys Henry and the grapevine. Mcadoo sells Henry year after year and buys him back after a conjure woman places a spell on him that allows him to become young in the spring and decline into old age again in the winter. In the end, he loses both due to his greed to make the largest profit. Neither John nor Annie appear to understand the implications of this story. That is the kinship felt between African Americans and nature.
John’s inability to see the true nature of Uncle Julius’s stories reflects the limitations of white society’s understanding of the black man’s life, as rooted in the slave experience. His restricted sympathy and misunderstanding f Julius’s display a larger theme of the white world’s inability to understand the race problem. Julius’s continuous attempt to engage his employer in an understanding of the black culture reflects Chesnutt’s attempt to do the same in his novels.