Term of Award

Spring 2014

Degree Name

Master of Arts in English (M.A.)

Document Type and Release Option

Thesis (open access)


Department of Literature and Philosophy

Committee Chair

Caren Town

Committee Member 1

Olivia Carr Edenfield

Committee Member 2

David Dudley


Amidst a surge of plantation fiction writing during the era of American Realism, Charles Chesnutt was arguably one of the most controversial yet prolific authors to address the recent advent of slavery. The Conjure Woman was a publication of seven frame narratives that employed the traditional style of a former slave telling tales of “the old days,” and though Chesnutt's work may have mirrored such authors as Thomas Nelson Page, the tales broke from tradition with surprisingly stark accounts that are clearly based on Chesnutt's own conversations with former slaves. Much like another contemporary, Joel Chandler Harris, Chesnutt looks backward to the trickster figure of African lore and applies its tactics to his narrator, Julius McAdoo, to deliver a comical yet austere discussion of the ills of slavery. In The Conjure Woman, Chesnutt addresses the issues of forced separation of families, slave abuse, dark superstition and the ever-present peril of competition among slaves for limited resources. Furthermore, Chesnutt's use of the trickster figure from Old World lore works to not only symbolize the clash between old and new ideologies, but serves to offer an in-road to brokering peace between white Americans and the newly emancipated slaves. This discussion addresses Chesnutt's updated trickster figure: its similarities to the Old World trickster, its distinguishing qualities that modernized the figure and the role that it plays in The Conjure Woman.