Academic journal article Style

A Mind Enslaved?: The Interaction of Metaphor, Cognitive Distance, and Narrative Framing in Chesnutt's "Dave's Neckliss"

Academic journal article Style

A Mind Enslaved?: The Interaction of Metaphor, Cognitive Distance, and Narrative Framing in Chesnutt's "Dave's Neckliss"

Article excerpt

Charles Chesnutt--African-American novelist, essayist, and short story writer of the late 19th and early 20th centuries--has become the subject of intense scholarly interest in recent years, particularly for his "conjure tales," which Robert Bone once called "the most important product of the black imagination prior to the First World War" (75). (1) These tales have held a dubious status as Chesnutt's most successful works, but works about which he felt ambivalent, and which he would have given up writing after the successful placement of the first few in The Atlantic Monthly, were it not for the request of his Houghton Mifflin editor to continue producing similar stories for a collection. (2) The tales have more recently been restored to their rightful place as the centerpiece of Chesnutt's legacy. The folkloric storytelling tradition which forms the core of the conjure tales' narrative structure has long been recognized for its power to convey biting satire in the form of a veiled, figurative meaning. (3) It is with understanding the power of this figurativity, harnessed so brilliantly by Chesnutt, that this paper is concerned. I examine one story in particular, "Dave's Neckliss," which was originally published in The Atlantic Monthly in 1889 and has since been recognized by some critics as one of Chesnutt's best stories. The story, though, is still largely unknown in wider

circles, and deserves to be singled out for extended analysis.

This story is structurally representative of the entire set of conjure stories, which all consist of an inner tale framed by an outer narrative. (4) The outer frames are narrated in standard dialect by John, who with his wife Annie has moved from Ohio to the North Carolina piedmont several years after the Civil War. (5) As the new owner and cultivator of a North Carolina vineyard, John displays a sometimes sympathetic, sometimes entrepreneurial interest in both the landscape and the people of the region, particularly the former slaves. John and Annie pass the time by requesting and listening to stories told by the man they call "Uncle Julius," whom they seem to regard as a harmless old slave with an interesting past enhanced by a lively imagination.

The inner tales, narrated exclusively by Julius in a slave dialect represented orthographically, (6) are stories from the days of slavery when the vineyard was a working plantation. Many of the tales feature the use of conjure, most often performed by a conjure woman named Aunt Peggy who lives separately from the primary slave characters. Often fantastic, the tales consist of common folkloric plots such as slaves being transfigured (into a tree, a donkey, a frog, a grapevine, a gray wolf, and a hummingbird, for instance). (7) Though descriptions of actual beatings are not prominent, the tales depict the psychological suffering of slaves who are separated from family and spouses, exploited, and made vulnerable to real and imagined threats. For example, when Becky is callously separated from her infant in "Sis' Becky's Pickaninny," she and the baby suffer such mental distress that they both become physically ill. The difficult conditions and psychological traumas suffered by slaves are not completely disguised; but the emotional impact and significance is heightened and intensified through metaphor, which provides an extra-literal significance unachievable through description alone.

Framing is a common literary device that has helped writers across centuries mimic the act of listening to a story by presenting two distinct storytelling situations: an outer frame introduced by a narrator who has recorded the story for a literate audience that is not physically present, and an inner framed story representing an oral tale told at a given place in a specific amount of time by a storyteller to a listening audience. Whether the storyteller is Shahrazad in The Thousand and One Nights, the Miller in Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, the mariner in Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," Uncle Julius in Chesnutt's "Dave' s Neckliss," or Captain Littlepage in Jewett' s The Country of the Pointed Firs, readers accept that the story is transmitted as it was told to the "original" listening audience, thus recreating the listening experience. …

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