Many similarities can be observed between Charles Chesnutt’s short stories “Po’ Sandy” and “The Gray Wolf’s Ha’nt.” These short stories, which appear in Chesnutt’s collection of stories titled The Conjure Woman, take place in the Jim Crow South after the Civil War. The stories are narrated by a white man named John who has recently moved with his wife from the North to the South, specifically to a vineyard in North Carolina. Julius, a black coachman who works for the white couple, often recounts tales that offer insight into slavery and the pre-civil war South. Both “Po’ Sandy” and “Gray Wolf’s Ha’nt” feature commentary on the connection between Julius’ tales and the horrors of slavery, a description of a relationship between two slaves that is torn apart by death, and an ulterior motive advanced by Julius in his tales.
Before Julius begins to tell his tale in both “Po’ Sandy” and “The Gray Wolf’s Ha’nt,” John makes a comment about Julius tales and the insights they offer into slavery. As Julius prepares to tell his tale of Po’ Sandy, John comments that some of Julius’ stories “disclose many a tragic incident of the darker side of slavery” (Chesnutt). Before Julius recounts the story of Dan and Mahaly, John states that Julius stories contained “the shadow, never absent, of slavery and of ignorance” (Chesnutt). These statements by John frame Julius’ tales as commentary on the horrors of slavery and the tragedies that slaves endured. Through John’s comments, Chesnutt reveals that Julius’ tales are not meaningless fiction; they offer insights into the lives of slaves and their relationships with each other and with their masters.
Both stories center on a relationship between an enslaved man and an enslaved woman that is eventually torn apart through a tragic death. In “Po’ Sandy,” the relationship is between Tenie and Sandy. Tenie, a conjure woman, changes Sandy into a tree so that he will not be sent to work for another family. One night, before Tenie can change herself and Sandy into foxes so that they can run away to freedom, Tenie is forced to help a family whose mother is sick. Sandy remains a tree, and before Tenie returns, Sandy’s master orders the tree that is actually Sandy to be cut down for lumber. Sandy experiences, a tragic, painful death as he is cut down. Similarly, in “The Gray Wolf’s Ha’nt,” a relationship exists between Dan and Mahaly, who are both slaves. When Dan learns that the son of a conjure man is interested in Mahaly, Dan hits the son, who eventually dies. The conjure man eventually discovers that Dan killed his son, and he devises an evil plan to exact revenge on Dan. After convincing Dan that a witch in the form of a black cat is disturbing Dan, the conjure man changes Mahaly into a black cat and transforms Dan into a gray wolf capable of killing the black cat. When the Mahaly (in the form of a black cat) arrives at Dan’s cabin, Dan bites Mahaly by the neck and kills her. Mahaly’s bloody, gruesome death resembles Sandy’s gory death upon being cut down.
Additionally, both stories contain an ulterior motive behind Julius’ tales, and this ulterior motive is to save something that John wants to destroy. In “Po’ Sandy,” Julius’ true motive is to prevent the schoolhouse from being torn down because he wants to use the schoolhouse as a church. In “Gray Wolf’s Ha’nt,” Julius’ true motive is to prevent John from clearing up a portion of woods because the woods contain Julius’ bee-tree which presumably supplied Julius with ample honey. In both of the narratives, John discovers Julius’ ulterior motive at the very end of the story. Julius’ use of elaborate tales with ulterior motives demonstrates his high level of intelligence.
Chesnutt’s short stories “Po’ Sandy” and “The Gray Wolf’s Ha’nt” follow a remarkably similar structure with similar plot elements. The similar aspects in these two stories highlight important ideas emphasized by Chesnutt. John’s comments that precede Julius’ tales affirm that Julius’s tales offer insights into slavery. The similar focus of a relationship torn apart by death illustrates the terrible tragedies endured by slaves. The complexity of Julius’ tales that actually hide ulterior motives underscores the intelligence of Julius, an intelligence that was held captive by slavery.
Chesnutt, Charles W. The Conjure Woman. Houghton, Mifflin & Co., 1899, www.gutenberg.org/files/11666/11666-h/11666-h.htm.