Free Joe, and Other Georgian Sketches

Contradictory Views of African-Americans and Slavery in “Free Joe and the Rest of the World"

Joel Chandler Harris’s short story “Free Joe and the Rest of the World” has long been classified as a prominent example of Plantation Tradition literature. Literature in this tradition often portrays African-Americans as clueless, “shiftless” beings who need white supervision to be happy and productive. While many elements of “Free Joe” appear to fit this mold, Harris uses several events in the story to present a more complex view of African-Americans and of slavery in general. Specifically, an alternate reading of the final scene reveals that “Free Joe” is more complex than most Plantation Tradition literature and in some ways critiques the institution of slavery; this reading yields a more precise, complete understanding of Harris’s work as a whole.

The final scene of Free Joe dead at the foot of the poplar tree stands out from the rest of the short story in both its imagery and the emotions it elicits from the reader. While the majority of the descriptions of Free Joe portray him as a carefree, “shiftless” man, Harris uses his death to reveal the impact of his inability to find his wife, which in turn helps the reader see the injustice of the social and economic system based on slavery. Harris reinforces this notion of...

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