Sleep Fictions: A Digital Companion


Julius instructs Tom on how to appear lazy to avoid exploitation by acting as the “monst’us pow’ful sleeper” like Skundus. Such a demeanor contrasts the behavior of slaves such as Dave, Henry and Sandy, who only suffer for their good behavior. The fate of the ideal workers are dismal, while Skundus, on the other hand, achieves success at the end of “A Deep Sleeper.” Thus, Julius advocates for the “squatter” mentality described by Du Bois, in which blacks “loaf before your face and work behind your back . . . [and] steal a watermelon, and hand you back your lost purse intact.”

In one of the few scholarly articles written on "A Deep Sleeper," Claudine Raynaud cleverly reads Julius’s storytelling as a means for “deferring the moment of the collection, [in which] the servant provides time (makes time) for the theft of the watermelon” (700). Julius’s efforts are slyly presented to John through the story of Skundus, who commits a much more exaggerated version of Julius’s own act. As Raynaud explains, “The embedded text is a slave tale variation on the theme of ‘Sleeping Beauty’: the male slave escapes and tricks the master through a pretend deep sleep. Sleep means subtracting oneself from the reality of slavery, i.e. not working” (698). Julius guides Tom through a similar process: He has the boy feign sleepiness and steal the watermelon in an effort to abstract the old man from John’s command.

Julius and Tom's success in "A Deep Sleeper" may reflect Chesnutt’s interest in exploring how Black Americans, enslaved or free, claimed their own spaces and marked their own territories. Just as Skundus maintains his own sense of space through a feigned narcoleptic fit, Julius and Tom claim the watermelon patch as their own. In the inner and outer stories, Black characters display a keener understanding of their geographic locations and the territories they inhabit. Skundus, for instance, knows that the barn would go unvisited by his master and would therefore be a prime location to claim to have been sleeping for a month. Likewise, Tom stays out of John’s sight throughout Julius’s storytelling, supposedly in a lethargic stupor, and manages to pilfer the melon without being caught. 

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