Many of us might have issues with our past that we’d like to keep there, but probably none of us as much as Mr. Ryder in Charles Chesnutt’s ‘The Wife of His Youth.’ Keep reading to get a synopsis of the story, as well as an analysis of its dramatic themes.
Many of us have probably been warned by our parents or friends not to forget where we came from – not just our hometowns – but the culture and values of these places, as well.
Readers of Charles Chesnutt’s short story The Wife of His Youth, might notice that its protagonist, Mr. Ryder, has indeed forgotten where he came from, that is, until he’s given a surprising reminder.Chesnutt’s story is divided into three sections, the first of which is devoted to the characterization of Mr. Ryder and the ‘Blue Vein Society’ to which he belongs in the ‘Northern city’ of Groveland.
The organization is described as a ‘little society of colored persons’ established soon after the American Civil War. However, we also learn that most of the society’s members are of mixed ancestry, and many of them, including Mr. Ryder, are considered ‘more white than black.’Mr. Ryder’s reputation as a refined, thrifty, and cultured gentleman has earned him the role of ‘dean’ in the society.
He’s well respected among its members and noted for his literary tastes, especially his consummate ability to recite poetry. Female members of the society have tried to win his affections. However, he showed no apparent interest in any of them until he met the widow, Mrs. Molly Dixon, who’s made quite an impression on the other ‘Blue Veins.
‘ As the first section closes, Mr. Ryder is preparing to throw an exclusive ball in her honor, during which he plans to ask for her hand in marriage and secure his upwardly mobile ambitions.In the second section, Mr. Ryder continues to prepare for the upcoming ball by perusing some Tennyson poems to recite during his toast. However, his browsing is interrupted when a visitor arrives: a small, modestly dressed woman he describes as ‘very black.’ The woman’s name is Liza Jane, and she’s a former slave from Missouri who’s been travelling the country for the past 25 years looking for her long-lost husband, Sam Taylor.
Mr. Ryder listens intently as Liza describes how Sam was supposed to be sold by their master until she warned him and he escaped. As a result, Liza herself was whipped and sold downriver. Once the end of the Civil War ended and the slaves were free, she immediately began to search for Sam.
Hearing this, Ryder tries to convince Liza that her searching at this point is probably in vain. Sam’s most likely either dead or married to someone else now since slave marriages weren’t binding after the War unless the couple chose to remain wed. Liza reassures Ryder that Sam’s a good man who would never forget about her, and their meeting ends with Ryder’s promise to contact her should he hear anything.As the final section of the story opens later that evening, the ball is in full swing. All the guests have arrived – many of them quite affluent – and after dancing and dinner, they’re all called to order in preparation for toasts. As Mr. Ryder stands to give his toast ‘to the Ladies’ and presumably pop the question to Molly, he instead tells the crowd Liza’s story.
Once finished, he poses a hypothetical question to the audience: if Liza and Sam were to meet again after so long, should Sam acknowledge her? Of course, the sympathetic listeners agree that Sam should acknowledge his wife, at which point the story ends with Mr. Ryder, who’s actually Sam Taylor, introducing Liza to his guests as ‘the wife of my youth.’
From its inception, America has always had issues with race.
Due to our history of slavery, relations between African Americans and those of European descent have been especially strained. Sadly, we often still see the effects of this tortured relationship today, but surely things were even worse when Chesnutt first published The Wife of His Youth in 1898.With the Civil War still a vivid memory for many, emotions and tensions among citizens ran high, but one group in particular was a reflection of the larger social struggle. People like Mr.
Ryder and other members of the ‘Blue Veins Society’ were often referred to as ‘mulattoes,’ a term for individuals of mixed African and European ancestry. Charles Chesnutt uses Ryder’s internal struggle as such an individual to touch on three thematic elements also at work in society at large: issues of racial identity, social mobility, and personal and cultural indebtedness.
- Racial Identity: Initially, Mr. Ryder certainly struggles with his own racial identity. He’s noted as not being ‘as white as some of the (other) Blue Veins;’ however, what he lacks in outward appearance, he apparently seeks to make up for in social refinement.
- Social Mobility: Ryder and the Blue Veins have adopted certain cultural elements as a means of obtaining social mobility previously unavailable to them. For instance, Mrs. Dixon’s whiter appearance and mannerisms would be considered more advantageous in improving her social conditions than Liza’s physical and linguistic signs of her former slave status.
- Indebtedness: After hearing Liza’s story, Ryder gazes ‘thoughtfully at the reflection of his own face.’ It’s in this moment that he sees the old Sam and apparently comes to the realization that he owes Liza a great deal for her loyalty all these years.
He poses his question to the Blue Veins not just to get their approval, but also to stress the point that they’re all culturally indebted to their African brethren, who still suffer considerably under the social conditions they wanted so desperately to escape.
Set shortly after the American Civil War, Charles Chesnutt’s The Wife of His Youth follows the story of Mr. Ryder, a man admired for his literary taste and often referred to as a ‘mulatto’: a term for individuals of mixed African and European ancestry. His past meets up with him, though, when his former wife Liza Jane shows up looking for him, causing him to face his own issues in relation to the themes of racial identity, social mobility, and indebtedness.