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The story opens with Mr. Ryder, a man of color, born free before the Civil war, the president of Blue Veins Society planning a society ball. Blue Veins is a club for people who are generally not white, however, ironically the majority of its members is mostly white in terms of their manners or appearance.
As he has done well for himself, Mr. Ryder has been pursued by many women throughout his life, but he has not considered marriage until a young woman by the name Molly Dixon made an appearance. It is in her honor and with the intention of proposing to her, that Mr. Ryder plans the next Blue Veins ball.
When he is preparing his speech, Mr. Ryder receives an unexpected visitor. Liza Jane, an older black woman, who travels from city to city in search for her husband Sam Taylor, whom she has not seen in 25 years, comes to ask for help. She tells Mr. Ryder that she, a slave back then, and Sam, a free born man, were married before the Civil War, but because his family wanted to sell him into slavery she helped him escape. Sam promised to come back for her, but Liza Jane was sold to a different family and he never returned. In response to Liza Jane’s story Mr. Ryder suggests that Sam could have remarried, as the slave marriages conducted before the Civil War were not considered binding, died, or have a number of other reasons for not seeking her out, or for not wanting her to seek him out. Liza Jane asserts that she is certain that her husband has remained faithful and that she will not stop looking for him. She leaves Mr. Ryder with a picture of Sam when he was young.
At the ball, when Mr. Ryder is supposed to give his speech, he recounts the story of Liza Jane to the guests. Afterwards he asks the audience whether they think that the man in the story should have acknowledged the woman he has outgrown as his wife. All Mr. Ryder’s guests including Molly Dixon agree that the man should acknowledge his wife, upon which he leaves. After a moment he returns with Liza Jane and introduces her as ‘the wife of his youth’.
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The Wife Of His Youth Summary
SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics. This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of The Wife Of His Youth by Charles W. Chestnutt.
“The Wife of His Youth” is an American short story written by Charles W. Chestnutt and published in 1898. It tells the story of a biracial man directly after the Civil War who dreams of being white. He encounters a woman searching for her husband whom she married before she was freed.
The main character, Mr. Ryder, is a biracial man who was born free and lived free for his whole life. He is in charge of the Blue Veins Society, a social organization for people of color. He lives in a northern town, and most of the people in the society boast some kind of European ancestry. Because of this, they appear to be more white than black. The name of the society comes from a joke among the members. In order to join, you’d have to be so white that your veins could show blue through your skin.
Many women would like to marry Ryder, but he chooses Molly Dixon, a particularly light-skinned woman. He wants to propose to her at the next Blue Vein ball, where he will be giving a speech and will have the perfect opportunity to do so.
Before the ball, he meets a plain-looking black woman, Liza Jane, a former slave. She is looking for her husband whom she married while she was still a slave. Her husband’s name is Sam Taylor, and she has not seen him for twenty-five years. Sam was born a free man, but he was a hired apprentice for the family she belonged to.
When the family tried to sell Sam into slavery, she helped him escape, and in return, he promised to come back for her. Soon after, she was sold to a different master, and has not seen him since. Ryder is incredulous, saying that the man could have died by then, or at least remarried. She believes, however, that her husband has remained faithful after all these years and refuses to let it go.
Ryder tells her that slave marriages made before the war are not legal marriages. They must be made official now that the war is over. She shows him a picture of Sam and then leaves.
At the ball, he begins to tell her story during his speech. At the end, he asks the attendees if the man should come forward and acknowledge his wife after all these years. When everyone urges yes, he brings out Liza Jane. He introduces her as the “wife of his youth” telling the attendees that he is the man she has been looking for.
Chestnutt offers a rare look for the time at the struggles of those of mixed race, who,though often educated, could not escape the stigma of their black ancestry. Ryder has formed a society of people that could almost pass as white, and he refuses to acknowledge at first that his first wife is a lowly black cook. He is nothing like the apprentice she describes to him, and she barely seems to recognize that it is the same man.
We can never escape our past, and to some extent when we ignore where we came from, our past has a way of showing up to remind us. Ultimately, Ryder does acknowledge Liza Jane, but only after asking the crowd if this is something the man should do. It is not clear if he would have revealed his identity if they had decided differently.
Chestnutt chooses to make some of the more subjective ideas of race and class a matter of personal choice. Ryder could have continued to deny Liza Jane’s pleas, but he acknowledges his past in the end. The society itself was seeking to create a new sort of culture in which their mixed heritage was an asset and a source of creativity. This acknowledgment places Ryder in a position to move forward. He isnot just seeking to be white anymore. He is embracing the two different parts of his ancestry as one dynamic unit.
Chestnutt’s portrayal is one of nuance. At the time, much of the literature centered on a nostalgic feeling of the antebellum era, but here Chestnutt focuses on the tension and the interplay between white society, black society, and those who claimed both ancestries. Ryder’s fine house and his encounters with a higher-class woman from D.C. belie his humble upbringing. This past is brought to light when a woman he married and promised to come back for finally finds him.
We do not know why he never returned for her. It is possible that he wanted to leave that world behind, or it’s possible that he did not know where she was. All of these conflicts are in line with the themes of post-war identities. Appearances are not always what they seem. Ryder was once someone different as was Liza Jane.
Ultimately, it is up to the reader to decide if Ryder is embracing Liza Jane or distancing himself from her as “the wife of his youth” instead of just his wife. It leaves questions open to the reader to interpret.