The Wife Of His Youth Summary

Charles W. Chestnutt

The Wife Of His Youth

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The Wife Of His Youth Summary

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“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.