34 pages • 1 hour readCharles W. Chesnutt
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Charles Waddell Chesnutt’s short story, “The Wife of His Youth,” is available online at the National Humanities Center’s America in Class: The Making of African American Identity, Volume II: 1865-1917: Identity project. It was originally published in The Atlantic in July 1898 (Chesnutt was the first African American to publish in the highly-respected monthly). Narrated in three parts by a limited, omniscient narrator, the story recounts the reunion of a couple separated by slavery.
Part 1 introduces the Blue Vein Society, a group of light-skinned, upwardly-mobile African Americans who exclude darker-skinned, working-class African Americans from their society. The social center of the club is Mr. Ryder, a man whose somewhat darker skin is excused because of his straighter hair texture and his refinement. Mr. Ryder is the most conservative member of the club, dedicated to maintaining social separation between mixed-race and single-race African Americans. In his own right, he is a well-respected railroad stationary clerk and property owner.
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After many years as the most eligible bachelor in the African American society of the Northern town of Groveland, Mr. Ryder develops an affection for Mrs. Molly Dixon, a widow and visitor to town who so reciprocates his feelings that she extends her stay. Intent on setting the proper stage for his marriage proposal to Mrs. Dixon, Mr. Ryder decides to throw a ball. His secondary aim in holding the party is to reassert his belief in the superiority of biracial African Americans.
In Part 2, as Mr. Ryder prepares for the ball, he is approached by Liza Jane—dark-skinned, careworn by the harsh realities of a life spent in slavery and hard labor after the war. She asks for his assistance in tracking down a man named Sam Taylor, the husband from whom she was separated twenty-five years ago. Mr. Ryder offers to listen to her tale.
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Before their separation, Sam was an apprentice to a master who, in need of money, decided to sell him into slavery though he was freeborn. Liza Jane, who belonged to the same master, discovered this plot and encouraged Sam to run away; he agreed, promising to earn the money to buy Liza Jane out of slavery. The master was so angry with Liza Jane for her role in Sam’s escape that he sold her into a much harsher slavery experience further South. When Sam eventually came back for her, she was gone. Liza Jane tells Mr. Ryder that she has spent the rest of her life looking for Sam with no luck.
Mr. Ryder shows great interest in this story as well as the daguerreotype of Sam that Liza Jane shows him. He asks Liza Jane a series of discouraging questions and then surmises that Sam may well have moved on after all these years. Liza Jane is certain that Sam would never do such a thing. Mr. Ryder takes her address and sends Liza Jane on her way. The section ends with Mr. Ryder minutely examining his own features in the mirror.
Part 3 takes place on the night of the ball. It is, as promised, the most exclusive social event of the season and attracts all the mixed-race elite of the town. Everyone is eager to see the main event: Mr. Ryder’s proposal to Mrs. Dixon. After some introductory toasts, Mr. Ryder surprises his guests by relating Liza Jane’s story and asking the attendees if Sam, a man much like himself, is obligated to reunite with Liza Jane if Liza Jane failed to recognize him on meeting him again. Deeply moved by the story, Mrs. Dixon proclaims that Sam should acknowledge his wife. Mr. Ryder then ushers Liza Jane into the room and introduces her as his wife.
By Charles W. Chesnutt