Charles Chesnutt’s “The Wife of His Youth”admin / January 6, 2019
Charles Chesnutt is a short story writer cum novelist who was born in 1858. He was an African born in America and he can be considered as one of the most influential African American writers.
He wrote fiction stories in the 19th and 20th centuries most of them talking about the problems faced by the blacks in a white country. Chesnutt was born in Cleveland by African American who emigrated from the south (Wilson 2).
He has published many books and one of them is The wife of His Youth which was written in 1899. This story explores the moral conflicts and strain experienced by people of mixed-races who lived near the color line. The title of this story implicitly registers the difficulties that are always evident in the relations between the “vernacular” and “mainstream” cultures in America (Chesnutt 4).
The Blue veins society
Chesnutt’s story of the color line begins; Mr. Ryder was going to give a ball”. Mr. Ryder, as we find in this story, was the dean of the Blue Vein Society based in Groveland (this was a fictional city referring to Cleveland where Chesnutt was born). The Blue vein is a society made up of the black which was set up after the war of the late 19th century for the purpose of maintaining right social principles among the races which were considered minor by the white.
Chesnutt describes this society with sarcasm as he states, “the society consisted of individuals who were, generally speaking, more white than black” (Chesnutt, “The wife of his youth” 1).
Some of the members who were not favored in this society made suggestions that only the white people who would show white veins would join the society. That is the reason why the society was referred to as the blue vein society and the members were called the Blue veins. To some extent, this society was established on biological and cultural criteria.
It is compromised by the tendency of Americans of the 19th century to make distinctions on the basis of color. In some essence, it was a kind of racism of the white supremacy where people were taught to despise people who are not of their color.
This is illustrated clearly in the story when Mr. Ryder is allowed to speak, he says, “I have no race prejudice, but we people of mixed blood are ground between the upper and the nether millstone” (Chesnutt, “The wife of his youth” 3). He continues to say that their fate is torn between being absorbed by the white or extinct by the black.
The bequest of the late 19th century war
The story, “The Wife of His Youth” is about the bequest of the war of the late 19th century. Mr. Ryder who is the star, separated with his wife because of the war and it had been over twenty five years since they were together.
He happens to be in love with Mrs. Dixon, a widow from Washington who had gone to visit friends in Groveland but decided to stay indefinitely. On the afternoon of the ball when Mr. Ryder was going to propose to Mrs. Dixon, Liza Jane (his former wife) visits him and made him change his plans about marrying Mrs. Dixon.
When Mr. Ryder meets Liza Jane, he knows that he is the man she is looking for although he did not want to show it. The writer explains it as a painful and difficult curiosity. It can be supposed that Ryder remembers his encounter with Liza the moment Liza mentions the name Sam Taylor to him. The writer notes that Mr. Ryder seemed “to think for a moment” (Chesnutt, “The wife of his youth”5).
Maybe he was trying to recall the events that led to the turn of things. He admitted to have had stories of women looking for their husbands but thought that had ceased with the war. He goes further to ask Liza “to refresh his memory” meaning that he knew very well who she was although Liza could not recognize him.
To some extent, some of his replies to Liza seem to be true in some sense because as he says, Sam Taylor might have died and Ryder was born in his place. He does not even understand what has become of his wife, she looked dark and older than he was and he really felt for her learning that she had been searching for his husband for twenty five years.
He had a new name and according to him, his marriage to Liza was not binding. All mixed-race marriages were regarded as slave marriages and were assumed null and void after the war unless they were renewed.
It was over twenty five years since Liza were separated with her husband and therefore their marriage was not binding. To make it worse, Sam was under a new name. However, Mr. Ryder never re-married and Liza re-appeared when Ryder was about to express his interest to Mrs. Dixon; he was actually about to marry her.
The writer (Chesnutt) does not condemn any of Ryder’s acts of beating around the bush about Sam Taylor. He actually commends some of his acts, for instance, he says that, “he generally shared his house with some young couple, who looked after his wants and were company for him; for Mr. Ryder was a single man” (Chesnutt, “The wife of his youth” 2).
The thought of marriage had never crossed his mind even though, for many ladies, he was quite a catch and many would do anything to capture him. It was not until Mrs. Molly Dixon went visiting in Groveland that Mr. Ryder wished to get married.
Liza’s visit to Ryder makes him change his mind
After the appearance of Liza, it became clear why Ryder had resisted all his suitors all that time. In some sense, he was married, although that marriage was not binding. Maybe his feelings about the laws regarding to slave marriages not being just, and some affection for the wife of his youth prevented him from re-marrying.
It was not until he met the most ‘charming’ lady, Mrs. Molly Dixon, who was a widow and whiter than the rest members of the blue skin society, that Ryder thought of changing his status to that of married man. No one knew his past and no one could even estimate his age, Mrs. Dixon could be the age of his daughter but that did not deter him from falling for her.
When he was parting with Liza, Ryder told her that, “I don’t know of any man in town who goes by that name”, (Chesnutt, “The wife of his youth”7). He was telling the truth because for sure there was no one under that name but the real truth remained with him.
He goes ahead to say that, “nor have I heard of anyone making such inquiries”, he was kind of stating a fact and he was very keen with the use of words and not at one time during the conversation did Liza suspect nor recognize that he was Sam Taylor who she had been looking for all that time.
After parting with her, he went to the mirror and saw two different persons in one. He was in a dilemma torn between two identities. It was entirely his decision to either live with the two identities or choose one over the other. The writer acknowledges the darkness that Ryder was in and how he made a choice to come out of it.
He was a wise man and having lived and served in the blue vein society, he knew they were the right people to help him out of his dilemma. He put forward a hypothetical case of a man like him to the Blue veins who had been invited in his house for the ball and let them give their opinion of what a man in such a situation was supposed to do.
He asked them whether he was supposed to acknowledge and accept back his first wife, or go ahead and marry the woman he had fallen in love with. None of the Blue veins had an idea of what Ryder was talking about and Mrs. Dixon was the first to answer, “He should have acknowledged her”. All the other Blue veins agreed with that opinion just as Mr. Ryder himself had expected, having known them for quite sometime.
He then turned towards, “the closed door of an adjoining room, while every eye followed him in wondering curiosity” (Chesnutt, “The wife of his youth” 10). After a few minutes, he came back hand in hand with his afternoon visitor, “who stood startled and trembling at the sudden plunge into this scene of brilliant gayety” (Chesnutt, “The wife of his youth” 10).
The visitors were astonished and waited eagerly to hear what Ryder was up to, he went ahead to say, “this is the woman, and I man the man, whose story I have told you. Permit me to introduce you to the wife of my youth” (Chesnutt, “The wife of his youth” 10).
To some extent, Chesnutt is writing about the relation of the black culture to the standards of the white which were never judged justly.
It is clear that his hope is to achieve some kind of triple unity.
A unity of the black both middle and working class, whom he felt would make a progress in fighting for the civil and political rights of mixed-races; A unity of legendary and dialect cultures upon which indisputable mythical art could possibly be produced and a unity of the black and the white upon which the color-line could be surpassed. In this restrained story, Chesnutt deals with some matters related to self-hatred that had been left upon the culture of the black by the white supremacy.
He was actually one of the people suffering from this type of hatred having been brought up and raised up in a white country (Lauter, Alberti, Yarborough, and Brady 246).
This can be observed in the way he describes Liza Jane with disgust, he talks about her toothless blue gums which could only be visible after opening her mouth since she was so dark. He goes ahead to talk about the white wool, although he maybe referring to Mr. Ryder.
Chesnutt, Charles. The Wife of His Youth. New York: Mifflin and Co. Not dated. Print.
Chesnutt, W. Charles. The Wife Of His Youth: And Other Stories Of The Color Line. Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 1968. Print.
Lauter, Paul; Alberti, John; Yarborough, Richard; and Brady, Mary. The Heath Anthology of American literature, Volume C: Late Nineteenth century: 1865-1910, Volume 3. London: Cengage Learning, 2009. Print.
Wilson, Mathew. Whiteness in the Novels of Charles W. Chesnutt. New York: Univ. Press of Mississippi, 2009. Print.