What literary elements can I highlight in an analysis of Charles W. Chesnutt’s “The Wife of His Youth?” Use style, character, theme, etc.

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litteacher8 | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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The style of this story is notable because it uses realism to explore themes of race, which was unpopular at the time the story was written.

The story begins by establishing the Blue Vein society, a group that purports to “establish and maintain correct social standards among a people whose social condition presented almost unlimited room for improvement.”  It is clear, however, that there is more to it than that.

By accident, combined perhaps with some natural affinity, the society consisted of individuals who were, generally speaking, more white than black. 

Using this florid and then blunt style, Chestnutt is able to contrast the supposed social refinement of the community with what is really going on: the people with the lightest skin are the ones more likely to be successful, so they are the ones who join the club.

Consider how this relates to another element, characterization and theme.  Mr. Ryder tells the gathered social climbers a story.  In the story, the characters’ focus is on light-skinned social climbers finding beautiful, appropriately light-skinned wives.  The story tells of  a lady looking for her husband.  Mr. Ryder gives a suggestions of why he might have disappeared.

"Perhaps he's outgrown you, and climbed up in the world where he wouldn't care to have you find him."

The woman denies it, so Mr. Ryder brings up an interesting question.  Would they have left their wives if they had “outgrown” them?  This element of characterization describes both the individual men and their society, and contrasts Mr. Ryder.  One of them main themes of the story is that African-Americans cannot succeed in society equally with whites, even if they are lighter-skinned.

The simple, straightforward and direct style of the story reinforces the theme that African-Americans really are no different from whites, but their opportunities are not equal.  The story is not written in dialect.  The characters are grappling with the morality of social climbing.  Mr. Ryder's story about the wife of his youth resonates with the young men as they realize what they have become.


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