Who are the protagonist and antagonist in the story The Wife of His Youth?

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teachsuccess | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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The protagonist in 'The Wife of His Youth' is quite clearly Mr. Ryder. He is the main character of Chesnutt's short story. The antagonist is someone who works in opposition to the protagonist. In many cases, it is usually another person; however, the antagonist may also be a force or abstract element which engages in conflict with the protagonist. In this particular story, the antagonist appears to be racism, social pressure, or bigotry.

According to the narrator, Mr. Ryder is a light-skinned African-American dean of the Blue Vein Society. Accordingly, membership in the organization is based on 'character and culture.' However, most of the members are 'light-colored.' It is widely believed that 'such persons, as a rule, had had better opportunities to qualify themselves for membership.' Here, you can see that class distinctions are based on the color of one's skin within the Blue Vein community.

Chesnutt's short story was indeed, controversial, even in his time. White communities were deeply uncomfortable with Chesnutt's portrayals of inter-racial relationships which reeked of miscegenation. Mr. Ryder also appeared to be an anomaly: an educated, socially cultured and fairly affluent middle-class African American, juxtaposed against the Liza Janes of typical portrayals, the 'overstuffed mammies, superannuated retainers, exotic quadroons, and other assorted dark-skinned eccentrics of the dialect writers.' In the story, The Blue Vein society is also accused by the black community of exhibiting 'a glaring example of the very prejudice from which the colored race had suffered most...' Yet, when admitted as members, those same critics asserted 'with zeal and earnestness that the society was a lifeboat, an anchor, a bulwark and a shield,—a pillar of cloud by day and of fire by night, to guide their people through the social wilderness.'

When Mr. Ryder puts the question to the attendees of the ball of whether a man should acknowledge the wife of his youth despite the fact that she has not 'walked by his side' nor 'kept pace with him in his upward struggle,'  it is surprisingly Mrs. Dixon who speaks up in support of it. Molly Dixon is the light-skinned widow Mr. Ryder had intended to marry. With Mr. Ryder's acknowledgement of Liza Jane in front of the whole Society, Chesnutt shows that the protagonist has indeed succeeded in winning his conflict with bigotry. Mr. Ryder chooses to retain his honor and his promises to his first wife even though she does not exhibit any of the favored characteristics of an upwardly mobile Blue Vein.

Mr. Ryder's choice exhibits that he has rejected the expectations of his own light-skinned community of Blue Vein members; in short, he has overcome fears that his decision to acknowledge Liza Jane would put him in the cross-hairs between seemingly opposing racial theories.

Our fate lies between absorption by the white race and extinction in the black. The one doesn't want us yet, but may take us in time. The other would welcome us, but it would be for us a backward step... Self-preservation is the first law of nature."

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