Last Updated on October 18, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 914
The Wife of His Youth takes place in Ohio some years after the events of the American Civil War and the 1865 ratification of the thirteenth amendment, which ended slavery in the United States. It begins as the protagonist, Mr. Ryder, an educated, mixed-race man who has risen to the upper echelons of society, determines that he intends to hold a ball. He is a leader and well-loved member of an organization derisively known as the Blue Vein Society. Although the group claims to determine membership based on education, culture, and refinement, they seem to base their membership on skin color: those whose skin is not pale enough to reveal their blue veins are unlikely to be welcome. The club does not consider itself racist or discriminatory; instead, Mr. Ryder and members like him seem to see the society as a means of bettering the lives of mixed-race Americans who strive to integrate into white society.
After a brief interjection in which the author explains the structure and membership requirements of the society, the story continues, describing Mr. Ryder, his interests, his passions, and his desires. Readers learn that he is a fair man who spent a lifetime working hard and saving much; now a wealthy man with a lovely home, he spends his leisure time reading and reciting poetry, and, although he spent many years alone, he now wishes for a wife. This wish is the driving motivation for the ball; he has his eye on Mrs. Molly Dixon, a lovely widow who is even lighter-skinned than he. She is a refined woman with a buxom figure, and Mr. Ryder loves her not only for her figure but also for her personality and youth. Indeed, he is old enough to be her father, and she is not yet twenty-five. Their marriage, he thinks, might help people like them to come closer to being accepted by whites.
On the day of the ball, Mr. Ryder sits in a shady patch of his porch, reciting a Tennyson poem in preparation for his speech at the ball. As he does, he considers Mrs. Dixon, choosing the lines carefully while considering their life together. The ball will be a romantic affair because Mr. Ryder plans to use the occasion to ask for her hand. As such, the poem he chooses must be perfect. However, the arrival of a visitor, a small, old, and “very black” woman who asks for him by name, breaks his focus. She introduces herself as Liza Jane and tells Mr. Ryder that she is here searching for her lost husband, Sam Taylor. Her speech betrays her lack of education, but Mr. Ryder finds himself enamored with her story. Liza tells him that she knows he is an affluent man with many local connections and, after telling their story of slavery and separation in the long years before and after the war, asks if he has heard anything about such a man. She shows him a picture of her husband, which she has carried with her for twenty-five years, and Mr. Ryder stares at it for quite some time. He promises to help if he can but tempers her joy by explaining that he sadly does not remember a story like hers.
The story picks back up at eight o’clock sharp as the ball begins; meanwhile, beautiful guests and ornate settings litter Mr. Ryder’s home. After several hours of literary programs, conversation, dancing, and dining, the guests sit for coffee and speeches. Mr. Solomon Sadler, another member of the society, introduces Mr. Ryder and jokingly references his recent reversal in marital sensibilities. The host stands, seeming pensive, and sets aside the well-planned speech he plotted on the porch earlier that day. Instead, Mr. Ryder begins to speak on the “fidelity and devotion” of women. He retells Liza Jane’s story, singing her praises for her perseverance and loyalty. As he tells of her virtues, he readjusts the story and poses a hypothetical question from the position of the lost husband. Initially, the situation seems to be little more than an interesting moral quandary; however, as the story progresses, Mr. Ryder’s emotional retelling implies proximity to Liza Jane’s tale.
Mr. Ryder asks the rapt but slightly confused audience what this hypothetical man should do. Should the man acknowledge her, even if he had set his heart upon another, even if this first wife was quite old and very dark and would prevent him from continuing his progress toward acceptance by whites? Would they acknowledge the wife of their youth, who remained loving and loyal? Or, would they pretend all ignorance and abandon the devoted first wife for another? As he asks the question, Mr. Ryder looks pointedly at Mrs. Dixon, the newfound object of his affection. Realizing the significance of his query, she rises, and offers a suggestion that the other members do not hesitate to support: “‘He should have acknowledged her.’” Mr. Ryder replies soberly, thanking them for their advice, and then leaves the room.
In his brief absence, his guests, now afire with curiosity, stare at the door. After a time, their host reappears, leading Liza Jane by the hand. Mr. Ryder introduces her as the woman of his story and reveals that he was indeed the man. He acknowledges her, vindicating twenty-five long years of searching and hoping, and calls her the “the wife of [his] youth." The couple is reunited, setting their differences and long years apart aside.