(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The story begins with a description of the Blue Vein Society, a social club of mixed-blood African Americans living in the North after the Civil War. While membership criteria were ostensibly based on a person’s social standing, everyone in Groveland, Ohio, knows that only those persons whose skin is light enough to show blue veins are asked to join. Mr. Ryder, a single, light-skinned man who has achieved a respected position in the railroad company over twenty-five years, is called “the dean of the Blue Veins.” Possessing impeccable manners, a passion for British poetry, and a tastefully furnished and comfortable house, Ryder has arrived at the height of social standing and is ready to ask the beautiful, educated, and accomplished widow, Mrs. Molly Dixon from Washington, D.C., to marry him.

Not only is Ryder attracted to this young woman, but he also sees such a marriage as his social responsibility to “lighten” the race—the only means available for mixed-race people to assimilate into the larger white society. He explains that he is not prejudiced toward those of darker complexion, but that he regards mixed-blood people as unique: “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.” The joining of two such respected and accomplished mulattoes as Ryder and Molly Dixon is, for Ryder, a serious social and political obligation.

To honor Dixon, Ryder decides to give a ball in her honor; this will give him an opportunity to propose to her and also allow him to host an event that will mark a new epoch in the social history of Groveland. Only the best people—those with the best standing, manners, and complexion—will be invited. Critical of the growing laxity in social matters among even members of his own set, he wants to demonstrate to the community the standards that he considers proper to maintain.

On the day of Ryder’s great ball, he relaxes on his...

(The entire section is 839 words.)