Last Updated November 3, 2023.
The protagonist of the story is Mr. Ryder, a light-skinned, free-born African American man who narrowly escaped unlawful enslavement. However, his difficult origins do not appear until later in the story; at the beginning, Mr. Ryder is a man of means, refinement, and influence. He is a self-made man who earned success through hard work and dedication. A conservative man interested in integrating light-skinned African Americans into white society, Mr. Ryder is a high-ranking member of the Blue Veins Society, an organization known for its colorist ideas and racial prejudice.
As a successful Black man living in a Northern town in the wake of the Civil War and the ratification of the thirteenth amendment, Mr. Ryder’s life is defined by race and the implications of skin color. His view, and that of the society, is that light-skinned African Americans have a responsibility to do their best to integrate into white society. This responsibility pervades the narrative, and it appears that he lives his life by this motto. Mr. Ryder is an intellectual with a particular affinity for the reading and recitation of famous poets. He is worried about how others view him, and he rejects his less-than-refined past outright, attempting to separate himself from who he was and the struggles he faced. Indeed, Mr. Ryder seems to wish to erase the past and move forward in a way that loses sight of the complex social dynamics of the post-Antebellum United States.
Mrs. Molly Dixon
A recent transplant from Washington, Mrs. Molly Dixon is a young widow. Her late husband worked as a clerk and, after his death, left her a sizeable fund. Mrs. Dixon used to work as a teacher and, according to Mr. Ryder, moved in well-respected circles. In his eyes, she is a perfect match, as she is intelligent, kind, and wealthy. Moreover, she is young; he explains that she is less than twenty-five, making him old enough to be her father. For most of the short story, Mrs. Dixon appears only through Mr. Ryder’s perspective. She is described as an ideal match, and he wishes to use her light skin, beauty, and refined personality to promote the Blue Veins Society’s mission of integration into white society.
When Mrs. Dixon appears in the story, readers realize that she is a gentle soul; she nearly cries during Mr. Ryder’s retelling of Liza Jane’s tragic tale, and she is the first to guide him in the right direction. Indeed, Mrs. Dixon acts just as kind-hearted as Mr. Ryder describes, revealing that she is guided by strong morals and a clear sense of what is right.
Liza Jane is a small, old, and “very black” woman who arrives at Mr. Ryder’s home on the day of the ball. Physically, her presence is unimpressive; those who pass her on the sidewalk smile at her stature and appearance. However, her story, told in a thick, heavily accented Southern drawl that reveals her lack of formal education, takes Mr. Ryder aback. She is a dedicated woman well-versed in hardship and struggle; growing up a slave, she lost first one husband and then another. Much of her life was spent searching for this second lost husband, for whom she was whipped after helping him escape slavery. When she meets Mr. Ryder, she explains that she has spent twenty-five years looking for her husband. Tireless and always hopeful, Liza Jane is a dedicated woman whose loyalty, love, and devotion have never once waned. Even in the face of yet another disappointment, she does not waver; indeed, she is the finest of women, unbowed by difficulty and unbroken by time. To Mr. Ryder’s surprise, her appearance and speech belie a virtuous and worthy soul.