The Wife of His Youth Analysis
Charles Waddell Chesnutt’s story is concerned with racial identity in the United States. Set in Ohio during the post-Civil War period, the story emphasizes the changes since the time when slavery was legal and the role of race in ascending the social hierarchy. The central character is a light-skinned African American man, Mr. Ryder, who is proud of his biracial status. As a member of the Blue Vein Society, he endorses its goal to help light-skinned African Americans become more prominent in U.S. society; this would be accomplished in part by marrying others of similar background in hopes that their children would be even lighter skinned and thus more upwardly mobile within white society.
The story revolves around Ryder’s prominent social status in two ways. First, the plot seems simple: Ryder is preparing for a party celebrating his engagement to Mrs. Dixon, a widow of similar heritage. Ryder, an Anglophile, plans to read a Tennyson poem praising “fair skin.” The Ryder–Dixon match is highly suitable and will further their personal goals and those of the Blue Vein Society, to which they belong. Second, the plot grows complicated. Because of his notable position, an older, dark-skinned, poor black woman seeks him out to help her with a personal matter. The story of this formerly enslaved woman concerns her long-lost, lighter-skinned husband, Sam Taylor: a free person of color, he ran away before the war from an unjust, dangerous situation, and she wants Ryder to help her find him. One result of Sam’s flight was that the man who owned her had sold her further south; after the war her searches had finally brought her north. In the final plot twist, Ryder reveals at the engagement party that he himself is Taylor and introduces the woman as “the wife of my youth.”
At the turn of the 20th century, when Chestnutt was writing, “mixed-blood” and “mulatto” were commonly used terms that identified people of dual European and African heritage. The idea that lighter skin was advantageous was also commonly held; people of mixed heritage who were phenotypically indistinguishable from “whites” sometimes moved to a new place and changed their race. Forging a better place for “mulattoes” because they looked more “white” was not uncontroversial but was an accepted path of social mobility. The ending also makes it clear that, although Ryder will not be able to marry Mrs. Dixon, he has done the right thing. He had put the question to the party guests as hypothetical: What should the missing husband do? Mrs. Dixon had affirmed her belief that he should identify himself. As Ryder makes an ethical, personal stand, the author implies, he also begins to reject the social prejudice against dark skin.
Style and Technique
Chesnutt first gained public attention by writing dialect stories of the South in the vein of popular writer Joel Chandler Harris’s Uncle Remus tales. Chesnutt’s early stories, the best known of which is “The Goophered Grapevine ,” present the clever former slave, Uncle Julius, who tells his new Northern master and mistress tales of voodoo, haunting, and plantation life. Unlike Harris’s sentimentalized portraits of antebellum slavery, Chesnutt’s stories are accounts of courage, wit, and survival; however, Chesnutt found the dialect stories confining. “The Wife of His Youth” is his first piece using standard vocabulary and style. While the cunning Uncle Julius of his earlier stories could criticize society using wit and humor, Chesnutt’s more conventional stories were not easily accepted. Readers found his discussions of miscegenation, prejudice, and class distinctions discomforting. He refused to return to the popular images of the Old South that were so profitable to him. Chesnutt insisted on examining the difficult issues of race and color, of morality and social...
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