Last Updated on October 18, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 536
Charles Waddell Chesnutt’s 1898 short story is concerned with racial identity in the United States. Set in Ohio during the post-Civil War period, the story emphasizes the sociocultural changes that occurred throughout the pre-and post-Civil War eras. In particular, the story focuses on the role that race plays in ascending to various levels of 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 the group's 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 backgrounds in hopes that their children would be even lighter skinned and thus more upwardly mobile within white society. The story unfolds from his perspective: it is told in a third-person-limited point of view, which disguises his feelings and the truth of his history from readers until the last minute. In doing so, the author builds suspense and intrigue by leaving readers in the dark, just like the guests at the ball.
The story revolves around Mr. Ryder’s prominent social status in two ways. First, the plot seems simple: Mr. Ryder is preparing for a party celebrating his forthcoming engagement to Mrs. Dixon, a widow of similar heritage. Mr. 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 Mr. 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 twenty-five-year-long search had finally brought her north. In the final plot twist, Mr. Ryder reveals at the engagement party that he is Taylor and introduces the woman to his stunning companions 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 Mr. 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 Mr. Ryder makes an ethical, personal stand, the author implies, he also begins to reject the social prejudice against dark skin.