Themes and Meanings
In “The Wife of His Youth,” Charles Waddell Chesnutt presents the struggles of mixed-blood African American people in the latter part of the nineteenth century as they sought to define their place in American society. Despite their educations, their economic achievements, and their social positions, they remained at the margins of both black and white societies. A great many sentimental literary works of the post-Civil War period portray such people as tragic figures who, in their desperate attempt to pass for white and their desire to enter white society undetected, in denial of their African roots, meet a terrible end. In these romanticized tales, women sacrifice themselves to a great cause or to death, and men pose a threat to the racial purity of white society. In his story, Chesnutt rejects the tragic mulatto stereotype and insists that his readers see his characters in their individuality. Ryder and the other Blue Veins anticipate, as critic William L. Andrews has observed, the “New Negro” of the 1920’s—men and women who would claim their African heritage proudly and create their own unique culture with its own art, music, literature, and philosophy.
Chesnutt’s characters are forerunners of African American philosopher W. E. B. Du Bois’s “Talented Tenth,” the top 10 percent of the African American people who would attend universities, assume positions of power and influence, and lead their people to their proper place in American society. Ryder’s decision to acknowledge the dark-skinned wife of his youth is one man’s affirmation of his past and his culture. Chesnutt, as Andrews points out, makes the abstract issue of racial identity a “personal ethical decision, to be judged on an individual basis in light of the social, economic, and psychological factors that most affect the persons concerned.”