Analyzing from all the angles of reading a literary work, Charles W. Chestnut’s short story, “The Wife of His Youth”, can undoubtedly be called a remarkable work. The novelty of the theme will attract the attention of all the critical readers. As it is the case with the members of the organization depicted in the story ‘The Blue Veins’, the story also stands between two classes of writings; it can neither be included in the black literature nor be in the white literature. The story having a slight protest and some mockery narrates the tale of the colored people of some rank, and their struggles to get out of the humiliating past. Past is seen as a haunting force and running away from it is impossible. It reveals that the true personality of a man lies in his willingness to accept his past. Facing a negative past elevates a man from his ordinariness.
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“The Wife of His Youth” tells the story of Mr. Ryder who tries to hide his past as a slave and live among the reputed class of light-skinned colored people. He now almost forgets his old name Sam Taylor. He joins an elite society called the Blue Veins and becomes the dean of this society. Blue Veins is a group of people who believes in the unity and race-superiority of the white skinned blacks among the black community. This storyline points to the discrimination existing among the race. The Blue Veins think that black skinned are inferior and ignorant. They have white skins so that their veins show.
The haunting past of Mr. Ryder appears in the form of Liza Jane, his black wife during his days of slavery. When he escaped from slavery and ran to the north, he has left her alone. She was searching for around twenty-five years for her husband in many southern cities. Now she is headed for north in the pursuit. She has his old photograph with her. She is so confident that he is still alive, and she will find him. Still she believes that Sam loves her and they will be reunited again. Now she moves on to Groveland, Washington D. C where she meets Mr. Ryder, but fails to recognize he is her husband Sam Taylor. Now he is a major figure in the society with his wealth, intelligence, and leadership. Liza narrates his entire story to Mr. Ryder in the hope that he would help her to find her husband because of his position. The readers understand from Liza’s story that she has loved Sam so passionately. When both of them were slaves, Liza informed Sam that their master was going to sell him, and she suffered even a beating for him. Sam managed to escape from there and moved to north. The masters could not find Sam, so they sold Liza in his place. Liza got freedom after the civil war and she made her livelihood working as a cook. The day on which Liza meets Mr. Ryder is very important for him, because that day he is giving a ball to his friends in honor of Mrs. Molly Dixon whom Mr. Ryder plans to propose. Molly Dixon is whiter than Mr. Ryder, and she is educated, well mannered, good looking and very younger than Mr. Ryder. But at the end of the story, Mr. Ryder faces the most difficult situation in his life; whether to give a life to his wife of youth Liza, or to marry the much younger and beautiful Mrs. Dixon. The story ends where Mr. Ryder dramatically resolves the conflict by deicing to marry Liza.
An in depth analysis of “The Wife of His Youth” will reveal that the strongly constructed plot has more to offer than its apparently simple subject. Past appears as a haunting force throughout the prosperous life of Mr. Ryder. But this mental trauma of Ryder is not depicted obviously anywhere in the beginning of the story. This hiding of the psyche adds to the impact of the story. The revelation about the past of Mr. Ryder can be conceived only with a shock. It is said in the beginning of the story that Mr. Ryder is a conservative in the society of the white skinned blacks:
“I have no race prejudice,” he would say, “but we people of mixed blood are ground between the upper and the nether millstone. 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. ‘With malice towards none, with charity for all,’ we must do the best we can for ourselves and those who are to follow us.” (Chesnutt, 1899)
In the same way many masks are used by Mr. Ryder to hide his past. He is interested in reading. It is said that “poetry is his passion” (1). He tried to live a life which is in no way inferior to any pure whites; he owned a very comfortable and furnished house in a good street, and his house contained a good library, a piano and engravings. Further more, he likes to marry a girl who is well educated and “whiter than he is”. Mr. Ryder’s attempts to reach the higher order of the society by imitating the white society can be considered only as the endeavors to hide his racial inferiority. When we read it in another way, it can be said that the author imposes all these elite class qualities to Mr. Ryder only to strengthen the climax of the story.
The sangfroid and calmness of Mr. Ryder’s life is disturbed by the entry of Liza in one afternoon to the ball that he gives in honor of Mrs. Dixon. Liza is a symbol of the haunting past of Mr. Ryder. He understands that past cannot be wiped out or forgotten completely. It will enter into ones life in very crucial situations, as it has happened with Mr. Ryder. It affects only Mr. Ryder and not Liza, because, for Liza, past ant present are the same. The social status of Liza was of only as a former slave and plantation worker, and it has not changed even now. On the other hand, Mr. Ryder has an unrevealed past of a run-away slave, and now he is in an unimaginable position as a rich and reputed man, and the dean of the so called Blue Veins. This difference makes it Mr. Ryder’s own cup of tea.
Here Mr. Ryder is confronted with the most difficult situation in his life where he has to uphold his position as the leader of the society and community by keeping the secret and marrying a woman of high status, Mrs. Molly Dixon, or has to reveal the truth and marry Liza who is considered as inferior in race. It means, not only loosing the pretty and educated girl, but also sacrificing the position among his community that he acquired by his twenty-five years of hard work. At last, he chooses to reveal the truth that he was a former slave and Liza was his wife. But it took a lot of time and thought for him to take such a decision. His round about way of introducing the matter to the audience and the final question, “shall you acknowledge her?” (Chesnutt, 1899) are the evidences of the mental trauma and hesitation that he experienced before the final decision. He also succeeds to persuade his community to acknowledge a human being who lies outside their margins. The brave decision of Mr. Ryder elevates him to further heights. Only at that point Mr. Ryder achieves full claim to all the adjectives used to qualify him in the beginning of the story. Here he redefines and rediscovers his own personality. Mr. Ryder (and his community) who once accepted only the white colored blacks is now able to revise those theories for his wife. He was able to prove that racism is not a hard structure in the society, but a loose structure that varies according to the needs of the environment and time.
“The Wife of His Youth” proves that past helps men to rediscover their true personality. If Mr. Ryder has decided to run away from his past and from the wife of his youth, the haunting memories of the hidden past and guilt consciousness might have destroyed the peace of his life. Instead the brave decision to face the past has brought him new knowledge and wisdom. So, “The Wife of His Youth” turns out to be a source of wisdom and an experience par excellence to Mr. Ryder as well as to the readers.
Chesnutt, Charles W. The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories of the Color Line. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. 1899.