The Wife of His Youth

Analysis

In "The Wife of His Youth", Charles Chesnutt does not explore the relationship between whites and mulattoes; instead, the story is concerned with race consciousness among those of mixed race, both from the North and South.[12] Scholar William L. Andrews notes that this story, and others like it including "A Matter of Principle", were unprecedented. Chesnutt "broke the ice in the American fiction of manners."[13] Like the other Blue Veins, Ryder has idealized whiteness and dreams of becoming white or, as Chesnutt writes it, "[his] absorption by the white race." This is symbolized by his reading "A Dream of Fair Women" by Alfred, Lord Tennyson when his wife first appears in the story.[14]

White readers, such as William Dean Howells, considered this a realistic portrayal of mixed-race Americans, revealed by Chesnutt as an "insider", much as Paul Laurence Dunbar had shown whites the lyrical side of blacks. Howells wrote:

We had known the nethermost world of the grotesque and comical negro and the terrible and tragic negro through the white observer on the outside, and the black character in its lyrical moods we had known from such an inside witness as Mr. Paul Dunbar; but it had remained for Mr. Chesnutt to acquaint us with those regions where the paler shades dwell as hopelessly, with relation to ourselves [i.e. whites], as the blackest negro.[15]

Ultimately, Chesnutt is challenging the idea of two "races." The story serves as an allegory of the changing relationship of freeborn and freedmen, mixed race and blacks, in a post-Reconstruction Era.[3] Such differences are expressed in language used by the characters, which also reflects differing education and class levels. Ryder speaks in the high rhetoric of "white" English (emulating the Tennyson he reads) while 'Liza uses a thick black dialect. That difference is further emphasized by Ryder's writing 'Liza's address in the flyleaf of his Tennyson book and, when recounting her story, switching into his own "soft dialect".[16] Ann duCille suggests the story questions the legality of marriage during enslavement. Ryder/Taylor's decision is about choosing to accept or negate "the old plantation past", or, as duCille writes, "between moral obligation and romantic desire".[17]

Cynthia Wachtell considers the story as a social satire. Ryder is pretentious and uppity, concerned about the delineations in class based on skin color, and promotes advancement of lighter-skinned people, some of whom were already educated before the war. That his wife is revealed to be a dark-skinned, unrefined cook is his "just desserts [sic]".[18] Dean McWilliams notes the ambiguity about whether Ryder really is Sam Taylor. Certainly, writes McWilliams, the drawing room image of Ryder at the beginning of the story seems nothing like the plantation worker described by 'Liza.[19]

Even if he is Taylor, Tess Chakkalal questions if the reader should be certain that Ryder has made the "right" decision. There is an uncomfortable tension in his attempt to abandon the past and racial definitions in order to move into the future.[20] Though the story has been traditionally read as having a happy ending, Wachtell emphasizes that 'Liza has no final lines which show her response to the husband who had forgotten her.[21] Henry B. Wonham notes a significance to Ryder's referring to 'Liza not simply as wife but "the wife of my youth", as if dissociating from her even as he acknowledges her.[22]


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