The Longest Memory

The Longest Memory Summary and Analysis of Lydia – The Virginian


Lydia grows into a woman, which she knows because others repeatedly tell her. Her father stops hugging her, her mother makes more fuss about her etiquette and composure. Lydia’s mother has Lydia walk across the room with a stack of books balanced on her head, taking small, mincing steps. She and Chapel explore each other’s bodies with their hands. Lydia notices a stream of eminent and eligible young men coming by the house on the pretense of conducting business but staying for dinner or tea. None compare to Chapel. They brag about riches and their accurate pistol shot. They disagree with Lydia about the rights of slaves and tell her not to fill her head with men’s business.

Her parents pressure her into choosing between the nine men. She throws herself on her bed and wishes Chapel could come into the house and behave before her parents as he does with her. She wishes she could be with Chapel. She wishes he were white or she were black. Her brother Thomas returns from the North and tells stories of free blacks associating with white women. She feigns shock and horror to disguise the smile fighting to break out. She sees herself walking the dirty streets of New York or Boston on Chapel’s arm. She imagines being in the same bed, under the same roof.

Lydia meets Chapel and tells him about this heaven on earth in the North. He is displeased that she forgot to memorize Shakespeare’s nineteenth sonnet, as promised. He asks if she has been too distracted by the suitors streaming through her house. She reminds him of all the poetry she has meticulously committed to memory for him. He spins her around for the first time and kisses her lips. He says he cannot live this way. She agrees and tells him to think about the North.

Lydia asks her brother to consider taking her on a trip North to buy materials and meet with investors. He refuses. Her father asks why she is interested in the North and she says she is unimpressed with the men in the South and wants to search farther afield. He laughs at her wit and intelligence and says he approves. However, her mother does not. Lydia compromises by suggesting her mother will come with her. Chapel thinks the plan has backfired, as Lydia’s mother will not let Lydia out of her sight.

Lydia questions her brother about where slaves sleep during travel, and if any blacks ever travel alone. He says they don’t since they are prone to harassment from opportunists who try to capture them and sell them, even if they are free. Lydia continues meeting Chapel at night and they discuss their future, and how they will only associate with other interracial couples and will have children. Chapel will write verses for a living. Lydia says he will make their lives and the lives our their children rich.

The narration shifts to a series of newspaper editorials printed in The Virginian, starting December 3, 1809. The first asserts that beating a slave is not incompatible with Christianity, and that only a man can beat a slave and remain dignified. The second tells of a slave sold while pregnant: the seller wanted more money for the unborn child. The editorial says this manner of retrospective justice cannot be argued in a court of law. The third poses the question of whether it is ethical to sell a woman and her children if the sale might result in their separation. The writer says it is wrong to attribute to slaves all the qualities whites credit to themselves as human beings, and that the premise of buying and selling Africans is built upon precepts concerting their difference: they do not feel what whites feel or value what whites value. Their observable habits of attachment are more akin to those of cows and their calves, and should not be confused with love.

The fourth editorial asks what is a just punishment for a runaway; while some overseers recommend killing the runaway as an example, the writer of the editorial advocates for two hundred lashings so the runaway can be a living example to other slaves. The fifth speculates on what to do when slaves grow too old to be of use, recommending that older slaves should be kept around to instruct young slaves in obedience, discipline, and hard work. The sixth discusses how nubile female slaves are a temptation that should be avoided despite the feelings of lust they inspire, particularly because the children the slave might bear would have no place in the fields or the master’s house. The writer heard of a slave whipped to death by an overseer who later learned the slave was his half-brother. The seventh questions whether Christianity is compatible with slavery, saying they are not: slavery is a business while Christianity is a faith; one is tangible and the other intangible. The writer recommends remembering where slaves came from before extending Christian principles and thrusting them upon an equal platform with whites.

The eighth editorial discusses whether a plantation should be run with kindness or firmness, and advocates for somewhere in between, which the writer calls fairness. The ninth ponders whether slavery will ever end. The writer believes it won’t in his or his children’s lifetime. The tenth discusses whether black people should be paid for their work instead of being kept as slaves, as a young woman recently asked him. The writer considers how wages would be determined by demand for labor and then concludes there are too many variables for the idea to be practical. The eleventh sees the writer bring back the young woman’s question, saying she read the last editorial and believes he was wrong to ignore how slavery has become a growing expense with a diminishing return. The writer insists the profit slump will rebound soon enough and dismisses the woman’s concern.

The twelfth editorial sees the writer say he learned that literate blacks had been reading the paper. He says a slave wrote to him to say that the pages should carry stories about slaves that are written by slaves. The paper’s policy has been not to print correspondence from slaves, but the writer asks the readers to write in with their opinion of whether the policy should change. In the thirteenth editorial, the writer says the readers answered with a resounding no. However, a young woman named Miss L. wrote to say it is about time everyone was taught literacy, as it makes people better. The fourteenth discusses the complaint of an overseer who says that not enough attention is paid to the poor whites who are barely one rung above the slaves they oversee. The man says it isn’t right for some free blacks to live better lives than poor whites, and suggests that the poor whites will rise up against free blacks and the rich whites who have ignored their plight.

The next editorial says that readers agreed with the last editorial, saying there is no excuse for employers treating their poor labor as though they are slave labor. The writer says he doesn’t subscribe to the vision of a violent future, saying the poor whites' faith will act as a restraint however wide the gap between their need and their employers’ privilege becomes. The sixteenth editorial sees the writer talk of how appalled he was to see white women with black men on a recent trip to New York. He wonders what will become of the offspring who see themselves and feel themselves to be equal with whites. In the final editorial, the writer says Miss L. wrote again to call his views on white women being with black men unconstitutional. The writer says he regrets complimenting her intelligence in the past; he can now see she exhibits a love for blacks that clouds her reason.


Continuing in Lydia’s voice, the narrative jumps forward in time to when Lydia enters puberty. Having noticed her body developing into a woman’s, Lydia’s parents try to set her up with suitors who come by the house and attempt to impress her with their wealth and martial prowess. When Lydia advocates for slaves having more rights, the men dismiss her as a foolish woman meddling in men’s business.

In despair over the paltry options, Lydia wishes that she and Chapel could be together. Having grown up in the deeply racist environment of early-1800s Virginia, Lydia knows there is no way her family would allow her to see Chapel, or even for him to come in the house. However, Lydia learns that the fear of race mixing and interracial couples that she has always known is not as rampant in the North. In an instance of situational irony, Lydia’s brother complains about the nightmare of free interracial couples he sees on business trips to the North while she privately projects herself into the dreamlike world he disparages.

Having kissed Chapel for the first time after discussing escaping to the North, Lydia goes about orchestrating a plan. To conceal her true motivation for traveling North with her brother, Lydia ends up agreeing to bring her mother along with her. While Chapel expresses dismay about the feasibility of Lydia escaping from her family if her mother is watching over her, Chapel and Lydia focus on the dream of a future in which they can love each other freely and openly. In another instance of dramatic irony, the reader understands that their dreams will never come true.

While the motif of shifting voices is well-established by the eleventh chapter, D’Aguiar's shift to presenting the narrative in editorials printed in The Virginian newspaper is unexpected nonetheless. In juxtaposition to Lydia’s intimate, humanistic, and romantic personal narrative, the unnamed Virginian editorial writer’s voice is stuffy, illogical, and deeply racist. Through the editorials, D’Aguiar depicts an approximation of what mainstream conversations on slavery might have been like among the slaveholding class in early-1800s Virginia. While perspectives like Lydia’s, Cook’s, and Chapel’s prize person-to-person connections and are guided by strong emotions, the editorials feign an objective, empirical perspective on issues related to slavery.

Echoing much of what Mr. Whitechapel has said or thought earlier in the book, the editorial writer says Christianity is not incompatible with slavery because slaves are primitive beings and need not have Christian values extended to them as though they are equals under God. Continuing in this vein, the editorial writer dismisses any notions of slavery ending in his or his children’s lifetime—an instance of dramatic irony, since the reader knows slavery was abolished in 1865.

The writer also dismisses ideas about paying slaves, literate slaves being allowed to contribute their perspectives to the paper, or that the impoverished white people who work on plantations overseeing slaves will revolt against the wealthy masters. Whatever the issue supposedly being evaluated, the editorial writer sides with whichever view promotes the prolongation of slavery—that is, whichever view is on the wrong side of history.