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To the Bitter (sweet) End: A reflection on “The Wife of His Youth”

November 9, 2009 3 comments

The Wife of His YouthUnwavering loyalty is a characteristic that is seemingly lost in today’s society at large. Marriages fall apart, families are split, and even churches break due to the fact that we are taught from day one to look out solely for ourselves. The rest of the world is to be forgotten in our grind to reach the top if one is to believe what society propagates through news outlets, entertainment media, and governmental policies.  However, in times long passed, loyalty was a characteristic to be admired and was instilled in family life from day one. When I read Charles Chestnutt’s “The Wife of his Youth,” I was literally taken aback by the show of loyalty at the conclusion of the story, because this vividly contrasts societal teachings of today.

Our protagonist, Mr. Ryder, was the leader of the prestigious Blue Vein Society and, because of his position in the affluent society, there existed a certain expectation regarding the way in which he conducted the business of his life. These standards that exist for the affluent are nothing new. In fact, since the dawn of class based social and economic culture, these unspoken standards have been upheld and garnered greater importance as time has moved forward. One such standard for Mr. Ryder involved who he should marry. Mr. Ryder was sought out by many eligible Blue Vein bachelorettes, but none were found suitable until the arrival of a young, well-educated young lady with a light complexion named Molly Dixon. “In the early days of his connection with the Blue Veins he had been regarded as quite a catch, and young ladies and their mothers had maneuvered with much ingenuity to capture him. Not, however, until Mrs. Molly Dixon visited Groveland had any woman ever made him wish to change his condition to that of a married man” (1641). Mr. Ryder had every intention of making this a reality. He had planned a ball in honor of Mrs. Dixon to ask for her hand in marriage, and according to Chestnutt, “He had no special fears about the outcome, but, with a little touch of romance, he wanted the surroundings to be in harmony with his own feelings when he should have received the answer he expected” (1641).

Mrs. Dixon embodied Blue Vein values and epitomized Blue Vein appearance physically and socially. She was the perfect young woman in Mr. Ryder’s eyes: raised in all the right social circles, engrained with the correct social etiquette, educated, and, above all else, she was even whiter than he was. The way that Mr. Ryder feels is summed up when he states, “’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 who 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. Self-preservation is the first law of nature.’” This is where the story becomes baffling.

Mr. Ryder specifically states that self-preservation is the first law of nature. Basically, he is reinforcing the idea of the survival of the fittest or natural selection, and in his estimation, light skinned blacks are better off than those with a darker complexion; therefore, Blue Veins should only associate with Blue Veins and definitely should only marry within the Blue Vein society. He reinforces that idea when he states that it would be a step backward for the Blue Veins to be accepted into “black society” as a whole. This idea of racial prejudice influences every aspect of Mr. Ryder’s life, especially his social interaction. That is, until he is confronted by his past is a most unexpected way.

On the day of his engagement ball, Mr. Ryder, while contemplating an appropriate poem for the occasion, is confronted by a quaint, very old looking, very dark African-American. She is the antithesis of Blue Vein values: uneducated, very dark skinned, and a cook by trade. There could not have been a more appropriate antonym to everything that Mr. Ryder has supported for all his time spent in Groveland. Upon his inquiry, the mystery woman informs Mr. Ryder that she is looking for her husband and has been actively doing so for the last 25 years. Eventually, through the course of conversation, she reveals that she has a photo of her husband. Something about the photo catches Ryder’s attention causing him to, “look long and intently at the portrait” (1645). He politely, but quickly dismisses the woman letting her know that he knows of no mulatto man who goes by the name of Sam and that he has not heard of anyone making an inquiry about a long lost wife.

The question that begs to be answered as Ryder heads up to his room for some time of introspection is why hadn’t he married anyone over the last 25 years? This is where the reader has a chance to make some inference. Upon reflection, it has come to my attention that perhaps Ryder didn’t marry because he had some baggage that he could not deal with. Something in his past that he could not release. Perhaps, after 25 years he finally felt that he could move on without guilt. After all, Mr. Ryder was a different man than he was 25 years prior. He had built a good life for himself. He was the leader of the Blue Veins, the most prestigious colored society around! Yes, the time had come to move on and the perfect person to complete the Blue Vein dynasty had moved to Groveland, but that was before the appearance of the mystery woman.

Why did she have to come? Why now? Why on the eve of the engagement? Similar questions had to have been running through Mr. Ryder’s head as he stood in front of the mirror contemplating the man he had become, the man he had been, and the man he would be. I believe as he stood in front of the mirror, knowing the man of integrity that stared back at him, he made his decision. He was to announce his marriage that night, but the revelation was yet to come to whom he would be marrying.

The guests gathered, the food was served, the band played, the guests danced, and the conversation was light and merry. The time then came for the toasts. Blue Vein elite toasted their affluence to their hearts content and the toast master called the final toaster. Mr. Ryder stood, pensive look in his eyes as he stepped to the forefront of the gathering and began his toast. Ryder relayed the story to his guests that “awakened a responsive thrill in many hearts.” The guests were fascinated by Mr. Ryder’s tale of longing and loss as many of them had heard their fathers or grandfathers tell of the wrongs and sufferings of the past generations.  Then, Ryder drops the bomb on the gathering.

He asks, “What would the man do? I will presume that he was one who loved honor, and tried to deal justly with all men. I will even carry the case further, and suppose that perhaps he had set his heart upon another, whom he had hoped to call his own. What would he do, or rather what ought he to do in such a crisis of a lifetime?” (1645). He punctuates his statement with a quote from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, “This above all: to thine own self be true, and it must follow as the night the day, Thou canst not be false to any man” (1645). Finally, he begs of the audience an answer to the question: Should the man acknowledge the woman? Resoundingly, the audience agrees, and Mr. Ryder excuses himself to the parlor only to emerge a moment later with the visitor from the afternoon, the very antithesis of the Blue Vein ideal and reveals himself as the man in his story and introduces the wife of his youth.

The most striking thing that jumps off the page is the show of loyalty and integrity by Mr. Ryder. He could have continued in his previous plan and proposed to Mrs. Dixon and lived on in Blue Vein prestige, but that would betray the man that he was inside. Above all else, be true to yourself. This principle was the guiding force that allowed Ryder to get to the point where he was at in his life and to abandon it at that moment would have been to betray everything that he was inside and everything that he had become. Ryder had made his decision prior to the dinner on what he was going to do. He used the third person story to explain his motivations behind his action of acknowledging the old woman in order to explain why and to gather sympathy for the decision that went against everything that he had worked so hard to gain as far as his upward strides in Blue Vein society.

Loyalty, integrity, and a sense of great personal responsibility are the values that guided Mr. Ryder to make his decision. The world would be a much stronger place if it would adopt the personal values of Ryder that made him loyal to the bitter (sweet) end.

Works Cited

Chestnutt, Charles. “The Wife of His Youth.” The Norton Anthology: American Literature. Shorter 7th Edition. Ed. Nina Baym. New York: Norton Company, 2008. 1640-1648

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