Identity Crisis In Charles Chestnutt's The Wife Of His Youth

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Identity crises are a common theme in literature and in everyday life. One such literary account of this issue is found in Charles Chestnutt’s “The Wife of His Youth”. This is a relatively short story that gives an account of a light skinned black man who is seeking to integrate into white society, but ultimately chooses to embrace his black past. Despite the story’s short length, an audience can learn a lot about human nature and the racial/historical customs of the time. These things can be learned by studying the main character Mr. Ryder and his actions. If one is to view Mr. Ryder’s identity crisis through the historical and psychological factors that cause it, they can come to realize that biracial people don’t fit into societal categories, …show more content…

Dixon appears to offer Mr. Ryder the life that society deems correct, due to her youth, beauty, and social status, but if one is to look deeper it can be argued that he can only gain the approval of society by accepting Liza Jane. Therefore, Mr. Ryder's biracial identity again puts him in an impossible situation. Mrs. Dixon is the embodiment of this impossible situation. Here the audience knows that Chestnutt is using Mrs. Dixon to display the impossibility of the situation because of her name. Historically the Mason-Dixon line ran through the country as a boundary between the slave states and the free states. By making her name Mrs. Dixon the author tells the audience that she represents a boundary for Mr. Ryder, if he marries Mrs. Dixon he is crossing the line; he is choosing to leave the south behind. However, this decision is complicated for Mr. Ryder because earlier in his life he already made this decision however, it is something that haunts him, and is constantly creeping back into his …show more content…

Ryder is haunted by his past is his word choice in the final scene. The story reports, “Permit me to introduce you to the wife of my youth” (Chestnutt 61). At this moment Mr. Ryder appears to be accepting Liza Jane and stepping back into his past life. However, his words indicate to the audience that he doesn’t fully accept Liza Jane. He refers to her as “the wife of my youth” and not “my wife”. Mr. Ryder’s word choice could have been decided for a variety of reasons. One such reason is because of the historical expectations for slave marriages. During the time which the story occurs there were various conflicting laws about when slave marriages were acknowledged as legitimate marriages. Some examples of these expectations are: states required all slaves to be remarried, states required the couple to prove they had been living together for longer than two years, etc. While the rules varied from state to state every state had a punishment for those who didn’t follow the rules. Some states even sent people to prison for not properly conforming to the state laws (Harris 23-27). Because of the inconsistency between states the audience can assume that Mr. Ryder doesn’t know or doesn’t understand what the state laws for marriage in his state are, and this lack of education is what propels him to play it safe and claim Liza Jane as his own. The story tells the audience that “(Mr. Ryder’s)... lack of early training had hindered the orderly

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