An analytical response to “The Inferior Woman” by Sui Sin Far

In Sui Sin Far’s story, The Inferior Woman the conflict revolves around the class and wealth, which determine the status of women in society.  Three women, from different cultural and social backgrounds form the centre of the story.  Alice has struggled her way through to a dignified position while Ethel received the best in life on a silver platter.  Mrs. Spring Fragrance is partially a typical, traditional Chinese wife to her husband but also Americanized in many ways. Which of these characters symbolize the new woman in the story? 

The standards of judging women spring from the social class they were born into and not by what they have achieved over their lifetime. This is how the society differentiates but the author confirms that class has nothing to do with what makes a person when she describes Alice as ‘a young girl who seemed to belong to the sweet air and brightness of all the things around her’. The society feels ‘the sorrow of the Carman household is that the mother desires for her son the Superior Woman, and his heart enshrines but the Inferior.  I have seen them together today, and I know.’  With these words, Sui Sin Far affirms that love and humanity are above class, culture, or religion

Alice is labeled the inferior woman because she comes from a not so wealthy background and has to work for a living. Wealthy are seen as more virtuous and desirable, for which reason alone Will’s mother is against her son marrying Alice. Adversities bring out the best in a person as it did in Alice who always carried her head on her shoulders. She struggled to keep her head high but she knew where to draw a line when Will proposed to her. ‘If for a moment the small mouth quivered, the firm little chin lost its firmness, and the proud little head yielded to the pressure of a lover’s arm, it was only for a moment so brief and fleeting that Will Carman had hardly become aware of it before it had been passed’. ‘I cannot marry you while your mother regards me as beneath you’ she said when Will proposed to her.

It was not her pride when she said this.  It is important to note the reason she gives to the reader when she reflects ‘but they would not have been happy. No, that could not have been possible if his mother did not like her. When a gulf of prejudice lies between the wife and mother of a man, that man’s life is not what it should be. And even supposing she and Will could have lost themselves in each other, and been able to imagine themselves perfectly satisfied with life together, would it have been right’?  Alice loved Will equally but she also knew what was right and what was wrong. All these show the balance, the maturity, the stature, the class, the dignity that money can never buy.

Alice has attained all of these qualities because she has experienced life from close quarters, which Ethel of the same age as her has not. Ethel wants ‘ten years in which to love, live, suffer, see the world, and learn about men (not schoolboys) before I choose one.’  Ethel appreciates the qualities of Alice and wants to enrich herself with all those experiences, which make a superior woman. She knows and admits that while Alice speaks from experience she merely repeats others’ views and makes them appear as her own.

Ethel further confirms her views when she says, “It is women such as Alice Winthrop who, in spite of every drawback, have raised themselves to the level of those who have had every advantage, who are the pride and glory of America… Women such as I, who are called the Superior Woman of America, are after all nothing but schoolgirls in comparison”.

For the sake of argument, we can discuss of Ethel as the new woman because she has the insight and recognizes the essence in a woman.  She can see past the social norms and can notice hard work and determination. She can give credit where credit is due and view people based on their accomplishments, not what they were born into. However, she feels she lacks in experience and exposure and is not ready for marriage or ready to face the world. It requires strength in a woman to appreciate another of the same age, which Ethel has demonstrated. Nevertheless, Alice’s character stands out in many ways.

Alice carries no malice in her heart for Will’s mother who had resentful feeling towards Alice. The strong character of Alice is further demonstrated when she feels “if life cannot be bright and beautiful for me, at least it can be peaceful and contented.” She knew what she had done was for the sake of her love and not pride. ‘Two roads of life had lain before her and she had chosen the hardest’. Alice is a woman too at heart when ‘suddenly this girl, so practical, so humorous, so clever in every-day life, covered her face with her hands and sobbed like a child’.

Mrs. Spring Fragrance reads out to Mrs. Carmen what Ethel had narrated about Alice and then puts forth her own arguments. She says, “You are so good as to admire my husband because he is what the American’s call ‘a man who has made himself.’  Why then do you not admire the Inferior Woman who is a woman who has made herself?” At this Mrs. Carmen experiences a change of heart. Her reply to the last quote is, “I think I do”, showing that she understood what makes a woman superior.

A superior woman is recognized and respected by all.  A superior woman needs no introduction, no recognition, and is devoid of pride. Sui Sin Far brings out all the characteristics in Alice which make a woman superior not by birth, not by class but by her own struggles and achievements.

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