Female Agency in Short Stories
There are numerous points of similarity between Eileen Chang’s “Shame, Amah!” and Wang Anyi’s “Granny”. Both stories depict the lives of Chinese domestic workers. Moreover, each tale is set during the same time period — the years surrounding the Second World War. Furthermore, both of the authors are Chinese and display a marked affinity for the intimate details surrounding Chinese culture, which factors prominently in each respective tale. Still, there is a distinct point of differentiation in these works when it comes to the notion of female agency, and how it is displayed in each piece. It is significant that female agency factors into each of these tales. However, “Granny” is largely a story about a somewhat unconventional matriarch who is able to become the provider for a host of people. The concept of female agency in Chang’s piece is centered around conventional notions of masculinity and the attendant gender issues found in a society which is largely patriarchal. Thus, female agency is expressed in unconventional ways in “Granny”, while the prevalence of male dominance in “Shame Allah” yields to stereotypical expressions of female agency as being subservient to that of men.
This thesis is readily evinced in even a cursory perusal of both of these works, as it becomes immediately apparent that the titular character Granny is endowed with a substantial amount of female agency of which the protagonist in “Shame, Allah!”, Granny’s counterpart, is decidedly bereft. Possibly the most critical distinction between these two characters as revealed in these tales involves the presence, and lack thereof, of men and their effect on these respective domestic workers. Granny lives a life in which she is able to work on her own and take care of numerous other people all without involving a man, which the following quotation proves. “Most had been widowed while still young, or were married to shiftless or preposterous husbands and had yet to bear a son. Such was the case with Granny. Bereft of family support, they were forced to be self-reliant” (Anyi 34). This passage is pivotal to Granny’s characterization, and emblematic of her own agency as well. The author states Granny consistently relies on her self, in part because of the lack of a dominant male presence in her life. She is not married and does not have a son to provide for her. This sort of female agency is demonstrative of a strong, assertive power which characterizes not only Granny, but other Nannies as well. Such independent agency for women is not found in Chang’s work.
Instead, female agency is expressed in “Shame Allah” almost exclusively as it exists in relation to men. Ah Nee, the story’s protagonist who is a domestic worker, is primarily dependent upon her male master for her lot in life. She derives her income from him, and requires his largess to largely survive in life. She also has another male figure in her life who serves as a husband, so that she is far from independent. Regardless, her dependency on her male employer does not permit the sort of autonomous agency which Granny has. Instead, Ah Nee requires her master, his wealth, and his material resources to provide for what she needs in life. Thus, she demonstrates agency in a way which is predicated on her ability to get what she wants from a man (her master). The author states Ah Nee “Never stole tea except when her husband came” (Chang 105). This quotation signifies a different sort of agency than that illustrated in “Granny”. The sort of power Ah Nee is able to exercise is firstly predicated on her master’s material possessions — in this case, his tea. Furthermore, her behavior is decidedly devious as she actually commits a social transgression in the form of theft. There are no such indiscretions on the part of Granny, who is able to assert her agency in a much more positive manner. Nonetheless, because Ah Nee is dependent upon her master for so much, she is only able to exercise her agency both in relation to him and in a much less positive way.
In general, there is a dependent attribute for the female agency found in “Shame Amah” which is conspicuously aspect in “Granny”. As previously mentioned, Ah Nee’s agency is only notable as it exists in relation to her master. However, there are other female characters who demonstrate agency in this same way — in relation to a quintessentially domineering, male character Master. Master’s characterization is significant for a couple of different reasons. Firstly he is a European living in Asia, which signifies a salience of social status readily underscored by his wealth (which is discerned by the reader by the fact that he employs Ah Nee as a domestic. Secondly, he is a bachelor who has myriad women vying for his attention, if not his affections. This second point is of paramount importance because it creates a situation in which these female characters can simply exercise agency in relation to this strong, rich, single foreigner. This fact is readily apparent when Ah Nee reflects about one of his many female romantic interests that “the new one must be a capable girl if she could make him spend money on her” (Chang 111).
The diction of this passage speaks volumes about the theme of female agency in this particular piece. There is a direct correlation between such agency and Master’s wealth. In her rumination, Ah Nee measures how “capable” or worthy Master’s romantic interest by how much money he spends on her. Although the amount is not necessarily quantified in this quotation, Ah Nee is suitably impressed that her master would spend any of his money on a woman. Another critical facet of the diction in this passage is the fact that Ah Nee thinks of this other woman as a “girl”. Such word choice has connotations of subservience, which are aligned with the male dominance which Master represents as a wealthy European foreigner among non-Western people. As such, it is truly significant that the way agency is demonstrated by this woman is in getting Master to take her out and pay for that experience. There are some women he has who he does not bother to take out — and whom he is conceivably spending much less money on than on the one he is taking out. Again, there is a direct correlation between female agency and dependence on a male found in this passage and in this work as a whole. The ultimate expression of female agency demonstrated in this book is measured in terms of attention and financial endowments Master is willing to give.
On the contrary, Granny demonstrates a considerable amount of independent female agency. In fact, she evidences the sort of female agency that is curious bereft in Chang’s piece. Granny has no domineering male figure in her life; the preceding quotations from this book suggests that not many other women in the story did either. Nonetheless, despite the presence of a man to offer either the financial or physical support which Master provides to many women in Chang’s tale, Granny is able to support a host of other character’s in Anyi’s short story about which the narrator remarks, “How many people she carried on her back! Her daughter told her that her future husband wanted to attend high school, at her expense; her nephew was studying acting with a county drama troupe, room and board supplied for the first three years, and she had to help pay for his clothes; her younger sister’s husband was stricken with cholera and had an operation — again, her money” (Anyi 468).
Perhaps one of the more noteworthy aspects about this quotation is omission; the subsequent sentence explains that Granny is also faced with a situation in which her grandson is considering marrying at the expense of Granny as well (Anyi 468). Still, the preceding passage demonstrates that Granny is endowed with an independence of female agency which is commendable. It is laudable not only because she is able to financially support all of these people without a man, but also because financially supporting others is a task generally reserved for men. The diction in this quotations indicates that Granny does have some form of “help” in managing all of these expenses — particularly that associated with her nephew’s clothes for school. However, she is still supporting numerous people in multiple ways. Her prowess in this regard is both pecuniary and emblematic as her position as a matriarch, both of which are tangible demonstrations of her independent free agency which is characteristic of this notion for the short story in general.
It is also worth noting that Ah Nee is a matriarch as well, although her role as such does not allow her to evince the same sort of independent female agency which Granny has. Instead, the author users her position as a matriarch as a means of illustrating a much weaker form of agency. It is a female agency indicative of a woman and it is somewhat less dependent on Master than many of the other manifestations of agency in this tale. Still, this agency is almost stereotypical in nature and not at all as potent as that of Granny. While Granny’s agency is able to transcend different spheres of life (the financial, familial, etc.) Ah Nee’s agency is solely rooted in the domestic facet of life. For example, she asserts her agency on a young family member she is disciplining for a dearth of success in academia when “A sudden wave of anger surged up in Ah Nee. “It’s a wonder you still have the face to say ‘Teacher,’ ‘Teacher.’ Failed and still happy. So you’re happy, you’re happy!” She slapped him on his shoulder and back and he started to cry. “All right, all right,” the old woman took hold of her arm. “Hit him twice already in this one meal.”
This quotation shows the sort of female agency Ah Nee has, which is certainly different from that expressed by Granny. As a matriarch, Ah Nee is responsible for raising her young family member. Therefore, she has the agency to discipline him when she finds it necessary. However, this sort of agency is not a positive one. It is not used to support other family members with money to help them accomplish their goals in life. Instead, it is used to punish a family member who, for all practical purposes, had done nothing wrong at the time he was disciplined. Thus, Ah Nee’s agency is actually more of a wanton use of power over weaker people (her young family member). This demonstration of female agency is one of the few manifestations of power that Ah Nee has in this short story. Much like the way in which she demonstrate agency by stealing tea for her husband, she is manifesting agency in another negative way by inflicting corporal punishment on her young family member. If one were to compare this demonstration of agency with Granny’s demonstration of financially supporting family members, it becomes apparent that the latter is much more uplifting than the former. Moreover, it also underscores the fact that Ah Nee’s agency is of a more perverse variety, quite possibly because it is dependent on others.
Nevertheless, the primary distinction in the female agency shown in these two works of literature revolves around the independent nature of that in “Granny” and the dependent variety found in “Shame, Amah!”. This notion is also evidenced in the way in which both of the protagonists, who are domestics, work. The autonomy which is part of the independent female agency Granny has also correlates to her professional work. She is in a comfortable enough position in her career in which “she chose her families,” they did not choose her . . . she was firm in her insistence to work only on Huaihai Road in the Western District, and only for native Shanghainese” (Anyi 466). Her professional freedom is a very tangible form of female agency, especially for the nanny profession in which she is engaged. That freedom is also alluded to multiple times when the author mentions the various employers which Granny opted leave because she was personally dissatisfied with some aspect of her professional or personal life related to her clients. Again, the crucial facet of the sort of agency illustrated in “Granny” is that it revolves around the sort of independent autonomy which is not found in the other tale.
Conversely, Ah Nee has a definite lack of professional freedom in her vocation, which is emblematic of the sort of female agency written about in Chang’s work. Ah Nee is forced to work in situations in which, quite frankly, Granny would not. The previous passage states that Granny is only comfortable working in conditions in which her clients speak an Asian language. Ah Nee, for her part, works for a European (Master) who does not speak any Asian languages. This fact on its own is not significant, but it still illustrates the fact that Ah Nee is not happy in her current engagement and does not have the same sort of independent female agency which Granny does. The main point is that Ah Nee wishes she had that type of female agency, which is why she says, “Ah ya!” cried Ah Nee, “in times like these I’d rather get less wages with a Chinese family, you eat there and live there. Like me, I don’t even get enough to pay for food. Of course it also depends on the master” (Chang 103). This passage underpins the reader’s conviction that Ah Nee wants the sort of female agency Granny has and wishes she could determine who she works for. It also proves that she does not have this sort of agency, because she is complaining about the fact that her initial preference is to work with a Chinese family. She is also peevish about the fact that her pay in her present situation is not as much as she would like it to be, and she does not have the luxury of being a live-in domestic which she very well could be if she worked for a Chinese family. Such protestations are merely indicative of the reality that what female agency Ah Nee has is dependent on a man, Master, especially in terms of her professional freedom.
In summary, it largely appears as though these two tales illustrate female agency from antipodal perspectives. Granny has an independent, positive female agency which nurtures other family members to transcend her professional sphere to include those for family and finances. Ah Nee has an agency dependent on men, which is emblematic of the dependent female agency found throughout this book as a whole. The agency in the former work is more beneficent and reflective of power; that in the latter is weaker and much more contingent on the largess of men.
Anyi, Wang. “Granny”. 462-469. 2000. Print.
Chang, Eileen. “Shame, Amah!” in Eight Stories by Chinese Women. Ed. Nieh Hua-ling. Taipei: The Heritage Press. 1962. pp. 91-114
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