In May Sinclair's The Three Sisters, why does the memory of Alice saying she could not do such a caddish thing return to Gwenda at this moment? Why is this passage significant? 

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kipling2448 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In Mary Sinclair’s novel The Three Sisters, Mary, Gwenda and Alice (Ally) all look upon Dr. Steven Rowcliffe as their greatest opportunity for a happy life.  Alice has schemed to attract Dr. Rowcliffe to her side by feigning illness, thinking to herself, “I will make myself ill. So ill that they’ll have to send for him.  I shall see him that way.” Later, Gwenda is packing her trunk to leave so as to not further aggravate her younger sister’s condition.  Gwenda and Steven, the only compatible combination among the three sisters and the unmarried physician, can never be allowed to consummate.  As Gwenda is packing, however, Alice appears in her doorway, dressed as though she were no longer “ill.” Steven knows that Alice desires to be with him, but he has no interest in this immature over-sexualized child.  Mary and Gwenda, however, convinced of Ally’s failing health, contemplate their optimal actions, the latter having already decided to leave home.  Both Mary and Gwenda know that Steven doesn’t love Ally, but believe their younger sibling can bring him around if given the opportunity – particularly in the absence of the main contender for the doctor’s hand, Gwenda.  When Ally enters Gwenda’s room, however, she is determined to confront her older sister regarding the implications of the latter’s potential departure in light of Steven’s known romantic interest.  It is in the context of Alice’s suspicions regarding Gwenda’s motivations and Gwenda’s acknowledged love for Steven that the quote in question is spoken.  Alice confronts her sister about the suggestion that Gwenda’s departure would leave the door open for Alice’s to marry Steven. This possibility is what is driving Alice’s actions, including her illness: “'I may be awful,’ she went on.  ‘In fact, I know I’m awful.  But I’m decent.  I couldn’t do a caddish thing like that – I couldn’t really.’”

Later in Sinclair’s story Gwenda is living a life of regret; having adopted the nobler posture, she has merely succeeded in ensuring that she cannot be with her one true love, Steven Rowcliffe.  Alice has been impregnated by Jim Greatorex and is largely out of the competition for the doctor.  Gwenda’s actions, however, left Mary to secure Steven’s proposal, and the two proceed to live a loveless existence, the groom still very much in love with Gwenda, who is condemned now to care for the girls’ stricken father.  It is here that Gwenda has the internal dialogue with herself that is reprinted in the student’s question.  Gwenda is recalling her conversation with Steven, during which they contemplated the future they mutually desired, but which was beyond their grasp given his marriage to Mary.  There’s a certain desperation to Gwenda, however, as she sees that future slipping irreversibly away and recognizes that only by undermining Steven’s relationship to Mary could she restore her faith in the possibility of that future materializing.  “[W]e couldn’t really do a caddish thing like that,” she tells him, definitively closing this chapter in her life.  Gwenda recalls Alice making the same comment to her more than a year earlier during that conversation in the former’s bedroom as Gwenda packed to leave.

This passage is significant because it reminds Gwenda of who she is and what she stands for.  She, not Mary, and certainly not Alice, represents not just logic but decency.  Gwenda has lived her life by a code of conduct that precludes the kind of machinations attributed to her younger sister.  She cannot bring herself to make the kind of decisions that would win her Steven but cost her her soul.

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The Three Sisters

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