Shaw’s Strong Female Characters in Mrs Warren’s Profession
George Bernard Shaw exemplifies values of the “new woman” and “superhero” through the character of Vivie Warren, in the play Mrs. Warren’s Profession, in order to promote individualism and critical thinking amongst females. Even the male characters like Sir George Crofts and Frank Gardener are depicted as weaker conformists in comparison to the characters of the opposite sex, like Vivie and Mrs. Warren. The play as a whole display’s Vivie as a smarter and overall better person because she questions societal standards and takes drastic action in isolating herself from high society in order to live by her own values. Furthermore, Vivie’s character fit’s all of the characteristics that classify her as a Shaw’s “superman” because of her non-conformist beliefs.
Mrs. Warren, mother to Vivie, has a mysterious occupation that drastically contributes to her complex character. Mrs. Warren is a high society woman who while a single mother (there is never any clarity as to who Vivie’s biological father is),made a name for herself in upper class society and she intends for it to stay that way no matter how degrading the career may be. When we discover her occupation is in fact prostitution, we also know that in 1894 it was very uncommon for women to accrue mass wealth from that kind of lifestyle. For Shaw to write Mrs. Warren as a successful and wealthy prostitute, in a sense he is also displaying her strength, individualism, and non-conformist mentality. She even tries to justify her attitudes towards the lifestyle of a prostitute in the final act of the play, MRS. WARREN …I must have work and excitement, or I should go melancholy mad. And what else is there for me to do? The life suits me: I’m fir for it and not for anything else. If I didn’t do it somebody else would; so I don’t do any real harm by it. And then it brings in money; and I like making money. No: it’s not use: I can’t give it up—not for anybody. (Shaw 283-284) Shaw exposes the truth of how many women were driven to prostitution in order to live in that time period, and firmly establishes women (even prostitutes) as a pillar of strength. While Mrs. Warren’s ability to overcome obstacles is admirable, her true character identifies mostly with greed, one of the seven deadly sins, disqualifying her from being a “superman”.
Sir George Crofts is a multi-dimensional character whose actions and behaviors show his true character. While he seems to be a friend to both Mrs. Warren and Vivie, his true intentions are exposed in Act III when he proposes to Vivie. When Vivie rejects him, Crofts’ charm diminishes and reveals that he was Mrs. Warren’s business partner in what some might call a “pimp” like position. He then does not accept Vivie’s refusal in Act III, but instead responding with aggression when he states, “do you think I’ll put up with this from you young devil?” It’s not until Frank shows up with a rifle that Crofts backs down, displaying his more negative traits. Crofts character displays how truly weak and out of control he really is, causing his constant desire in establishing his dominance. Aside from Vivie, Frank Gardener is the only other character that is represented in a somewhat positive light. He has romantic feelings for Vivie from the beginning of the play, but is discouraged to propose due to lack of finances. His lack of societal status and wealth are just the first introduction to his weak character. However, when he learns the truth regarding his love interest’s mother being a high-end prostitute, he suddenly loses his romantic attraction to her and happily leaves Vivie to deal with Mrs. Warren on her own. The interaction between the three characters is on page 280, FRANK [to Mrs. Warren] Goodbye: youd ever so much better have taken my advice. [He shakes hands with her. Then airily to Vivie] Byebye, Viv. VIVIE Goodbye. [He goes out gaily without shaking hands with her]. While it could be argued that Frank is in high spirits because he knows he will see Vivie another time, it is more believable that Frank is acting happy because he does not have to participate in the uncomfortable and undesirable situation. This reaction also displays his inability to handle out of the norm, dramatic, or tense situations. After all, he did lose all romantic interest in Vivie after he learned the truth about Mrs. Warren.
Vivie Warren, the most noble of the group of characters, questions where her mother’s wealth came from and turns her back on the high-society lifestyle based on her morals against participating in using “dirty money”. For example, in Act II Mrs. Warren finally breaks down and confesses her secretive occupation to Vivie, which eventually results in Vivie’s final departure from high society. Her true view of high society and her mother’s occupation is seen in act III when Vivie is speaking to Crofts, VIVIE [quietly] I hardly find you worth thinking about at all now. When I think of the society that tolerates you, and the laws that protect you! When I think of how helpless nine out of ten young girls would be in the hands of you and my mother! The unmentionable woman and her capitalist bully– (Shaw 266) Shaw plays with the theme of “dirty money” in this scene when Vivie now realizes her upbringing and current lifestyle were only made possible by her mother’s prostitution. Shaw uses Vivie’s character as a representation of the 1890’s “new woman” who is independent, intelligent, and self-motivated. Although Vivie’s character at the beginning of the play is very dependent and weak, Shaw intentionally expresses that it is her college education that makes her question her mother’s profession. Mrs. Warren even blames education as the reason Vivie is unmarried and suddenly full of so much independent thought. MRS WARREN [staring at her] Of course: until youre married. Youre not going back to college again. VIVIE Do you think my way of life would suit you? I doubt it. MRS WARREN Your way of life! What do you mean? VIVIE [cutting a page of her book with the paper knife on her chatelaine] Has it really never occurred to you, mother, that I have a way of life like other people? MRS WARREN What nonsense is this youre trying to talk? Do you want to shew your independence, now that youre a great little person at school? Dont be a fool child. (Shaw 243) It is apparent that Mrs. Warren thinks Vivie ought to get married and take her place in high society the way she had always intended her daughter to; however, Vivie’s education has provided her with her opinions on how her own life should be. Vivie’s refusal of her mother’s tainted money and high society is classification of her as a “new woman” because she thinks and lives her life for herself.
Shaw also uses Vivie’s character to demonstrate his idea of a “superman.” Shaw’s superman (or in this case, superwoman) is a character who defies society based on his or her morals. Vivie can be considered a superwoman because she rejects her mother and the upper class lifestyle after she learns where their wealth comes from. Vivie is firmly against prostitution and sees the hypocrisy in living in high society when the wealth comes from such a degrading profession. Through Vivie’s character, Shaw exposes the hypocrisy of high society, while also expressing approval for more socialistic ideals and values. We see this displayed through the weaker characters like Sir George Crofts and Frank Gardener, as well as the stronger female characters like Mrs. Warren and Vivie. In the character of Vivie, George Bernard Shaw provides the audience with a strong female lead and encourages independent thought amongst women. She can be classified as a Shaw “superman” because of her rebellion against high society and choosing her own values over money. Shaw gives a voice to the “new woman” and depicted females in a positive, independent manner, shedding light on how generational values can differ very differently from mother to daughter..
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