The University of Toronto at Scarborough ENGB02Y: English Literature: Historical Survey (Spring Term)
The University of Toronto at Scarborough
ENGB02Y: English Literature: Historical Survey (Spring Term)
Instructor: Melba Cuddy-Keane
Here are a number of topics that might help you relate Mrs. Warren's Profession to other works in the course:
1. the role of women in society:
a) the intellectual woman:
Shaw's play suggests that women are no longer limited to domestic or aesthetic roles (compare Wollstonecraft and Aurora Leigh); here the intellectual woman studies mathematics and enters the sphere of business. We can also see women's growing independence and self-determination. The intellectual woman isn't mocked (compare Byron's Donna Inez); in many ways, Shaw presents the "New Woman" as the energy and force of the future.
b) the conventional woman:
Frank's mother never actually appears on stage. Does her absence perhaps suggest that the conventional woman plays no effective role in this modern world?
c) the woman as entrepreneur and as agent:
Shaw gives us a realistic treatment of women's economic and social position, getting away from the idealized Victorian image of the "Angel in the House" and her symbolic role of embodying the spiritual values of the family and of the society. He recognizes women's "agency" by presenting them as individuals struggling in a complex moral world and making their different choices as different people.
Shaw's play was of course very controversial in its time because of its treatment of prostitution as a profession. Yet while for the Victorians nothing could be further apart than Vivie's profession and her mother's(respectability versus the lack of it), the two women are similarly unconventional in choosing a career other than marriage. And their different careers both require strength and independence; both also involve the loss or rejection of love. What is the play getting us to think about?
2. Aestheticism, "art for art's sake" versus practicalityand utilitarianism:
Praed contrasts his adherence to the "Gospel of Art" with Vivie's adherence to the "Gospel of Getting On" (p. 1747). What happens to the world of chivalry, feeling, beauty in the modern business world? Does practicality not appear more viable than romance in a world where sentiment has been reduced to sentimentality?
3. the romantic lover in the modern ironic age:
Frank is the romantic lover, but he is capable of an ironic detachment with regard to his role. He suggests that romantic love is a performance, not to be sustained "when two people live together"; "being in love" involves a pretend-world that ends immediately upon the two people deciding not to play any more. Innocence is thus still associated with the child's world but here it is a self-conscious play world, adopted for entertainment and escape, not believed in.
Think about Mrs. Warren life in comparison to Stephen Blackpool's. How do Shaw and Dickens portray the conditions of the working-class? What makes Dickens's approach more idealized?
5. Victorian hypocrisy:
Shaw prompts us to think about selfishness and exploitation as the accepted business ethic, implying a permanent spilt between the espoused values of morality and the operative values of Darwinian self-interest. Is society's morality another world of pretence? Has the world Carlyle warned about become the norm? Is Crofts the next stage on from Bounderby?
6. secular conversion:
The potential for a secular conversion in the plot (compare Mill, Dickens, D. H. Lawrence) lies in the uniting of mother and daughter. As a turning point in the story, such a climax would affirm the victory of feeling over conventional ideology. But here such emotion is momentary and ultimately rejected. Sentiment becomes regarded as sentimentality in a world where values are always compromised. The pragmatic world is more dominant than the world transformed by moments of emotional crisis.
7. incest--the brother and sister theme (end of Act 3):
Behind Shaw's plot lies a "shadow plot" of disguise and revelation; if Frank and Vivie turn out to be brother and sister, the play could easily shift from comedy to a plot of tragic destiny. But such a plot is treated as melodramatic; it is deflected and shown to be irrelevant. Neither Frank nor Vivie believe the "revelation"; they see it as just another lie. The kind of intense Byronic passion that such a plot would require is anachronistic in this practical ironic age.
Shaw's play displays a modernist characteristic in its lack of resolution, its lack of a decisive ending. There is no final moral "right"; we are left with an open ambiguous world, with problems in it left unsolved.
These notes are intended for the use of students in a lecture course; for any other use, please acknowledge this site.
To comment on this web site, please write to: Melba Cuddy-Keane