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An Analysis of Bernard Shaw's "Mrs. Warren's Profession"

Updated on December 02, 2016
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Social Disparities in Shaw’s “Mrs. Warren’s Profession”


Bernard Shaw should be a required reading in any British Literature course. He was an interesting individual with messages that are still pertinent today. Shaw was obsessed with the inequalities of society which led to his interest in socialism, and he used his public persona to promote his ideas concerning social reform. Shaw viewed social inequalities between the classes and the lack of women’s rights as morally unjust. In defense of his play “Mrs. Warren’s Profession,” Shaw claimed the need to “draw attention to the truth that prostitution is caused, not by female depravity and male licentiousness, but simply by underpaying, undervaluing, and overworking women so shamefully that the poorest of them are forced to resort to prostitution to keep body and soul together.” Shaw argued that “starvation, overwork, dirt, and disease are as anti-social as prostitution.” Shaw illustrates these crucial social issues such as circumstance, necessity, knowledge, and “male licentiousness” in “Mrs. Warren’s Profession.”


Vivie felt empathy for the difficult circumstances her mother was born into. She was moved by her mother’s tears and hardships. Yet, Vivie had lived in completely different circumstances. She had no prior experiences that could allow her to relate to her mother. Vivie’s education at Cambridge University probably provided her with a lot of liberal arts background. Vivie may have studied philosophy. Yet, she did not recognize the contingency which morality may be based upon, the contingency of circumstance. No one knows how they will react until they are actually put into a certain situation, and Vivie had never been in the same position as her mother. Vivie may well have accepted Mr. Croft’s advances if she had been in a similar circumstance as her mother.


According to Praed, “People who are dissatisfied with their own bringing-up generally think that the world would be alright if everybody were to be brought up quite differently.” Mrs. Warren worked hard to make sure that Vivie was brought up “quite differently” than she had been. Vivie had responded, “I don’t complain: it’s been very pleasant; for people have been very good to me; and there has always been plenty of money to make things go smooth.” Vivie stated this before her mother’s revelation, but she doesn’t seem to recall it when she judges her mother. Vivie does not seem to appreciate how lucky she was in the circumstances of her childhood. Also, in the end, Frank was correct when he told Vivie, “Circumstances or no circumstances, Viv, you wont be able to stand your mother.”


Frank seems to represent the middle class. His father is a reverend, and his family is not wealthy. Yet, Frank’s family is respectable and has social standing. Frank was disrespectful towards Mrs. Warren, and Vivie reprimanded him by saying, “Please treat my mother with as much respect as you treat your own.” Frank claimed that “the two cases require different treatment.” Frank seems to think that circumstances should not be considered when assessing a person’s morality. He also believes that different people deserve to be treated differently. He comes across as being opposed to equality, even though that is what everyone deserves. Also, Frank’s mother leaves her abode when she learns that Mrs. Warren shall be paying her family a visit. Apparently, she has no respect for Mrs. Warren either. Frank claimed that his mother had been a friend to other women who had gotten into trouble, but Mrs. Warren was of a different type than them.


Frank doesn’t work and he has no money. To Frank, his father says, “I advised you to conquer your idleness and flippancy, and to work your way into an honorable profession and live on it and not upon me.” Frank lacks authority in criticizing Mrs. Warren for being a prostitute when he is lacking in employment. Frank is a spoiled child similar to Vivie. He was raised in decent circumstances, and has not felt the necessity to acquire a job until now. Yet, he still has not done so. Frank is also similar to Mrs. Warren. He claimed, “I’d better turn my good looks to account by marrying somebody.” Frank is also willing to sell himself for money.


Mrs. Warren informed Vivie about Liz. Liz “never lost her head or threw away a chance.” This line expresses that Liz was intelligent. Yet, Liz was also lucky due to circumstance. She took advantage every opportunity. However, for most women in this time there were few opportunities, so it really was luck that Liz was able to pull herself above the dredges of society. Also, it was only thanks to Liz that Mrs. Warren was able to do the same. It was also chance that Mrs. Warren and Liz were attractive girls which provided them with the opportunity to be prostitutes. Other girls in similar situations but without the right physical appearance would not have been able to do so.


Vivie is unable to recognize how hard it is for the lower classes to make their way up the ranks. This is apparent by her comment to her mother that, “Saving money and good management will succeed in any business.” Vivie’s education had taught her this, but Mrs. Warren had actually experienced it. Vivie came to see that working in a factory, as a scullery maid, or waitress were not occupations that could provide a decent living or allow for saving money. Yet, she still scorned her mother for choosing prostitution by saying that Mrs. Warren should “greatly dislike such a way of making money.” Mrs. Warren responded that, “Everybody dislikes having to work and make money; but they have to do it all the same.” Mrs. Warren is making the point that people will do whatever work they can to satisfy their basic economic needs for survival. Frank seems to fall into this line as well, meaning that it isn’t only women who suffer from this.


Vivie had never been in a position where she had to work to survive. It is also interesting that Vivie was only willing to work to achieve wrangler at the university because her mother paid her fifty pounds to do so. The only thing that motivated Vivie to perform well at school was money even though she had no real necessity for money since her mother was already providing for her. Vivie may represent the upper class who has money, and whose necessities are met. Therefore, the upper class do not chose to work, whereas, Mrs. Warren was a member of the lower class. She was forced to work to get ahead in life. Vivie was, like the upper class, unable to fully appreciate the struggles of the lower class. It may also be that Vivie was educated about social Darwinism at Cambridge. Perhaps, she believed in survival of the fittest. She may have come to believe that Mrs. Warren was only able to succeed in life, because she was one of the “fit.” It may be that Vivie considered her mother and Aunt’s looks as the results of their heritage.


Mrs. Warren expressed to Vivie how horrible it was to grow up in poor circumstances. She described how her half-sister “Anne Jane got poisoned” in a white-lead factory. She expressed her own fear of working in a place like that. She also described working “fourteen hours a day serving drinks and washing glasses for four shillings a week and my board.” It wasn’t a living which could support any growth. It was merely survival. Obviously, Mrs. Warren was underpayed, undervalued, and overworked in the way that Shaw expressed that women are.


Mrs. Warren respected intelligence. She was proud of how her sister, Liz, kept her head. The Reverend Samuel reflected on a correspondence with Mrs. Warren which went: “Knowledge is power” she said; “and I never sell power.” Obviously, Mrs. Warren understood the importance of information and knowledge. She recognized its uses, and she knew that it was worth more than money since she wouldn’t allow the reverend to pay her. Mrs. Warren also executed her understanding by sending Vivie to a good university, Cambridge. Mrs. Warren was willing to pay the expense of sending Vivie there, because she was all too aware of the benefits of a good education. She also recognized the superiority that accompanies knowledge. She told Vivie about how she and Liz “went to a church school-that was part of the ladylike airs we gave ourselves to be superior to the children that knew nothing and went nowhere.” Mrs. Warren recognized that without knowledge no one is able to move up in life.


Mrs. Warren also appreciated the knowledge of experience. She had provided a good existence for Vivie, but she had also protected her. Vivie had not seen how evil the world truly is in the way that Mrs. Warren had. Mrs. Warren told Vivie, “You’ve been taught wrong on purpose: you don’t know what the world is really like.” Mrs. Warren had tried to protect Vivie, but she failed. Vivie decided to throw the money her mother gave her back into her mother’s face. Vivie wasn’t willing to take advantage of the opportunities her mother had provided for her. Mrs. Warren tried to inform Vivie of the truth when she stated, “Vivie: the big people, the clever people, the managing people all know it. They do as I do, and think what I think.” She tried to tell Vivie that the world is full of immoral people like her who will do anything to get ahead.


At the same time, Vivie’s Cambridge University education provided her with the opportunity to work for her friend, Honoria, doing “actuarial calculations.” This job was enough to provide Vivie with cigars and whisky. Yet, if she had not had a Cambridge education she might have ended up like her mother scrimping to pay for food and clothes rather than being able to afford luxuries.


Vivie and her mother are more similar than she is willing to admit. At the beginning of the play, Vivie claims, “I like working and getting paid for it.” This is similar to Mrs. Warren who opted to continue working even though she had finally reached a point of strong financial stability. While Vivie wanted to work to support herself, she was unable to accept that her mother simply wanted to do the same thing. If circumstances had been different, if Mrs. Warren had not been a prostitute, Vivie probably would have respected her mother’s choice to continue working.


Shaw’s statement, “prostitution is caused, not by female depravity and male licentiousness” is arguable since it seems to play a significant role in “Mrs. Warren’s Profession.” Mr. Croft confessed to Praed that he felt attracted to Vivie even though he was aware of the possibility that she might be his daughter. He also attempted to forge a marriage agreement with Vivie by explaining to her how well compensated she would be by marrying him. Reverend Samuel was also guilty of immoral behavior since he was a client of Mrs. Warren’s. Mr. Croft and the reverend were both licentious males creating a demand for prostitutes. Without the demand for prostitutes there would be no supply. Therefore, Shaw’s statement seems somewhat inaccurate without losing its greater meaning of illustrating the economic needs which drive women to become prostitutes.


Bernard Shaw was an excellent novelist and playwright who should not be ignored in British Literature. He should be a required reading, because of the way that he highlighted pertinent issues of social inequalities. Shaw’s obsession with social reform is admirably expressed in his play “Mrs. Warren’s Profession.” He illustrates the importance of circumstance, economic necessity, knowledge, and sickening male proclivities towards immoral behavior.


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    • Lizam1 profile image

      Lizam1 4 years ago from Victoria BC

      I agree that Shaw is as relevant today as when he was first published. We have a production of Arms and the Man coming up in Victoria which I am looking forward to seeing.

    • Drea DeFoe profile image
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      Drea DeFoe 4 years ago

      That sounds amazing. I hope you have a memorable time.

      Drea

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      nigel 2 months ago

      Shaw's play's are very relevant to every literary student.

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      Marie McCabe 2 days ago

      I have wondered, is there a father to Vive mentioned in the play, i.e., does mother have a husband or is he dead?

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