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The concept of the New Woman in Bernhard Shaw's "Mrs Warren's Profession"

©2017 Essay 20 Seiten


The paper is about the concept of the New Woman in Bernhard Shaw's "Mrs Warren's Profession". The central conflict of "Mrs Warren’s Profession" is seemingly one of opposition. The two women in the play are mother and daughter and they live their lives very differently. Mrs Warren, the mother, is a prostitute and the owner of at least one brothel and her daughter Vivie appears to be the perfect image of the new woman, an ideal of womanhood which became popular at the end of the 19th century. The intention of this essay is to prove that both Vivie Warren and her mother are new women in their own right and that even this new womanhood will not free them entirely of the oppression of man.



1. Introduction

2. Vivie Warren as the New Woman
2.1 Education
2.2 Marriage
2.3 Gender Expectations

3. Mrs Warren as the New Woman
3.1 Prostitution
3.2 Marriage
3.3 Financial Independence

4. There is no escaping the patriarchy

5. Conclusion

6. Works Cited

1. Introduction

The central conflict of Mrs Warren’s Profession is seemingly one of opposition. The two women in the play are mother and daughter and they live their lives very differently. Mrs Warren, the mother, is a prostitute and the owner of at least one brothel and her daughter Vivie appears to be the perfect image of the new woman, an ideal of womanhood which became popular at the end of the 19th century. It is safe to say that the relationship between Mrs Warren and Vivie is not an easy one. Vivie fails to understand and accept her mother and her ways and Mrs Warren feels belittled and misunderstood by her daughter.

MRS WARREN (wildly). My God, what sort of woman are you?

VIVIE (coolly). The sort the world is mostly made of, I should hope. Otherwise I dont understand how it gets its business done. Come (taking her mother by the wrist, and pulling her up pretty resolutely): pull yourself together. Thats right.

MRS WARREN (querulously). Youre very rough with me, Vivie.

(Shaw 133)

Even in the stage directions of this excerpt the differences between the two women are easy to see: one is highly emotional, the other remains calm and collected, maybe even a little cold. What both of them don’t realise is that as different as they may be they both represent a type of new woman: Each of them break with conventions and use their own ways to escape the patriarchy and social oppression of women at the time as best they can.

In the following essay I want to prove that, in fact, both Vivie Warren and her mother are new women in their own right and that even this new womanhood will not free them entirely of the oppression of man.

2. Vivie Warren as the New Woman

Vivie Warren was very intentionally used by Shaw to portray an example of the new woman. In the play her role is essential to provide a counterexample of her mother, Mrs Warren. With Mrs Warren and Vivie Shaw is trying to give the audience two possible ways out of the oppression by the male society and where Mrs Warren represents a way out through morally questionable financial independence, Vivie represents a more classic picture of the new woman who gains independence through education and a sort of sexual freedom. But before I go into characterising Vivie and presenting the main three ways in which she represents the new woman, I want to give a brief summary of this “New Woman” and her importance for British society. The new woman broke with many of the conventions that were associated with women. Suddenly a woman could be educated and therefore financially independent, she experienced a new kind of sexual freedom in which she was not forced to marry for money; quintessentially she threatened the patriarchy that was new and scary to a male dominated society. In Inventing the New Woman: Print Culture and Identity Politics during the Fin-de-Siecle: 1997 VanArsdel Prize Michelle Elizabeth Tusan argues that “A symbol of a sexless and rebellious world, the New Woman played on fears of a society that believed women, with their claims to sex equality and equal citizenship, were almost literally taking on a male persona.” (157) . Surely, Vivie Warren fits well into this definition of the new woman, being educated, financially stable and very reluctant to marry. In this chapter I will examine her in terms of education, sexual freedom and gender conventions.

2.1 Education

Vivie Warren’s education is a crucial part of her definition as a new woman. Education was and is a prerequisite for freedom and Vivie Warren, striving for freedom, had to rely on her Cambridge education in order to achieve said freedom. Historically, education had been a male domain and in being educated Vivie presents an enigma to the men of the play who are intimidated by her intelligence and ambitiousness. Shaw makes a point of portraying how Vivie’s male environment reacts to her and her education. When she is introduced to Praed Shaw’s stage direction of Vivie says the following:

She proffers her hand and takes his with a resolute and hearty grip. She is an [...] able, highly-educated young middle-class Englishwoman. [...] Prompt, strong, confident, self-possessed.” (Shaw 65)

This description of Vivie already asserts her status as a new woman with all the adjectives used to describe her being very strong, powerful ones that focus on her personality rather than on her looks. Ironically, Praed is described in a far more superficial way, focussing on his appearance which is described as “clean-shaven except for a mustache” and “silky black hair” (64). Praed is also immediately impressed and intimidated by Vivie’s education.

“[...] Do you know, I have been in a positive state of excitement about meeting you ever since your magnificent achievements at Cambridge: a thing unheard of in my day.” (68) .

Vivie proceeds to astonish Praed with her description of life at Cambridge. “My dear Mr Praed: do you know what mathematical tripos means? It means grind, grind, grind for six to eight hours a day at mathematics, [...] I can make calculations for engineers, electricians, insurance companies and so on” (70) . Her plans to further work rather than marry astonish Praed even more. This conversation proves a right gold mine of conventions around education at the time. It is arguable that “our impression of the formidable Vivie is still one of a distinctly masculine girl, in both outlook and appearance, who cares little for convention and unabashedly flaunts her anti-feminine posture” (Greceo 94) . It is important to give some background information on women’s education at the time. At the time that Vivie supposedly attends Cambridge recently “a Newham student had achieved higher marks in the recent Cambridge honors examinations in the mathematical tripos than the senior wrangler” (Conolly 90) . For a woman to achieve better grades than the previously highest-scoring student was revolutionary. Vivie even makes reference to that student, called Phillipa Sumners in the play. However, Vivie does not strive for senior wrangler. Cambridge, with all its education can not offer Vivie everything. Women were “excluded from [...] lectures and laboratories whose subject matter [...] was considered too delicate for mixed company, and women were not awarded degrees on completion of their studies” (91) . Therefore it makes sense for Vivie to think practical and strive towards working and financial independence rather than continuing her studies (since she already is very educated it seems pointless to go forth with education if there is no possibility of a degree). Vivie’s education has put her in a fortunate position and she would not be able to hold her social status without it but in true fashion of the new woman she focuses on financial independence rather than on academia.

2.2 Marriage

The next section of this chapter seamlessly follows the topic of education because marriage and education are irreversibly intertwined. One who lacks education has to rely on marriage in order to survive or, at least live comfortably. But one who is educated has access to financial independence and therefore more has freedom when it comes to the topic of marriage. Vivie Warren, again, is a beautiful example of the new woman’s rejection of marriage conventions. This new sexual freedom goes farther than avoiding the marriage to an undesired suitor for security or even financial independence. Suddenly women had the “freedom of thinking about herself as a woman” (Crane 23) . It was about more than thinking of themselves as mothers, daughters, wives, professionals but about “self evaluation, self-awareness and sense of personal worth” (23) . The lense, through which woman is seen, is switched here from a male lense to a female one. Vivie refuses to live with her mother until she is married. Furthermore she is not very emotional when it comes to discussing her suitors. She states “Poor Frank! I shall have to get rid of him; [...] That man Crofts does not seem to me to be good for much either: is he?” (Shaw 109)

Her flirtation with Frank is never quite serious and additionally others note that he does not have the money to support a woman like Vivie. Crofts on the other hand has more than enough money but is entangled with Mrs Warren in the prostitution business which Vivie morally disapproves of. Ultimately, Vivie does not need a husband and therefore is in no rush to pick one. In Shaw and Women’s Lib Gladys M. Crane further describes this phenomenon (she includes Lina Szczepanowska, another one of Shaw’s literary figures her, but I shall focus on Vivie) .

“Both have male suitors who would like to marry them. What, then, are their reasons for deciding against the traditional role of wife and mother? Both of them have unusual intelligence and the ability to use their minds for practical success. [...] Both are self-supporting, having chosen a profession to which they are eminently qualified.” (26)

This simply eliminates the need for a husband for Vivie. Whatever her sexual desire may be, she is free to choose nearly any suitor or none at all.

2.3 Gender Expectations

“ [...] I like working and getting paid for it. When I’m tired of working, I like a comfortable chair, a cigar, a little whisky, and a novel with a good detective story in it.” (Shaw 71)

In preparation of this chapter this quote frequently caught my eye and I had to imagine: If you had somebody, who has not read Mrs Warren’s Profession, who has no prior knowledge of Shaw, read this excerpt; who would they think utters these words? I am convinced that most people would automatically attribute these words to a man. Now, isn’t it so much more exciting to know that it was, in fact, a young woman. Vivie Warren breaks gender conventions and she loves to do it. She is a new woman, educated and unmarried but she does not stop there. Although she is frequently described as attractive she is strikingly masculine in her views and manners. She is frank with her words and speaks of traditionally masculine activities in a way that suggests that she claims them for herself naturally. “I shall set up chambers in the City, and work at actuarial calculations and conveyancing. [...] I shall do some law, with one eye on the Stock Exchange all the time.” (71)

Vivie’s masculine side differs greatly from her mother’s personality. Where Mrs Warren is highly emotional and shrill at times, Vivie is rational and cool.

Greceo even argues that Vivie, although the same gender as her mother, “was cast - somewhat deliberately, it seems - from an altogether different mold” (93) than her mother. Their opposing personalities are nicely shown in one of their arguments.

MRS WARREN (after looking at her helplessly, begins to whimper). Vivie -

VIVIE (springing up sharply). Now pray dont begin to cry. Anything but that. I really cannot stand whimpering. I will go out of the room if you do.

(Shaw 111)

These components are mainly what make Vivie a great example to the new woman. She is educated, financially independent, she has a notable masculine side to her and she refuses to marry for comfort or convention. Vivie has devoted herself to this new idea of womanhood that she has learned from a very young age and that was provided by her mother and it seems to fit her personality well.



ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Paperback)
Institution / Hochschule
Universität Stuttgart
2019 (Oktober)
Mrs Warren Old New York Americanism shaw new woman

Titel: The concept of the New Woman in Bernhard Shaw's "Mrs Warren's Profession"