Prostitution, Incest, and the New Woman
As a scholar of the Victorian era, I have come across many works that are surrounding the dichotomy between the traditional Victorian woman and the New Woman. Upon reading Bernard Shaw’s Mrs. Warren’s Profession, two of the most poignant themes within the play are prostitution and incest. The profession of Mrs. Warren is connected explicitly with the prostitution of women and the men that come to solicit her services. All the characters within the play are affected by the selling of women’s bodies. This common thread suggests that all the characters are linked, giving an incestual theme throughout the play. Mrs. Warren’s Profession is an ideal play to show the concept of the New Woman. Mrs. Warren represents the traditional view of women’s roles and her daughter, Vivie, represents the New Woman. In Mrs. Warren’s Profession, Shaw expresses disgust towards prostitution and incest by making Vivie Warren a New Woman protagonist.
The New Woman was a contrast and rebellion against the traditional role of women. Instead of supporting the typical roles, such as getting married young and having children, the New Woman found her goal in life to make money and support herself. Mrs. Warren represents the old era of femininity. She has made her living because of men, selling herself and others to their sexual desires; whereas, Vivie, her daughter, is the quintessential representation of the New Woman. Mrs. Warren and Vivie are a mother and daughter who are a paradox to one another. We are never quite sure who Vivie’s father is; it does not seem that Mrs. Warren knows either. Most of possible fathers are linked romantically to Mrs. Warren yet show affection towards Vivie, as well. The differences between Mrs. Warren and Vivie do not seem to be a point of interest for the men in the novel. The two women are viewed only as objects of desire, not as individuals.
Vivie’s suitors seem to be entirely careless whether they are related to her. Two examples that can be easily accused of this carelessness are George Crofts and Frank. Mrs. Warren’s business and most likely sexual partner knows that it is a possibility that he could be Vivie’s father, yet, he has no problem asking Vivie to marry him. Her love interest in the play, Frank, could possibly be her half brother because the Reverend Samuel is an old friend of Mrs. Warren.
The men in the play are related to one another in the way they exchange women. The male characters within the play switch their attention from Mrs. Warren and Vivie, or vice versa, showing the men see no individual traits in the women. They are just objects for sexual desire. An example of this is when Frank switched his attention from Vivie to Mrs. Warren. The reader would think that Mrs. Warren would not be interested in Frank because he is so young but, it is possible that she is attracted to Frank because he reminds her of the past when she was involved with his father, Reverend Samuel. Mrs. Warren has some respect when it comes to her daughter. She stops flirting with Frank after finding out that he and Vivie are interested in one another. Frank does not seem to care. He continues to flirt with Mrs. Warren even though he had just been flirting with Vivie.
Sir George is one of the most obvious symbols of prostitution within the novel. He offers to buy Vivie from Mrs. Warren. He says, “if you want a cheque for yourself on the wedding day, you can name any figure you want- in reason.” (Shaw 1762) Praed is one of the only men in the novel that has not been sexually linked with Mrs. Warren. He says, “I have nothing to do with that side of Mrs. Warren’s life, and never had. She has never spoken to me about it; and of course I have never spoken to her about it. Your delicacy will tell you that a handsome woman needs s o m e friends who are not- well, not on that footing with her.” (Shaw 1753)
What we do know about Praed is that he is a good friend with Mrs. Warren and could be sexually attracted to her. If this is true, then he fits in the category of switching interest as well because he is attracted to Vivie.
The men within the novel are notoriously gossiping about the women. This tactic of gossiping is usually used by women to earn one another’s confidence and grow emotionally closer to one another. In this case, it seems that Mrs. Warren and Vivie barely speak, especially about the men, but the men gossip about the women all throughout the novel. One of the most notorious scenes in the play is when Sir George and Praed are talking. The two men bond because of their talking about Vivie and Mrs. Warren. Crofts says that gossiping about the women is “Quite allowable as between two men of the world.” (Shaw 1753) The interesting part of this scene is that Vivie is not even present in the scene. The Reverend Samuel and Sir George also gossips about the way that the know Mrs. Warren in Act 3. These two scenes of the men gossiping about the women shows the way men bond in objectifying women.
The idea of the New Woman is brought forth in the novel in the protagonist of Vivie. The New Woman was a woman who rejected traditional roles of women and found their own independence. This is found in Vivie who went to Cambridge, became educated, and her life goal to work and make her own way in the world. The irony is, of course, that her New Woman education was paid for by her mother’s occupation of prostitution, the kind of career that a New Woman would reject. Mrs. Warren says that her only option to escape poverty was to sell herself into prostitution. Vivie does sympathize with her mother when Mrs. Warren tells of her situation and why she decided to become a prostitute. However, when Vivie discovers that Mrs. Warren has continued in the prostitution industry even after making a decent living, she loses all sympathy and breaks away.
Vivie represents the quintessential New Woman in Act 3 when Frank is about to leave. He flirts with Mrs. Warren right in front of Vivie. Instead of getting mad about it, Vivie reads her books. A New Woman does not give as much attention to romantic situations as they do to their education and strife towards a better future for themselves. Now that Vivie has decided to reject her mother’s standard of life, she can embrace the New Woman side of her life. She is free of family and will now be independent without being an object of desire like her mother.
The new economic and professional bond between New Women is based on the production and exchange of female mental labor and knowledge, not bodies that function as mere ciphers of an exchange between men. The New Woman notoriously gave up the social ideals of marriage and children for a life of intellect and education. In order to escape the traditional role of women, Vivie severs all ties with love or family to become independent. It is apparent throughout the play that Shaw is highly unsympathetic towards those that objectify women, either though prostitution or incest. All of the situations that have been highlighted in this essay show that Shaw needed to place these clearly ugly elements in the play that seems so normal for all of the characters except through our heroine. If the reader can watch the play through the eyes of the New Woman, one would uphold her values and disregard all of the things she objects. Shaw placed prostitution and incest in Mrs. Warren’s Profession to allow a stark contrast between the traditional view of these themes through Mrs. Warren and the view the reader is to agree with through Vivie.