Mrs. Warren’s Profession

by

George Bernard Shaw

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Mrs. Warren’s Profession: Act 4 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Act IV takes place in Chancery Lane, the legal center of London, in an office with a sign that says FRASER AND WARREN on it. The office desk is cluttered with papers. Frank is pacing around, waiting for Vivie. She arrives and sternly asks what he is doing there. He says he is waiting for her and wants to take her on a date. She refuses, saying she can’t afford it and must work another six hours. Frank shows her gold he won gambling, but she says that is no way to earn money and that she will not come. She sits down and begins looking at her work.
Vivie has put her plan into motion to start earning her own living using her education. She has also become very scrupulous about where money comes from after learning how the money she received all her life was earned. She now only wants to spend money that she earns herself, and she refuses to go on a date with Frank when she needs to spend her time earning that money. 
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In a pitiable tone, Frank says he wants to talk to her. Vivie says to sit down and they can talk there. She asks him to pass her the cigar box. He remarks that cigars are so bad smelling that men don’t even smoke them anymore. Vivie says he’s right: men have complained and so she and Honoria have had to switch to smoking cigarettes. She begins to smoke and tells him to say what he came to say. He says he wants to know what became of her after she ran off. Vivie says it was easily settled: Vivie showed up and told Honoria she was broke, and Honoria, who had too much work to handle herself, offered her a partnership.
It was considered unladylike to smoke either cigars or cigarettes, so the audience of the time would have found Vivie’s substitution of cigarettes for cigars funny. Vivie and Honoria seem to have easily broken into a male-dominated profession. Contemporary audiences might have found this a bit unrealistic, and it would have emphasized how much Vivie’s expensive education set her apart from most women in terms of opportunities to work.
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Vivie asks what happened in Haslemere when she ran off. Frank says he told the others that she had gone to town, and they must have been too flabbergasted to ask for details, or maybe Crofts explained what had happened to Mrs. Warren. Frank asks Vivie if she really means to stay in Chancery Lane. She says she feels much stronger and more like herself now that she has come to work here, and she will never take a vacation again. Frank is put off by her hardness, but Vivie says that it is good that she is tough.
Vivie is determined to earn her own living through hard work. She was shaken by everything she learned about her mother, and now she is even more determined to earn her own money. In burying herself in her work, she also seems to hope to avoid any future brushes with the sordid economy of sex, in which people are bought and sold either in marriage or prostitution.
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Frank tells Vivie that they should talk about what Crofts said. He says that he knows that Crofts meant to alter their relationship and make them feel that they are brother and sister. He continues, saying that he has many sisters and understands what fraternal feelings are. He feels that his sisters and he will go their separate ways in the world and will not care if they never see each other again, but he cannot go a week without seeing Vivie without anxiety, which is love.
Frank turns conventional, sentimental ideas about love between family members on their head. Mrs. Warren believes it is only natural for Vivie to love her even though she did not raise her daughter; Frank, on the other hand, says he knows that brothers and sisters are naturally indifferent to one another.
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With sarcasm, Vivie asks if this is the same love that Reverend Gardner felt for Mrs. Warren when they were young. Revolted at the comparison, Frank says that they are far superior to their parents and shouldn’t be compared with them. Frank says that he asked his father if they could be brother and sister, and his father denied it, although a bit weakly.
When Vivie compares herself and Frank to their parents, she means to disparage their parents’ affair. Frank heartily agrees about this. But the other similarity between the romance between Frank and Vivie and the one between their young parents is that both were economic transactions. Whereas Reverend Gardner paid Mrs. Warren for sex, Frank hopes to become rich by marrying (and sleeping with) Vivie. 
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Vivie asks Frank if he believes his father, and he says he believes him over Crofts. Vivie says it makes no real difference. Frank is surprised. He says he thought that Vivie’s feelings about him changed completely when Crofts said that they were half-siblings. Vivie says she wishes she could believe Crofts, because she feels that the relationship of brother and sister is the only one that suits them, even if they had enough money to support one another. Frank says he understands: Vivie must have a new love interest. Vivie laughs at this, but Frank says that is the only way a woman ever breaks it off with a man.
Vivie has never been serious about Frank, and she tells him that now. He doesn’t understand that she has never wanted more than a casual flirtation. The unemotional way that Frank processes being told that Vivie is not interested in him romantically indicates that his attachment to her was much more about her money than about her as a person. Frank cannot imagine that a woman would ever really want to give up on romance, as Vivie says she intends to do.
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At that moment, Praed knocks on the door. Vivie tells Frank that Praed is going to Italy and has come to say goodbye. Frank says he will wait until Praed leaves to finish talking to her. Vivie greets Praed, who says that he wishes he could convince her to visit Italy. Vivie asks what for, and Praed says so that she can experience beauty and romance. Vivie shudders and turns towards her work. Frank says Vivie is indifferent to romance and beauty, and Vivie says that life is what it is, and she will accept it that way. Praed says he knows he will cry again when he sees the beauties these cities have to offer.
Praed’s love of beauty is a sensual pleasure, even if it may be an aesthetic one without overt sexual overtones. A love of beauty was considered an admirable trait and even a sign of morality to many. But to Vivie’s mind, this attitude is a way of avoiding thinking about the way life really is, another topic for polite conversation among respectable people that allows them to hide from ugly truths about reality. 
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Praed says Vivie would change her mind if she went to these European cities, or experienced the fun in Brussels. Vivie gasps in loathing and jumps to her feet. Praed is confused and alarmed at Vivie’s strong reaction. Vivie asks if Praed really has nothing better to talk to her about than the beauty of Brussels. Praed is at a loss. Frank explains that Vivie finds Praed frivolous, but Vivie snaps that he shouldn’t joke. Vivie says that if she is going to remain friends with Frank and Praed, she wants to hear no more about love from one, or about the beauty of life from the other, especially when that beauty is in Brussels. She says she has no illusions left about either subject and plans to remain single and uninterested in beauty for the rest of her life.
Brussels is the headquarters of Mrs. Warren’s chain of brothels. Even though Vivie knows Praed is not talking about visiting brothels, she is disgusted by his mention of the city, and wants to forget that such a city exists. For Vivie, mentions of these things are not merely frivolous, but sinister: Brussels seems to her like a place where people say they are going to experience beauty but are actually going to purchase sex. Similarly, she doesn’t believe that love can be separated from money, and doesn’t want to talk about romance.
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Frank says he will remain single too until Vivie changes her mind. He tells Praed to continue speaking eloquently about something else. Praed says that he can only preach the Gospel of Art, while Vivie preaches the Gospel of Getting On, or a practical attitude towards life, that clashes with Frank’s determinedly impractical outlook. Frank says he is happy to listen to Vivie try to convince him to turn over a new leaf. Vivie is disgusted. She says that if the Gospel of Art and the Gospel of Getting On are the only two gospels, they should all commit suicide, because both gospels are hypocritical and tainted. Frank says Vivie is being poetic. Praed chides him for teasing her, but Vivie says it is good to tease her and keep her from being sentimental.
Vivie is deeply disturbed by all she has learned about her own complicity in exploitative businesses and she has an emotional reaction to Frank and Praed’s casual banter. Vivie takes the “Gospel of Art” to be a way for members of the upper class like Praed to seek out beauty and ignore ugly truths and the practical facts of life. She understands the “Gospel of Getting On” to be the need to make a living. This is what she believes in, but she also sees how the need or desire to make money can be used to justify acts of exploitation and injustice. Both Crofts and Mrs. Warren see their involvement in the sex trade as justified under this “Gospel.”
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Vivie says she was only sentimental once in her life, by moonlight. Frank cuts her off, reminding her not to say too much to Praed.
The conversation that made Vivie sentimental was when her mother revealed her life story to her and Vivie felt love and understanding towards her mother. Even though Frank doesn’t know the full truth about Mrs. Warren’s work, he knows enough to try to stop Vivie from talking about what she learned about her mother’s experience. He can guess that the things Vivie learned are ones that respectable people would hesitate to discuss.
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Vivie tells Frank that she is sure that Praed knows all about her mother. Turning to him, she says he ought to have told her about her mother’s profession the first morning that they met, but he was too old-fashioned to do so. Praed says that perhaps Vivie is the old-fashioned one. He says he does not respect Mrs. Warren any less just because she had Vivie out of wedlock; in fact, he respects her more. Vivie stares at him in incredulity and asks if that is all he knows. Praed is very alarmed and says that perhaps Vivie shouldn’t tell them if there is anything worse.
Whether or not Praed really knows what Mrs. Warren’s true profession is, he claims that what he wanted to hide from Vivie is that her mother and father were not married. Vivie feels shocked that this is all Praed knows after so many years of friendship with Mrs. Warren. And his plea that she say no more shows that, regardless of whether he knows the truth or not, he believes strongly in his class’s taboo against talking about anything unrespectable.
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Vivie says that she would spend her entire life telling the world about her mother if she had the courage. She says she hates the convention that makes it shameful to even mention what her mother does. She takes a pen and paper and begins to dictate what she is writing: there was a forty-thousand pound investment by Crofts, and there were premises in Brussels, Ostend, Vienna and Budapest. Vivie stops reading her words aloud then, and writes her mother’s profession. She slides the paper towards Frank, then grabs it back and buries her face in her hands.
Young, upper-class women like Vivie would never have talked about prostitution (and Shaw’s play might not have run at all had the characters explicitly discussed it). It requires a strong effort on Vivie’s part to bring up this topic, given all the pressures to be silent in her society. Vivie lists the cities where her mother set up businesses, instead of saying the business itself. By mentioning these far away places, she hopes to put space between herself and her exploitative mother’s business.
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Frank sees the words, however, and rewrites them on a paper he shows to Praed, who looks at it with amazement. Frank says that they will remain Vivie’s friends, and Praed says that Vivie is very courageous. Vivie is put off by this compliment. She says she needs a minute to collect herself and goes into the other room.
Vivie is concerned with the fate of poor women who are systematically exploited. She finds it inappropriate that Praed would compliment her courage, since she has had so much less to face than others.
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Praed tells Frank he is very disappointed in Crofts. Frank replies that now Crofts makes perfect sense to him, but he can’t marry Vivie now. Praed says that it would be wrong for Frank to turn away from Vivie, but Frank explains that he wouldn’t be able to accept her money now that he knows where it comes from. Praed asks if Frank really can’t earn enough money on his own. Frank says that he earned a bit of money gambling, but he will never make enough to support Vivie. Praed asks Frank if he will ever see Vivie again. Frank scoffs at Praed for being melodramatic, and answers that he will of course see Vivie again. He will treat her as a brother.
Frank’s interest in Vivie was always based on the idea that by marrying her he could make himself wealthy. He has been rejected by her, but refused to definitively give up hope. But now that he knows the unrespectable source of Mrs. Warren’s money, and knows that Vivie is likely to reject that money and become much less rich, he easily gives up the idea of a romance with her. He plans to treat her like she is his sister, which, of course, he has no way of definitely knowing she isn’t.
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There is a knock at the door. Praed goes and lets in Mrs. Warren, while Frank sits down and writes a note. Mrs. Warren is dressed in conservative garb and looks around anxiously for Vivie. She is surprised to see Frank, who indicates that Vivie is in the next room. Mrs. Warren asks Praed if he thinks Vivie will see her. Frank tells her that she might be better off leaving instead of waiting to hear what Vivie has to say. He puts the note he wrote where Vivie will find it. Mrs. Warren asks if he means she should leave and never see Vivie again. Frank says that is what he means. Mrs. Warren begins to cry. Frank asks Praed if he thinks that Mrs. Warren ought to wait to see Vivie. Praed equivocates, but is ready to say that Mrs. Warren should leave.
Mrs. Warren has changed her usual flamboyant style of dress because she hopes that Vivie will not refuse to be a part of her life anymore. She tries to dress the part of a more conservative, respectable woman. She still firmly believes that she and Vivie can have a relationship, because she thinks it is only natural for a mother and daughter to love one another unconditionally and forgive each other. Frank and Praed, howevcer, are sure that she has no chance of winning Vivie over.
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Vivie enters and looks at her mother seriously. Mrs. Warren greets her with forced cheerfulness. Vivie says she is glad Mrs. Warren came because she wants to speak to her. Mrs. Warren looks scared and says perhaps she should leave Vivie to do her work. Vivie firmly tells Frank and Praed to leave her alone with her mother. They all bid one another goodbye and the two men leave. Mrs. Warren anxiously asks Vivie why she ran away so suddenly. Mrs. Warren says that she wanted Crofts to accompany her to come see Vivie, but he said that she should avoid Vivie.
Mrs. Warren pretends that Vivie’s sudden departure from the countryside and decision to immediately go into business with Honoria is nothing out of the ordinary. She acts the part of a completely normal mother, but when she sees Vivie’s reaction she becomes afraid that Vivie will tell her that she wants nothing more to do with her.
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Trembling, Mrs. Warren pulls out an envelope and asks Vivie why she received it from the bank. Vivie says it is her allowance, but she will be supporting herself from now on. Mrs. Warren refuses to understand Vivie’s meaning. With a cunning look, she tells Vivie that she had planned to double Vivie’s allowance.
Because of her exceptional education and academic achievements, Vivie is in an unusual position for a single woman of her time: she can refuse financial support because she doesn’t want to be complicit in something she finds immoral. Mrs. Warren has probably never encountered a woman with Vivie’s earning power and refusal to bend to the temptation of wealth. She thinks she can bribe her daughter by offering her more money, when Vivie is saying she wants none of Mrs. Warren’s money at all.
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Vivie tells Mrs. Warren that she means that they should cut off contact with one another. She stands and bids her mother goodbye. Mrs. Warren is shocked. Vivie explains that Crofts told her everything. Mrs. Warren swears in anger at Crofts, but says she thought that Vivie didn’t mind her profession after their conversation. Vivie says she understood how her mother got into the business, but not that she was still working as a brothel owner.
Mrs. Warren never told Vivie that she had left her business, but she also never intended to mention her active operations to Vivie. Vivie once again showed naivete when she assumed her mother had quit her work. So, although Mrs. Warren sees that Vivie is angry, she doesn’t understand why Vivie can’t accept that she is only doing her best in a corrupt and exploitative world.
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Vivie hopes that this is enough of an explanation for her mother for why they should end their relationship. But instead Mrs. Warren looks cunning again. She tells Vivie that she is fabulously wealthy: Vivie will have every luxury and many suitors, instead of toiling in an office. She says that she is sure if Vivie thinks it over she will come around to accepting her mother and her money.
Mrs. Warren believes that a daughter owes her mother love and affection. She also believes that everyone has a price, because she doesn’t understand Vivie’s desire to earn her own money and escape any type of exploitation.
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Vivie says she is sure Mrs. Warren has said something similar to many young women. Mrs. Warren says that Vivie has been deceived about the way the world works and now she is throwing away her opportunity to be prominent. She says that all the most powerful people understand how the world really works, and that ideas about what makes someone respectable are a pretense. The people who educated Vivie understand nothing about life or people like herself.
Vivie compares her mother’s attempts to buy her love to her convincing women to work for her as sex workers in her brothel. Vivie is coming to realize that even familial love has an economic basis that she finds corrupt and unjust. Mrs. Warren believes that Vivie is being snobbish; she doesn’t understand that Vivie is not only embarrassed by her unrespectable profession, but also abhors her as a force for exploitation of the weak.
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Vivie says she recognizes that her mother is preaching Crofts’s philosophy of life. Mrs. Warren says that she promises she won’t try to make Vivie marry Crofts, but Vivie says her mother could never force her to do that. Mrs. Warren is hurt that Vivie doesn’t seem to value her saying that she doesn’t mean to marry her to someone she doesn’t like. Vivie doesn’t respond to her mother’s look of hurt, but goes on.
Crofts’ philosophy is that morality is just something people pretend to believe in so they will be considered respectable. But Mrs. Warren doesn’t understand Vivie’s point. Instead, she believes Vivie is bringing up Crofts because she fears Mrs. Warren will try to force her to marry him. Many mothers would try to force their daughters into unwanted marriages, so Mrs. Warren feels Vivie should appreciate that she wouldn’t.
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Vivie tells Mrs. Warren that she is the type of person who admires straightforward, unsentimental people. She thinks Crofts is better than many men like him because he is not ashamed of his behavior.
Even though Vivie sees Crofts’ beliefs as deplorable, she respects the fact that he admitted to her what he really thinks and that he lives a life that is consistent with his beliefs.
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Vivie says she doesn’t want to spend her life being rich and fashionable because this will turn her into a worthless, vicious person. She asks Mrs. Warren why she didn’t leave her business once she had made enough money to do so, like her sister Liz. Mrs. Warren says it was easy for Liz because she has the air of being a lady. No one would take Mrs. Warren for a lady, though. More importantly, though, she would go crazy out of boredom without work, and the work she does suits her. If she didn’t do it, someone else would, so it doesn’t hurt Mrs. Warren says she can’t give up her work for anyone, but she will never mention it to Vivie again and never force her to see Crofts again. Vivie says that she is her mother’s daughter: she intends to work and spend the money she makes. anyone.
Mrs. Warren believes that an ideal life is spent in leisure, spending money and being fashionable. She looks up to her sister Liz, who was able to fit into upper class society once she had earned enough money. But Vivie disagrees, thinking that idleness ruins a person’s character. And even though Mrs. Warren accepts society’s ideal of a rich, idle aristocracy, her life shows that she shares Vivie’s feelings deep down. Even though she is now rich, Mrs. Warren needs to work to give her life structure and purpose. She justifies continuing to work as a brothel owner who exploits poor women for her own profit by saying that the injustice is systematic, and her participation in it has no effect either way.
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Vivie says their relationship going forward will not be that different from their relationship up to this point: instead of seeing each other for scarce visits, they will never see each other. Mrs. Warren begins to cry. She says she had meant to spend more time with Vivie when she was younger. Vivie says her mother’s cheap tears won’t change her mind. Mrs. Warren angrily objects, but Vivie says that her mother wants her to give up her happiness to make her feel better. Vivie says they have nothing in common that would make them happy in each other’s company.
Vivie sees her mother’s demand that they spend time together as a conventional, sentimental notion. Vivie dislikes any unthinking acceptance of sentimental, conventional ideas; she sees herself as a New Woman who will make a life for herself using her own skills, outside of society’s ideas for what a woman should be. She also feels that since her mother spent so little time with her when she was growing up, they have little in common and no deep attachment to one another.
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Mrs. Warren angrily begins to talk in the dialect of a poor woman. She says that she has a right to her daughter and that plenty of girls have cared for her like they were her daughters, but she let them go because she knew she would have Vivie. Vivie is put off by the lower-class sound of her mother’s speech. She says that she has just finished telling Frank she doesn’t want a husband, and she now tells her mother she doesn’t want a mother.
In her anger, Mrs. Warren takes a position that will be even less persuasive to Vivie. She acts as if she owns Vivie, and as if she has given up other girls she could have owned and controlled because she assumed she would be able to do that to Vivie. The independent-minded Vivie finds her mother’s belief that she can control other women abhorrent. She thinks Mrs. Warren was deluding herself with a belief in the sentimental notion that a daughter owes her mother love; since Mrs. Warren never took care of her, she does not feel bonded to her mother.
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Mrs. Warren says she understands Vivie’s personality: she is merciless, pious, hard, and selfish. Mrs. Warren says that if she could do life over again, she would bring Vivie up to be a good daughter to her. She says that Vivie stole her education and she wishes she had never paid for it, but had instead brought her up in her own house. Vivie says that Mrs. Warren means brought her up “in one” of her houses.
Mrs. Warren believes that Vivie looks down on her because her profession is not respectable. She doesn’t understand Vivie’s rejection of conventional ideas: Vivie objects to her mother’s belief that some people can control and exploit others, whether they are sex workers in a brothel, or their daughter. Mrs. Warren is angry that she invested so much money in Vivie’s education and is receiving nothing in return. This is also similar to the way a brothel owner would invest in the clothes and makeup of a sex worker, in expectation of profits and loyalty. At the same time, if Mrs. Warren had been more involved in Vivie’s upbringing, her daughter might “be a good daughter to her,” because she might feel a genuine connection to her mother. Either way there is something disturbingly transactional about the relationship.
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Enraged, Mrs. Warren screams that she curses Vivie and hopes she grows up to have a daughter who treats her terribly. Vivie says her mother’s rage only makes her more determined that they should go their separate ways. But, she says, her mother shouldn’t regret giving her an education; probably, she says, she is the only woman Mrs. Warren controlled who she did something good for. Mrs. Warren says that this is true, and Vivie is also the only one who has turned on her. Mrs. Warren says she always tried to be good: she tried honest work and found that it was really exploitation, she tried to be a good mother and finds that her daughter turns against her. She says she will never try to do anything good again.
The angrier Mrs. Warren gets at being kept from controlling Vivie, the more repulsed Vivie is. Their ideas are completely mismatched. Mrs. Warren believes that even though she worked in an exploitative business, she would be redeemed by bringing her daughter up to a different life and would reap the reward of her daughter’s gratitude and love. But Vivie believes in her own independence more than she believes she owes her mother gratitude, and she can tell that Mrs. Warren wants to control her.
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Vivie says it is better to live as you believe you should, instead of living one way and believing in a different system of morality. She says that it is because her mother is so conventional that she must part with her. Mrs. Warren reluctantly agrees that Vivie is right to get rid of her, but she says the world would fall apart if everyone did the right thing in this way. She turns to leave, and Vivie asks if she will shake hands goodbye. Mrs. Warren looks at Vivie as if she wants to hit her. She says she doesn’t want to shake hands and leaves, slamming the door.
Vivie is not against sex work because it is unrespectable; she is against what her mother does now: exploit other women for her own profit. She thinks that if Mrs. Warren really believes that there should be better opportunities for women, she should not be a part of the system by which sex work is the best work a poor woman can find. Mrs. Warren cannot understand that her daughter is not rejecting her out of conventional ideas about morality and class; she believes Vivie wants nothing to do with her because she is an ungrateful snob.
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Vivie’s face relaxes and she breathes a sigh of relief. She goes to her desk and finds Frank’s note. She laughs at something clever he wrote, and says, “goodbye, Frank” aloud. Then she tears the note up and immediately begins to work, quickly becoming engrossed.
Vivie hopes to escape complicity in a corrupt world by focusing on her work, supporting herself financially and avoiding the complications that come with romantic and family relationships. Of course, this is impossible in her society, and she only has the independence she has because of her education paid for by sex work and exploitation. Furthermore, in rejecting anyone associated with exploitation, Vivie has turned away from all the family and close relationships she had. The play then ends on this ambiguous note, as it’s unclear whether or not Vivie will find any long-lasting happiness in her single-minded devotion to her work.
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