Mrs. Warren’s Profession

by

George Bernard Shaw

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Sex, Money, Marriage, Prostitution, and Incest Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Exploitation of Women Theme Icon
Sex, Money, Marriage, Prostitution, and Incest Theme Icon
Class, Respectability, Morality, and Complicity Theme Icon
Intergenerational Conflict Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Mrs. Warren’s Profession, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Sex, Money, Marriage, Prostitution, and Incest Theme Icon

Mrs. Warren’s Profession depicts a society tainted by the sale of sex. A mother is portrayed as a madam who may try to sell her daughter, and a young woman’s suitors might also be her father or brother. The play shows that this impure tangle of relationships is the natural result of the pervasive buying and selling of sex, whether through marriage or prostitution, and of the treatment of women as interchangeable, commodified sexual objects. It cynically concludes that the only sure way to escape incestuous or mercenary relationships is to renounce both familial and romantic love.

Shaw considers marriage and prostitution to be two sides of the same coin; both institutions allow for sex to be bought and sold, but marriage is approved of in respectable society and prostitution is frowned upon. Vivie’s two suitors, Sir George Crofts and Frank Gardner, have opposite motivations for courting her, but both see marrying her in economic terms. While Crofts hopes to buy Vivie as a wife, offering to add to her fortune and improve her standing in society by making her a baroness, Frank hopes to sell himself to her in marriage. As a woman, Vivie is naturally seen by the world and by Crofts as a commodity to be bought. But as an exceptionally rich woman, Vivie is also in the unusual position of being the potential buyer.

Although Vivie’s wealth protects her from the need to sell herself either as a wife or a sex worker, she is still exposed to the fact that her society treats women as interchangeable sexual objects for sale. Like any object that can be bought, women can also be replaced: mother can be replaced with daughter, and vice versa, despite the possibility of incest that this swapping of woman for woman produces. Crofts courts Vivie even though he is Mrs. Warren’s former lover (or customer) and thus could be Vivie’s father. Frank courts Vivie and flirts with Mrs. Warren even though his father was once Mrs. Warren’s lover (or customer), and Vivie may be his half-sister. The play never identifies Vivie’s father, nor does it conclusively rule out the possibility that her father may be Crofts, or Frank’s father, Reverend Gardner. By leaving Vivie’s paternity ambiguous, the play leaves the viewer and Vivie with the uncomfortable feeling that it is impossible to determine who is a blood relation and who is not. Her mother’s, aunt’s, and grandmother’s past as sex workers make it impossible for her to know to whom she is related.

The play shows how even non-incestuous parent-child relationships are tainted by the sale of sex. Mrs. Warren directly compares all relationships between mothers and daughters to the relationship between a madam and a prostitute, frankly telling Vivie that any mother with daughters looks to help them marry a rich man. Frank reports that, in an honest moment, his father told him he should find a smart, rich woman to marry, in effect telling his son to sell himself to the highest bidder. Through the mouths of characters like these, Shaw offers a frank and biting criticism of the hypocritical society he sees around him.

Mrs. Warren’s Profession suggests that only by giving all women the opportunity to earn money without relying on their sexuality can society be freed from the tainted familial and romantic relationships the play portrays. In the end, the realization that her upbringing was paid for by her mother’s work as a prostitute and brothel owner leaves Vivie with a realization of her own complicity in the sale of women’s bodies. Conscience-stricken, she rejects her mother’s money and love and the possibility of romantic love at any time in the future. While this stance may seem extreme, it is the only way that Vivie sees to avoid being sold to a husband or bought as a wife, or from profiting from other women’s sale as prostitutes. No matter what Vivie does, however, her ability to earn her own living remains tied to the expensive education her mother provided and paid for with profits from the sale of sex.

Related Themes from Other Texts
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Sex, Money, Marriage, Prostitution, and Incest Quotes in Mrs. Warren’s Profession

Below you will find the important quotes in Mrs. Warren’s Profession related to the theme of Sex, Money, Marriage, Prostitution, and Incest.
The Author's Apology Quotes

The notion that prostitution is created by the wickedness of Mrs Warren is as silly as the notion—prevalent, nevertheless, to some extent in Temperance circles—that drunkenness is created by the wickedness of the publican. Mrs Warren is not a whit a worse woman than the reputable daughter who cannot endure her. Her indifference to the ultimate social consequences of her means of making money, and her discovery of that means by the ordinary method of taking the line of least resistance to getting it, are too common in English society to call for any special remark. Her vitality, her thrift, her energy, her outspokenness, her wise care of her daughter, and the managing capacity which has enabled her and her sister to climb from the fried fish shop down by the Mint to the establishments of which she boasts, are all high English social virtues. Her defence of herself is so overwhelming that it provokes the St James Gazette to declare that "the tendency of the play is wholly evil" because “it contains one of the boldest and most specious defences of an immoral life for poor women that has ever been penned." Happily the St James Gazette here speaks in its haste. Mrs Warren's defence of herself is not only bold and specious, but valid and unanswerable. But it is no defence at all of the vice which she organizes. It is no defence of an immoral life to say that the alternative offered by society collectively to poor women is a miserable life, starved, overworked, fetid, ailing, ugly. Though it is quite natural and right for Mrs Warren to choose what is, according to her lights, the least immoral alternative, it is none the less infamous of society to offer such alternatives. For the alternatives offered are not morality and immorality, but two sorts of immorality.

Page Number: 27-28
Explanation and Analysis:
Act 1 Quotes

CROFTS. As to that, theres no resemblance between her and her mother that I can see. I suppose she's not your daughter, is she?
PRAED [rising indignantly] Really, Crofts—!
CROFTS. No offence, Praed. Quite allowable as between two men of the world.
PRAED [recovering himself with an effort and speaking gently and gravely] Now listen to me, my dear Crofts. [He sits down again]. 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 some friends who are not—well, not on that footing with her. The effect of her own beauty would become a torment to her if she could not escape from it occasionally. You are probably on much more confidential terms with Kitty than I am. Surely you can ask her the question yourself.
CROFTS. I have asked her, often enough. But she's so determined to keep the child all to herself that she would deny that it ever had a father if she could. [Rising] I'm thoroughly uncomfortable about it, Praed.
PRAED [rising also] Well, as you are, at all events, old enough to be her father, I don't mind agreeing that we both regard Miss Vivie in a parental way, as a young girl who we are bound to protect and help. What do you say?
CROFTS [aggressively] I'm no older than you, if you come to that.
PRAED. Yes you are, my dear fellow: you were born old. I was born a boy: Ive never been able to feel the assurance of a grownup man in my life. [He folds his chair and carries it to the porch].

Related Characters: Praed (speaker), Sir George Crofts (speaker), Vivie Warren, Kitty Warren (Mrs. Warren)
Page Number: 50-51
Explanation and Analysis:

REV. S. [severely] Yes. 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. No: thats what you thought of afterwards. What you actually said was that since I had neither brains nor money, I'd better turn my good looks to account by marrying someone with both. Well, look here. Miss Warren has brains: you can't deny that.
REV. S. Brains are not everything.
FRANK. No, of course not: theres the money—
REV. S. [interrupting him austerely] I was not thinking of money, sir. I was speaking of higher things. Social position, for instance.
FRANK. I don't care a rap about that.
REV. S. But I do, sir.
FRANK. Well, nobody wants you to marry her. Anyhow, she has what amounts to a high Cambridge degree; and she seems to have as much money as she wants.

Related Characters: Frank Gardner (speaker), Reverend Sam Gardner (speaker), Vivie Warren
Page Number: 54-55
Explanation and Analysis:
Act 2 Quotes

MRS WARREN [reflectively] Well, Sam, I don't know. If the girl wants to get married, no good can come of keeping her unmarried.
REV. S. [astounded] But married to him!—your daughter to my son! Only think: it's impossible.
CROFTS. Of course it's impossible. Don't be a fool, Kitty.
MRS WARREN [nettled] Why not? Isn't my daughter good enough for your son?
REV. S. But surely, my dear Mrs Warren, you know the reasons—
MRS WARREN [defiantly] I know no reasons. If you know any, you can tell them to the lad, or to the girl, or to your congregation, if you like.
REV. S. [collapsing helplessly into his chair] You know very well that I couldn't tell anyone the reasons. But my boy will believe me when I tell him there are reasons.
FRANK. Quite right, Dad: he will. But has your boy's conduct ever been influenced by your reasons?

Related Characters: Kitty Warren (Mrs. Warren) (speaker), Frank Gardner (speaker), Sir George Crofts (speaker), Reverend Sam Gardner (speaker), Vivie Warren
Page Number: 62-63
Explanation and Analysis:

CROFTS. Mayn't a man take an interest in a girl?
MRS WARREN. Not a man like you.
CROFTS. How old is she?
MRS WARREN. Never you mind how old she is.
CROFTS. Why do you make such a secret of it?
MRS WARREN. Because I choose.
CROFTS. Well, I'm not fifty yet; and my property is as good as it ever was—
MRS [interrupting him] Yes; because youre as stingy as youre vicious.
CROFTS [continuing] And a baronet isn't to be picked up every day. No other man in my position would put up with you for a mother-in-law. Why shouldn't she marry me?
MRS WARREN. You!
CROFTS. We three could live together quite comfortably. I'd die before her and leave her a bouncing widow with plenty of money. Why not? It's been growing in my mind all the time I've been walking with that fool inside there.
MRS WARREN [revolted] Yes; it's the sort of thing that would grow in your mind.
[He halts in his prowling; and the two look at one another, she steadfastly, with a sort of awe behind her contemptuous disgust: he stealthily, with a carnal gleam in his eye and a loose grin.]
CROFTS [suddenly becoming anxious and urgent as he sees no sign of sympathy in her] Look here, Kitty: youre a sensible woman: you needn't put on any moral airs. I’ll ask no more questions; and you need answer none. I’ll settle the whole property on her; and if you want a checque for yourself on the wedding day, you can name any figure you like—in reason.

Related Characters: Kitty Warren (Mrs. Warren) (speaker), Sir George Crofts (speaker), Vivie Warren, Frank Gardner
Page Number: 68-69
Explanation and Analysis:

MRS WARREN. Why, of course. Everybody dislikes having to work and make money; but they have to do it all the same. I'm sure I've often pitied a poor girl, tired out and in low spirits, having to try to please some man that she doesn't care two straws for—some half-drunken fool that thinks he's making himself agreeable when he's teasing and worrying and disgusting a woman so that hardly any money could pay her for putting up with it. But she has to bear with disagreeables and take the rough with the smooth, just like a nurse in a hospital or anyone else. It's not work that any woman would do for pleasure, goodness knows; though to hear the pious people talk you would suppose it was a bed of roses.
VIVIE. Still, you consider it worth while. It pays.
MRS WARREN. Of course it's worth while to a poor girl, if she can resist temptation and is good-looking and well conducted and sensible. It's far better than any other employment open to her.
I always thought that it oughtn't to be. It can't be right, Vivie, that there shouldn't be better opportunities for women. I stick to that: it's wrong. But it's so, right or wrong; and a girl must make the best of it. But of course it's not worth while for a lady. If you took to it youd be a fool; but I should have been a fool if I'd taken to anything else.

Related Characters: Vivie Warren (speaker), Kitty Warren (Mrs. Warren) (speaker)
Page Number: 77-78
Explanation and Analysis:

MRS WARREN [indignantly] Of course not. What sort of mother do you take me for! How could you keep your self-respect in such starvation and slavery? And whats a woman worth? whats life worth? without self-respect! Why am I independent and able to give my daughter a first-rate education, when other women that had just as good opportunities are in the gutter? Because I always knew how to respect myself and control myself. Why is Liz looked up to in a cathedral town? The same reason. Where would we be now if we'd minded the clergyman's foolishness? Scrubbing floors for one and sixpence a day and nothing to look forward to but the workhouse infirmary.

Related Characters: Vivie Warren (speaker), Kitty Warren (Mrs. Warren) (speaker), Liz
Page Number: 79
Explanation and Analysis:

MRS WARREN Don't you be led astray by people who don't know the world, my girl. The only way for a woman to provide for herself decently is for her to be good to some man that can afford to be good to her. If she's in his own station of life, let her make him marry her; but if she's far beneath him she can't expect it: why should she? it wouldn't be for her own happiness. Ask any lady in London society that has daughters; and she'll tell you the same, except that I tell you straight and she'll tell you crooked. Thats all the difference.

Related Characters: Kitty Warren (Mrs. Warren) (speaker), Vivie Warren
Page Number: 79
Explanation and Analysis:

MRS WARREN. Well, of course, dearie, it's only good manners to be ashamed of it: it's expected from a woman. Women have to pretend to feel a great deal that they don't feel. Liz used to be angry with me for plumping out the truth about it. She used to say that when every woman could learn enough from what was going on in the world before her eyes, there was no need to talk about it to her. But then Liz was such a perfect lady! She had the true instinct of it; while I was always a bit of a vulgarian. I used to be so pleased when you sent me your photos to see that you were growing up like Liz: you've just her ladylike, determined way. But I can't stand saying one thing when everyone knows I mean another. Whats the use in such hypocrisy? If people arrange the world that way for women, theres no good pretending it's arranged the other way. No: I never was a bit ashamed really. I consider I had a right to be proud of how we managed everything so respectably, and never had a word against us, and how the girls were so well taken care of. Some of them did very well: one of them married an ambassador. But of course now I daren't talk about such things: whatever would they think of us! [She yawns]. Oh dear! I do believe I'm getting sleepy after all. [She stretches herself lazily, thoroughly relieved by her explosion, and placidly ready for her night’s rest].

Related Characters: Kitty Warren (Mrs. Warren) (speaker), Vivie Warren
Page Number: 79-80
Explanation and Analysis:
Act 3 Quotes

VIVIE. I have shared profits with you: and I admitted you just now to the familiarity of knowing what I think of you.
CROFTS [with serious friendliness] To be sure you did. You won't find me a bad sort: I don't go in for being superfine intellectually; but Ive plenty of honest human feeling; and the old Crofts breed comes out in a sort of instinctive hatred of anything low, in which I'm sure youll sympathize with me. Believe me, Miss Vivie, the world isn't such a bad place as the croakers make out. As long as you don't fly openly in the face of society, society doesn't ask any inconvenient questions; and it makes precious short work of the cads who do. There are no secrets better kept than the secrets everybody guesses. In the class of people I can introduce you to, no lady or gentleman would so far forget themselves as to discuss my business affairs or your mothers. No man can offer you a safer position.

VIVIE [studying him curiously] I suppose you really think youre getting on famously with me.
CROFTS. Well, I hope I may flatter myself that you think better of me than you did at first.
VIVIE [quietly] I hardly find you worth thinking about at all now. When I think of the society that tolerates you, and the laws that protect you! when I think of how helpless nine out of ten young girls would be in the hands of you and my mother! the unmentionable woman and her capitalist bully—

Related Characters: Vivie Warren (speaker), Sir George Crofts (speaker), Kitty Warren (Mrs. Warren)
Page Number: 96
Explanation and Analysis:
Act 4 Quotes

VIVIE. I am sure that if I had the courage I should spend the rest of my life in telling everybody—stamping and branding it into them until they all felt their part in its abomination as I feel mine. There is nothing I despise more than the wicked convention that protects these things by forbidding a woman to mention them. And yet I can't tell you. The two infamous words that describe what my mother is are ringing in my ears and struggling on my tongue; but I can't utter them: the shame of them is too horrible for me. [She buries her face in her hands. The two men, astonished, stare at one another and then at her. She raises her head again desperately and snatches a sheet of paper and a pen]. Here: let me draft you a prospectus.
FRANK. Oh, she's mad. Do you hear, Viv? mad. Come! pull yourself together.
VIVIE. You shall see. [She writes]. "Paid up capital: not less than forty thousand pounds standing in the name of Sir George Crofts, Baronet, the chief shareholder. Premises at Brussels, Ostend, Vienna, and Budapest. Managing director: Mrs Warren"; and now don't let us forget her qualifications: the two words. [She writes the words and pushes the paper to them]. There! Oh no: don't read it: don't! [She snatches it back and tears it to pieces; then seizes her head in her hands and hides her face on the table].
[Frank, who has watched the writing over her shoulder, and opened his eyes very widely at it, takes a card from his pocket; scribbles the two words on it; and silently hands it to Praed, who reads it with amazement and hides it hastily in his pocket.]

Related Characters: Vivie Warren (speaker), Frank Gardner (speaker), Kitty Warren (Mrs. Warren), Praed, Sir George Crofts
Related Symbols: Brussels
Page Number: 109
Explanation and Analysis: