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"Analysis of Bernard Shaw’s 'Candida' " (Part 2)

Updated on November 9, 2016

George Bernard Shaw

Shavian Themes

Candida explores many of Shaw’s dominant themes. This paper will examine in some detail three such ideas: (1) the concept of Candida as mother-woman; (2) socialism versus capitalism; and (3) the theory of creative evolution. First, let’s consider Candida as a mother-woman, and briefly compare her with Ann Whitefield, another Shavian woman so designated.


The first words out of Candida’s mouth reflect her maternal habit. Having overheard the latter part of Morell’s heated conversation with her father, Mr. Burgess, in which her “fat capitalist” daddy says, “Our quarrel’s made up now, ain it?” she replies, “Say yes, James” (Kronenberger 18). Regarding this line, Berst writes, “It is a coaxing command, a conciliatory gesture, and a positive assertion” (45). To this writer, it sounds like a mother telling her child what to think.

In his stage directions immediately following this opening statement, Shaw provides other telling clues as to her character: “. . . Candida has just come in, and is looking at them with an amused maternal indulgence which is her characteristic expression.” In fact, the playwright reveals in these directions considerable detail about how he wishes his readers to see his heroine, describing her as someone “who has found that she can always manage people by engaging their affection,” whose facial features “signify largeness of mind and dignity of character to ennoble her cunning in the affections,” and whose temperament is not at all artistic (18). Candida’s character consists of a mixture of weaknesses and strengths—features common among all men and women.

Shaw frequently allows his readers to see another facet of Candida’s personality: her frank, yet condescending way of speaking with both Morell and Marchbanks. She blends emotional sensibilities with “good-natured” jesting, though some of her remarks come across as patronizing. For example, when Marchbanks treats Burgess with respect by not laughing at him and promising to dine with him at the Freeman Founders, Candida responds, “Do you know, you are a very nice boy, Eugene, with all your queerness” (22). Berst thinks that “her use of ‘queerness’ to describe Marchbanks’s poetic temperament indicates her lack of understanding regarding his aesthetic and intellectual nature, a lack which she disguises under maternal coddling and a rather supercilious, callous sense of humor” (45). Perhaps Candida can be excused for not understanding the “poetic temperament”; few people can plumb the depths of that enigma.

The blending of kindness and condescension in her relationship to Morell borders on being ludicrous. After his half-serious confrontation with Prossy and her explosive exiting in tears, Morell appears weary and resigned as Candida enters. Approaching him tenderly, she then makes him come to her, and addresses him in the third person as though he were a little child:

“Come here, dear. Let me look at you. (He drops his pen and yields himself to her disposal. She makes him rise, and brings him a little way away from the table, looking at him critically all the time). Turn your face to the light. (She places him facing the window). My boy is not looking well. Has he been overworking?” (45).

The same attitude persists as she confronts him about female parishioner enthusiasm, his preaching, and Prossy’s complaint (46). Candida’s approach is, at least, consistent.

Assumption of the Virgin

Marchbanks vs. Morell

Perhaps the circumstance that is most telling of her mother-woman role occurs at play’s end when she must make her “choice” between Morell and Marchbanks. On the one hand, she sees Marchbanks, who gave her an autotype of Titian’s “Assumption of the Virgin,” and esteemed her as “a personification of ideal womanhood, a Pre-Raphaelite madonna.” He sensed that the “Virgin Mother is the embodiment of Titian’s highest ideals, and selected that painting as the apt expression of his regard for Candida, whom he views in almost the same way” (Nelson xix). On the other hand, she beholds Morell, her husband, who considered her “a Madonna of the Hearth”–a conventionally pious figure, a moralistic housewife (Crompton 41). Faithfulness to the marriage vow was of utmost importance to him, and he believed that Candida shared that conviction.

The final scene presents Candida thinking of herself as an auction piece; accordingly, she asks the “boys” for their bids. Morell offers her his strengths; Eugene, his heart’s needs. Candida chooses the weaker: Morell. Why? Is it because she totally agrees with her husband’s theological messages and social programs? No. She winces at his clichés, and believes that most people acknowledge his message, but do the opposite of what he says. However, Candida also knows that she cannot live in the “Land of Heart’s Desire” with Eugene. As an independent thinker who honestly faces the alternatives, Candida had long ago decided to stay with Morell because she loves him, and he needs her to mother him. Bentley sees the Life Force acting wisely in Candida: “She perceives instinctively that the Life Force works through men of good will like Morell and that it uses the minds of poets to reach out and up to future generations. So she chooses sensibly to stay with the man she loves, to maintain her well-established home, and to release the artist to his proper work” (xx-xxi). In sum, he writes, “ . . . if one knows Shaw’s views on the topic of the “weaker sex” in general, the conclusion of Candida follows naturally: instead of the little woman reaching up toward the arms of the strong man, we have the strong woman reaching down to pick up her child” (177). Certainly, Candida fits the bill of a Shavian mother-woman.

Anne Whitefield and Jack Tanner

Comparing Candida and Ann Whitefield

Comparing Candida to Ann in Man and Superman finds the former heroine not altogether resembling the latter. Passion to serve the Life Force—Shaw’s version of God—dominates Ann’s existence. She understands her function as finding the best, most biologically fit candidate whom she can marry. While Candida operates well as the manager of her “boys,” Ann stands out as manipulative to the extreme, exploiting every opportunity to pressure Jack Tanner into marriage. In the climactic fourth act (after Jack announces his intention to be faithful to Ann’s father, who appointed him her guardian), her response comes in all its force:

ANN [in low siren tones]: He asked me who I would have as my guardian before he made that will. I chose you!

TANNER: The will is yours then! The trap was laid from the beginning.

ANN [concentrating all her magic]: From the beginning—from our childhood—for both of us—by the Life Force” (Laurence 205).

And whereas Ann heartlessly disillusions her would-be husband Octavius by showing him how she and Tanner were made for one another—

OCTAVIUS: You do not dread disillusionizing Jack.

ANN: [her face lighting up with mischievous ecstasy—whispering]: I can’t; he has no illusions about me. I shall surprise Jack the other way. Getting over an unfavorable impression is ever so much easier than living up to an ideal. Oh, I shall enrapture Jack sometimes! (194)—

and foisting on him other insensitive comments that break his heart—

OCTAVIUS: It’s quite simple. I love you; and I want you to be happy. You don’t love me; so I can’t make you happy myself; but I can help another man to do it.

ANN: Yes: it seems quite simple. But I doubt if we ever know why we do things. The only really simple thing is to go straight for what you want and grab it. I suppose I don’t love you, Tavy; but sometimes I feel as if I should like to make a man of you somehow. You are very foolish about women.

OCTAVIUS [almost coldly]: I am content to be what I am in that respect.

ANN: Then you must keep away from them, and only dream about them. I wouldn’t marry you for worlds, Tavy (195)—

Candida explains her decision to both Morell and Marchbanks—albeit in a patronizing, motherly way—and then releases the latter to the night to declare his love in verse and song (Kronenberger 72-3). Clearly, a comparison of mother-women reveals that Candida lacks the cold, manipulative force of Ann Whitefield.

© 2015 glynch1


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