& Early 20th Century Literature & Culture



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En278: Ends and Beginnings Seminar Tutor: Emilie Taylor-Brown

Seminar Room: H543 Office Hours: Mon 11-12pm, H512





Ends and Beginnings:

Late 19th & Early 20th Century Literature & Culture
Week 1: Henrik Ibsen: Ghosts (1881); George Bernard Shaw: Mrs. Warren’s Profession (1893)



[Ibsen’s] thesis [is] that the real slavery of to-day is slavery to ideals of virtue.
--- George Bernard Shaw The Quintessence of Ibsenism, 122.

Ibsenian “decide your own ending” reminiscent of final scenes in A Doll’s House.


Points to Consider


Ghosts at the Bath House Cultural Centre, 2008.
- Consider the relationship between idealism and reality.

- In what ways do Ibsen and Shaw’s women resist stereotypes and convention?

- What is the significance of infidelity in the plays?

- What is the purpose of Pastor Manders in Ghosts?

- How are women portrayed in the play(s)? Mrs. Alving? Regine? Vivie? Mrs. Warren?

- How does Ibsen critique marriage?




Headline 28 Oct 1905 when Shaw’s play opened at New Haven.
- Consider the motif of inheritance (financial, biological, psychological).

- Consider the motif of disease.

- How are mothers and fathers portrayed?

- What role does religion play and how is it presented?

- She refused my money with these words, which I shall never forget. "Knowledge is power" she said; "and I never sell power" (Mrs. Warren’s Profession, A1,S1) In what ways do knowledge and secrecy create power relations in the play(s)?

- Explore the relationship between parent and child, and the generational differences inherent in their attitudes to life.



- In what ways does Shaw critique the societal and capitalist structures that support the exploitation of women?
If, on the other hand. Ghosts be defended, as the dramatic critic of Piccadilly lately did defend it, because it throws into divine relief the beautiful figure of the simple and pious Pastor Manders, the fatal compliment cannot be parried. When you have called Mrs Alving an "emancipated "

woman or an unprincipled one, Alving a debauchee or a "victim of society,"[…] according to your bias, you have said something which is at once true and false. --- Shaw, Quintessence 129.


Revolution, Duty and Progress
If the English-man had not repudiated the duty of absolute obedience to his king, his political progress would have been impossible. If women had not repudiated the duty of absolute submission to their husbands, and defied public opinion as to the limits set by modesty to their education, they would never have gained the protection of the Married Women's Property Act or the power to qualify themselves as medical practitioners. […] There is nothing new, then, in the defiance of duty by the reformer: every step of progress means a duty repudiated, and a scripture torn up. And every reformer is denounced accordingly, Luther as an apostate, Cromwell as a traitor, Mary Wollestonecraft as an unwomanly virago, Shelley as a libertine, and Ibsen as all the things enumerated in the Daily Telegraph. --- Shaw, Quintessence 8.
The main effect of his plays is to keep before the public the importance of being always prepared to act immorally, to remind men that they ought to be as careful how they yield to a temptation to tell the truth as to a temptation to hold their tongues, and to urge upon women that the desirability of their preserving their chastity depends just as much on circumstances as the desirability of taking a cab instead of walking. He protests against the ordinary assumption that there are certain supreme ends which justify all means used to attain them ; and insists that every end shall be challenged to shew that it justifies the means. --- Shaw, Quintessence 130.
What —Ibsen insists on is that there is no golden rule that conduct must justify itself by its effect

upon happiness and not by its conformity to any rule or ideal. ---134


  1. How does Ibsen explore the repressive nature of “duty”?

  2. In what ways does he demonstrate the gap between idealism and reality?



Disease and Hereditary Immorality
Syphilis was rampant in Scandinavia in the 1880s. According to Iwan Block, in Copenhagen during the period 1876 to 1895, sixteen to twenty per cent of men in their twenties were infected with venereal disease, one in eight with gonorrhea, one in fifty ±five with syphilis.2 The writer Victoria Benedictsson, who resided in southern Sweden and consorted with the Scandinavian literati in Copen- hagen, estimated that fifty per cent of the men she knew were infected with venereal disease. […] Ibsen may have begun work on Ghosts as a reply to critics of A Doll's House. Using syphilis, he could continue to examine the whole question of marriage and make a case, admittedly, a very special case, for a wife who left her husband. But the insidious disease soon became in his mind a symbol of the dark side of modern society. It was its very pervasiveness that made syphilis a fitting representative of Mrs. Alving's ghosts, the old traditions, the hidebound conventions, transmitted from one generation to the next, which held society in their sinister grip.
--- Springhorn, Evert. “Syphilis in Ibsen’s GhostsIbsen Studies 4.2 (2004): 191-204.
MRS. ALVING. Ghosts! When I heard Regina and Oswald in there, it was as though ghosts rose up before me. But I almost think we are all of us ghosts, Pastor Manders. It is not only what we have inherited from our father and mother that "walks" in us. It is all sorts of dead ideas, and lifeless old beliefs, and so forth. They have no vitality, but they cling to us all the same, and we cannot shake them off. Whenever I take up a newspaper, I seem to see ghosts gliding between the lines. There must be ghosts all the country over, as thick as the sands of the sea. And then we are, one and all, so pitifully afraid of the light.


  1. Consider the motif of hereditary disease and its interactions with other types of social and political inheritance.

  2. What is the significance of Oswald’s only memory of his father?

  3. Why does Ibsen present us with an ambiguous ending?



Performance, Façade and Middle-Class Society
Shaw draws upon a location, that of the English garden where society's hypocritical practices are often in evidence , and uses it in his setting, structure, action, and names of characters often enough to make the garden a metaphor for middle-class conduct.
Shaw also underscores the garden theme by giving all his characters, except for Vivie, names associated with land, especially land which is fenced in and intended for some kind of cultivation.

[…] In the case of the title character […] a “warren” is formally defined as "a piece of land enclosed for the breeding of game." Moreover, when Rev. Gardner knew Kitty years before, she was Miss Vavasour , a term from the Middle Ages, [meaning] one who holds lands from a superior lord and has landholders under him. […] Sir George Crofts bears a family name that is defined as a "small enclosed field." The Reverend Samuel Gardner and his son Frank are associated with the common word "garden"[…] the name Praed, exists in our language in the root of the adjective "praedial," which means "of or relating to land"or "landed”.
--- Stafford, Tony Jason. “Mrs Warren’s Profession: In the Garden of Respectability” Shaw 2(1982): 3-11.


  1. Consider Vivie’s attempts to leave the garden, her behaviour in it, Frank’s attempts to make her stay and play ‘babes of the wood’, other’s entrances into the garden, Mrs. Warren’s dislike of the country-life, and the contrast between the garden scenes and the final scene in Honoria Fraser’s chambers.

  2. Consider the cultivation and performativity of an English garden.

  3. Explore the link between “nature” and “culture” in relation to this motif.



Threats to Vivie Warren’s Independence



Rev. Samuel Gardner: Religion
FRANK Ever so intellectual. Took a higher degree than you did; so why should she go to hear you preach?
Sir George Crofts: Advancement through marriage (The Capitalist Social System)
Mr. Paed: Aesthetics and Romance (literary Idealism?)
PRAED The Gospel of Art is the only one I can preach. I know Miss Warren is a great devotee of the Gospel of Getting On…
Frank Gardner: Love’s young dream
Mrs. Warren: Independent luxury and filial connection
MRS WARREN. But you don't know all that that means; you’re too young. It means a new dress every day; it means theatres and balls every night; it means having the pick of all the gentlemen in Europe at your feet; it means a lovely house and plenty of servants; it means the choicest of eating and drinking; it means everything you like, everything you want, everything you can think of. And what are you here? A mere drudge, toiling and moiling early and late for your bare living and two cheap dresses a year. Think over it.

The play evolves on three levels with a high degree of success. First, moral allegory, with much of the archetypal energy of a morality play, polarizes around Vivie. Second, a firm realistic level, immersed deeply in the problem of the adjustment of the individual to society polarizes around Mrs. Warren. Third, through the adventure of the morality play and beneath the tragedy of the realism, a deep-rooted comic-ironic perspective leaves the tragedy and puts it in greater touch with reality.



--- Berst, Charles A. “Propaganda and Art in Mrs. Warren’s ProfessionELH 33.3(1966): 390-404.

Prostitution and Blame

In 1857, the medical journal The Lancet estimated that one house in every sixty in London was a brothel, and one female in every sixteen (of all ages) was a whore. On this basis there would have been more than 6,000 brothels in London and about 80,000 prostitutes.
--- Laurence, Dan H. Victorian Unveiled: Some Thoughts on Mrs Warren’s Profession 24(2004):38-45.
MRS WARREN Do you think we were such fools as to let other people trade in our good looks by employing us as shop-girls, or barmaids, or waitresses, when we could trade in them ourselves and get all the profits instead of starvation wages? Not likely.

VIVIE. You were certainly quite justified—from the business point of view.




  1. Where does Ibsen locate the blame for prostitution? Consider his critique of the institutions and frameworks that support it as an “industry”.

  2. Why does Vivie initially sympathise with her mother’s situation, but then reject her?

  3. How does the motif of “business” dominate the narrative? Consider its infiltration of sex, of education, and of marriage proposals.


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