Monday, March 12, 2012

Shaw, Man and Superman

[Posted by Ed]

In Man and Superman, gender is constructed in a rather unusual way; females are shown to be much more powerful then men, as they are the ones who coax men into marriage. Even Tanner, who declares that “the first duty of manhood and womanhood is a Declaration of Independence” (Shaw, 53). Then, in act three, Don Juan, who greatly resembles Tanner leaves the pleasures of hell so that he can be independent: “to be in heaven is to steer” (Shaw, 95). This same character despite his resistance to conventions and the Devil, then succumbs to the power of Ann. Do you think women are portrayed positively, or more ambivalently?


  1. Through the characterizations of the females in the play (Ann in particular) and through the men’s opinions on marriage, Shaw skews women in a negative light. Even though it seems as though Shaw gives women more respect by bestowing them with more power, the power they hold is misused to enforce their beliefs, not to give them an equal status in society. In Act III, Don Juan conveys his belief that marriage is only a “‘contrivance of its own to secure the greater number of children and the closest care of them. For honor, chastity, and all the rest of your moral figments it cares not a rap. Marriage is the most licentious of human institutions – ‘” (121). He continues, “‘… marriage is a mantrap baited with simulated accomplishments and delusive idealizations’” (121). His use of the words “licentious” and “mantrap” suggest that marriage is not an institution that cultivates happiness and love, but rather one that subjects individuals to pain and discontentment. Don Juan goes so far as to compare a married man to a prisoner and his wife to a felon. “‘Send me to the galleys and chain me to the felon whose number happens to be next before mind; and I must accept the inevitable and make the best of the companionship’” (122). Simply put, Don Juan views the institution of marriage as oppressive. When Ana argues with him, he complains that women “‘bend Man’s mind…,’” suggesting that women have a powerful influence over men (122). They force men to accept certain beliefs and values. Don Juan’s view of marriage portrays women negatively because they are seen as the oppressing forces that men are subject to bear.

    In Act IV, a lot of the decisions made by others are based around the idea that Ann would not be pleased if it were no so. For example, Tanner does not express any desire to marry Ann, but does so in the end. He says to Mrs. Whitefield, “‘It seems to me that I shall presently be married to Ann whether I like it myself or not’” (164). Even her own mother seems to be against Ann. When speaking of Octavius’ love for her daughter, Mrs. Whitefield states, ‘“…though what he sees in her so wonderful, goodness knows: I don’t’” (164). The fact that she cannot fathom why he would have such passionate love for her daughter suggests that Ann is not a person who can be loved. She has a quality that repels others. Mrs. Whitefield continues, “‘It’s no use telling Tavy that Ann puts things into people’s heads by telling them that I want them when the thought of them never crossed my mind’” (164). Here, she is portraying Ann as conniving. Ann will shift the blame on her mother so that she will not be perceived as the enforcer. Tanner’s comment, “‘No man is a match for a woman, except with a poker and a pair of hobnailed boots,’” really underlines the portrayal of women throughout this text (165). They are overbearing, dangerous, and more powerful than men. When men have to deal with women, they must prepare themselves. Tanner later calls Ann a liar, a coquette, and a bully. “’That makes her almost something for which I know no polite name’” (165). The fact that Tanner uses all of these negative words to describe Ann highlights the fact that women are portrayed negatively throughout this play.

  2. Shaw’s play exhibits the power and sway of women, specifically Ann. From the beginning we see the power she has over men by way of Octavius. Octavius is very much under her power and Tanner tries to convince him not to be deceived by her and her “vitality,” because "vitality in a woman is a blind fury of creation. She sacrifices herself to it: do you think she will hesitate to sacrifice you?" To me what Tanner says can be interpreted as the living, vital woman is perhaps spiteful of men and wants to punish them for their physical strength so they use their power of seduction. ‘Fury of creation’ is being spiteful of the way men and women were created, possibly unequally. The question is does Shaw believe this fury to be valid or does he reject and warn against it?
    It seems Bentley is accurate when describes her as a black widow spider, Ann lies and manipulates and does whatever she can to get what she wants. So then could Shaw be trying to portray powerful women, as not something glorified, but rather a danger he is warning men against. But then her power is very man-like, so I wonder is Shaw praising Ann for being like a man, or is it the way she is portrayed as a liar and manipulator that is supposed to show she is a threat to men and their masculinity?
    Tanner sort of seems to be this sort of force trying to fight against the threat to masculinity by revealing it and trying to expose Ann’s manipulative ways, but in the end he ends up marrying her. Perhaps this emphasizes how serious the threat of powerful women is against men’s masculinity and independence. Or maybe that is Shaw’s way of stating he is against such resistance to powerful women and men should succumb.

  3. Nicole D'AngeloMarch 20, 2012 at 10:29 AM

    The representation of women is ambivalent rather than positive or negative because Shaw’s main focus is not on gender but on social conventions. He uses marriage and gender relations to discuss these social conventions. The social convention of marriage is representative of all social conventions because it is a well-respected tradition in English society and seen as the backbone of the society. Furthermore, it can be considered one of the most powerful social conventions because it is one of the most binding ones. If someone is married, they are bound to their spouse until they die. The play presents two contrasting opinions about this social convention. First, there is Octavius, who deeply desires to be married to Ann. His foil is Tanner, who above all else desires independence. Throughout the play, Ann works to claim Tanner while casting Octavius aside. Yet Octavius is never fully cast away from the convention, because to the end of the play he desires it still. In his own way, he continues to play into the social convention by extolling its virtues. Tanner, who does not desire it, is trapped by it anyway. He says to Ann “The trap was laid from the beginning,” to which she replies, “From the beginning—from your childhood—for both of us—by the Life Force.” The “Life Force,” a term originally introduced by Tanner (and before that, by Don Juan in act three) refers here to the force that keeps man living in a conventional, predictable way throughout his life. It is utterly inescapable. In the play, Ann is portrayed as setting the “traps” for Tanner that force him to marry her. She plays the part of the Life Force, and all of womankind is portrayed as acting in a similar manner. Yet it is not necessarily the plotting or maliciousness of women that set these traps. It is the Life Force of social convention, trapping all within the limits of society and preventing them from truly becoming the superman.

  4. I agree that in Man and Superman, Shaw portrays gender in an unusual way. The women in the play are shown as figures of manipulation that use their words and actions to get what they want. This is shown through the female character of Ann who uses both her words and actions to get what she desires. She uses her words to try and convince Tanner that they fit well together and would make good companions. This can be seen in Act two of the play when Ann convinces Tanner to take her along on his trip even though he does not want her to go, “You are my guardian: and I think we ought to see more of one another and come to know one another better. It’s very thoughtful and kind of you, Jack to offer me this lovely holiday…You really are good – much better than you think” (Act 2, pg. 98). Even as he treats her rudely or coldly she takes his words and actions and interprets them in a more positive light, showing him that no matter what he says or does to her she will use her words to flip them into something more optimistic. When Ann isn’t using her verbal wit to win over Tanner she is trying to make him jealous through her interactions with Octavius. She treats Octavius almost like her pet, with her silly nickname of “Ricky Ticky Tavy” (Act 4, pg. 192) for him, the way she talks to him, “Tavy, my dear, you are a nice creature – a good boy” (Act 4, pg. 193), and the way she physically interacts with him, “pats his cheek with her finger” (Act 1, pg. 59). She leads him on with her over the top flirtatious gestures and phrases, doing her best to make Tanner jealous or upset.
    By the end of the play Ann is able to conquer over Tanner’s stubbornness and is able to coax him into marrying her, even though he himself does not want to, “I solemnly say that I am not a happy man. Ann looks happy; but she is only triumphant, successful, victorious” (Act 4, pg. 208). These final words spoken by Tanner sum up how women are portrayed in Shaw’s play, and how they are seen as the opponents of men’s successes and dreams, who are out to get what they want through whatever means necessary, where their goal is not for love or happiness but for a “victory” over the stubborn male race.

    1. I really like your response on this question because it was exactly how I felt about the play. The play is so conventional that it is hard to view women as portrayed negatively throughout the play because they are simply following the standards of society. Even if one was able to pin Ann as being manipulative and tricky, once she get's what she wants she goes right back to being a typical English woman, which we see when Jack tells her they are going to be married in an office with no guests, and no gifts and Violet interrupts appalled at his lack of care but Ann just tells him to keep talking. Ann is someone who would give anything for happiness and it is really up to the reader and furthermore the conventions of society that determine if that is a positive or negative attribute.

  5. I would suggest that Man and Superman portrays women in an ambivalent light rather than a positive or negative light because the play has a focus on human decision and social conventions rather than a portrayal of the contrasting ideals of men vs. women. Although, throughout the novel these contrasting ideas between men and women are well represented, especially when we hear Ann and Tanner talk to one another. I would suggest however that by Octavius existing as a counter to Tanner and Ramsden as the evolved Tanner, the binary of feminine thought vs. masculine thought becomes less prominent in the play, and rather a vessel to understanding the transformations of men and society.

  6. I think that Bernard Shaw's, Man and Superman, is a story of social conventions rather than a story of women. Although Ann seems to have a quizzical effect on the men around her, I believe that it is her ambivalent relationship with Tanner that demonstrates this novel to be a constant battle of the sexes. I believe it could be argued that women are portrayed in a number of different ways in this story. Ann is characterized as selfless, dainty and knowledgeable and yet Jack Tanner scorns her at every turn. Octavius is burdened by his affection for Ann and Jack has to warn him at all costs to forget about it, for it is Jack that has known her since childhood and has even fallen in love with her at one point. It appears as though Ann is viewed by two different perspectives: past and present. Jack resents Ann due to his conflicted history and Octavius is swoon by her charm in the present. Therefore, the role of women in this story is ambivalent and the audience is left with a conflicted sense of how to view one of the predominant characters in the play.

  7. I believe that women in the play are portrayed in a more ambivalent than positive light. On the one hand it seems that the women in the play are empowered through their abilities to conquer the wills of men in the social convention of marriage. Yet at the same time this very act disempowers women, because the main motivation for these marriages is to produce a Superman. Therefore while the women may be able to exert their wills, they are still defined by the men in their lives. Therefore the power of women in the play seems to be questionable to me since it is difficult to separate their will from male influences.

    Despite this, I don't believe that women are portrayed in an overwhelmingly positive or negative light throughout the play. Tanner regards Ann as trying to trap him and force him into marriage, which reminds me of Shakespeare's All's Well That Ends Well in which the charcter of Helen forces/tricks Bertram into marrying her. While in both plays the woman exerts power over the male character, she nevertheless seems also to allow herself to continue to be defined by a male (or the pursuit of a male).

  8. I agree that Shaw’s representation of women is complicated, especially if we focus entirely on the character of Ann Whitefield. Ann is clearly a strong character. Although she is provided with not one but two guardians, it quickly becomes clear that Ann is more than capable of taking care of herself. She knows what she desires, John Tanner, and slyly does what she needs to win him. She refuses to entertain Tanner’s philosophy, “I am afraid I am too feminine to see any sense in destruction,” but jumps when he begins talk of his moral passions (74-75). She puts Tanner in a position where he feels the he must marry her by giving that impression to everyone. She exerts a power and influence in the play, unrivaled by any of its other characters.

    But Ann is also cruel in her manipulation of others. Based off her conversations with Tanner we can see that she has been like that since childhood. Tanner admits that Ann “You lured me into a compact by which we were to have no secrets from one another…But what a devil of a child you must have been to know that weakness and to play on it for the satisfaction of your own curiosity” (70). She continues this manipulation throughout her life looking out only for herself. In the end, she refuses to admit to Octavius that she does not have feelings for him. Instead, she tells him it was her father’s plan for her to marry Tanner, making herself seem self-sacrificing. She is cruel in her treatment of those around her in order to get what she wants.