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Last Updated on January 16, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 861

Candida is a romantic comedy by the famous Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw that was published in 1898 as a part of his collection Plays Pleasant. It is set in Victorian London and consists of three acts which take place at intervals throughout a single day. The first act takes place in the morning, the second in the afternoon, and the third in the evening. In the play, two men compete for affections of the charming and motherly Candida: her husband, the Christian socialist Reverend James Morell, and eighteen-year-old poet Eugene Marchbanks. At the end, the men insist that Candida decide whether she will stay with her husband or accept the advances of Marchbanks, who believes that she deserves much more than Morell can give her. 

In his discussion with Proserpine (Morell’s secretary), Lexy (Morell’s curate) remarks that if women truly knew men’s strength, “there would be no Woman Question.” Lexy and Morell clearly believe that men merit their place at the head of the household because of their inherent strength. However, Morell’s relationship with Candida demonstrates the opposite. According to Candida in act 3, Morell has been spoiled with a loving, supportive family and a successful career. As a result, he has become “weak,” and Candida must provide for him, defending him against critics and taking care of “little vulgar cares” so that he can concentrate on his job. Candida’s provision for Morell and his dependence on her is, for the most part, subtle. But this is because Candida allows Morell to believe he is independent. In act 3, for example, Candida threatens to throw Marchbanks out of the house, but Morell protests that he is “able to take care of [himself].” To this, Candida responds, 

Yes, dear: of course you are. But you mustn’t be annoyed and made miserable. 

In the final act, Morell demonstrates his blindness to his own weakness and dependence on his wife by claiming that he provides protection for her. Additionally, Morell fears that if Candida leaves him for Marchbanks, she will have no one left to protect her. Marchbanks, on the contrary, realizes the truth, at least partially, before Candida reveals it to the two men: Candida desires “some grown up man who has become as a little child again.” It is significant, in light of this quote, that Candida repeatedly calls Morell “my boy” in the course of the play. 

Marchbanks’s claim that Candida desires a man she can protect is validated when she ultimately chooses Morell because he is “the weaker of the two.” There is great irony in the fact that Marchbanks, for all his nervousness, is not the “weak man” she desires. Candida explains to the men her reasons for choosing Morell while they all sit around the fireplace in Morell’s study. Morell’s position sitting in a child’s chair near Candida symbolizes his childlike dependence on her.

The contrasting “bids” of Morell and Marchbanks can be viewed as two opposing models of marriage. Morell offers Candida his “strength,” “honesty of purpose,” “ability and industry,” and “authority and position,” remarking at the end that this “is all it becomes a man to offer a woman.” Morell views himself, the husband, as the head of the family and an authoritative figure for his wife. Marchbanks, on the other hand, offers his “weakness,” “desolation,” and “heart’s need.” While it is not quite clear what Marchbanks’s views on marriage are, he readily admits his weakness and offers her the opportunity to care for him. In the end, Candida chooses neither the traditional role as submissive wife nor the unconventional role as a...

(This entire section contains 861 words.)

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provider. Instead, she reveals that she is already in a relationship where her husband depends on her. Her choice to remain with Morell humbles him, and he finally exclaims, “What I am you have made me with the labor of your hands and the love of your heart!”

While the progressive ideas expressed in Candida may seem somewhat inconsequential when viewed through a modern, feminist lens, Candida’s relationship with her husband would likely have been considered radical, if not scandalous, when this play was written at the end of the Victorian era. Only a few decades earlier, progressive writer John Stuart Mill wrote in The Subjection of Women that the relationship between husband and wife often resembled that of master and slave. Before the social reforms of the late-nineteenth and twentieth centuries for women’s rights, wives lost all of their rights to property upon marriage and required their husbands’ permission for virtually any action. Likewise, the husband held the position of authority in the household and was expected to be the provider for the family. Based on his attitude regarding the “Woman Question” and his initial eagerness to not appear dependent on his wife, it appears that Morell is operating under this traditional view of marriage. Shaw’s revelation of Candida’s provision for Morell at the end of the play, however, suggests that perhaps husbands’ success as providers and heads of their households depends less on their own abilities and far more on their wives’ support.