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Last Updated on January 16, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 588

The Hollowness of Male Superiority

Victorian society associated men with authority, strength, and knowledge and women with submission, weakness, and emotion. Husbands were seen as rightful heads of the household, and it was believed that their supposed inherent strength made them the ideal provider for the family. In Candida ,...

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The Hollowness of Male Superiority

Victorian society associated men with authority, strength, and knowledge and women with submission, weakness, and emotion. Husbands were seen as rightful heads of the household, and it was believed that their supposed inherent strength made them the ideal provider for the family. In Candida, Proserpine disagrees with this traditional view and argues with Lexy about it. When she sarcastically expresses her disgust for the idea that women possess “mere emotion,” Lexy responds, quoting Morell, that if women “only had the same clue to Man’s strength as [they] have to his weakness… there would be no Woman Question.” The “Woman Question” that Lexy evokes is a term that was used to describe the social reforms of the late nineteenth century in which women’s traditional roles and rights were reconsidered and debated. Lexy and Morell believe that if women knew the strength that men possess, they would gladly submit to their leadership and not strive to change their roles in marriage or society. 

However, Morell himself serves as a contrast to this supposed “strength” of men: he is described by Shaw in the introduction to act 1 as a “great baby.” Candida explains that Morell has been “spoiled” by his family and successful career, and as a result, she has had to “be [his] mother and three sisters and wife and mother to his children all in one” in order to provide for him in his weakness. Morell and Candida’s marriage contradicts Morell’s belief in men’s inherent strength, because his authority depends entirely on Candida’s support. Candida’s provision for Morell thus suggests that men’s inherent strength and superiority are superficial.

The Strength of Subtle Provision

As a husband and father in Victorian society, Morell naturally views himself as the sole provider for his family. While it is true that Morell’s job provides the family with their source of income, it becomes apparent throughout the course of the play that Candida is the true provider for the family—especially for Morell himself. 

At the end of the play, Candida reveals that she has been behind all of Morell’s success. Until she informs Morell and Marchbanks of this fact, her power has been invisible: she has made Morell who he is, but he “does not know it, and could not tell you a moment ago how it came to be so.” Candida gives a variety of examples of how she has contributed to Morell’s success and made him who he is. When “tradesmen” criticize or attempt to influence Morell’s sermons, it is Candida who “puts them off,” so Morell’s reputation and confidence are, at least in part, upheld through Candida’s efforts. In order to allow him to devote himself wholeheartedly to his ministry, Candida “stand[s] sentinel… to keep little vulgar cares out.” In these ways, Candida has allowed Morell to believe that he is in charge of the family and is the sole provider for his wife and children.

While Lexy, quoting Morell in act 1, expresses his belief that men merit their position at the head of the household due to their inherent strength, Candida asserts that in her marriage with Morell, she has “[made] him master.” Her provision has enabled his success yet has remained subtle enough that Morell himself is ignorant of his own weakness. As such, Candida suggests that success does not necessarily hinge on the leadership of strong authority figures; often, quiet support and provision are more valuable.

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Characters