What Every Woman Knows Further Critical Evaluation of the Work - Essay

J. M. Barrie

Further Critical Evaluation of the Work

(Critical Survey of Literature, Revised Edition)

Early in James Barrie’s play WHAT EVERY WOMAN KNOWS, just after the “agreement” has been signed whereby John Shand will get _GCP_300 from the Wylie family for his education providing he is willing to marry their spinster sister Maggie in five years, the Scotsmen discuss their potential brother-and-son-in-law. They agree that he is canny, though no match for Maggie—a fact best kept from him at this time.

This idea forms the basis of the play and can be phrased as a dramatic question: can an intelligent, but plain woman manipulate her husband into both a successful political career and a satisfying marriage—without letting him know he is being so manipulated? Maggie Shand is convinced that her husband is by nature incapable of succeeding at anything on his own. She is also convinced that his over-serious pride and exaggerated sense of manhood cannot tolerate the idea that he needs help—least of all from his wife.

For most of the play Maggie’s machinations succeed beautifully and the primary irony of the play comes from the continuing contrast between John Shand’s vision of himself and the audience’s awareness of the real basis for his success. But Maggie knows that their marriage is, to John, essentially a business arrangement between two people who admire and respect each other, but who are not in love. Because she thinks herself “plain” and lacking “charm,” she fears that John, in spite of his passionless nature, will become infatuated with another woman and leave her, ruining both of them. When Lady Sybil Tenterden, a lovely, charming aristocrat, enters the picture, Maggie’s talents are put to their supreme test.

Although John Shand’s blindness and insensitivity toward Maggie show him unworthy of such devotion, he is, nevertheless, probably worth saving. John is a decent man with energy, drive, and intelligence; all he lacks is imagination and a sense of humor. The intensity of his ambition is proven by the lengths to which he will go for an education, but his methods are honest and he is never ruthless; he keeps his bargain with Maggie, even after she offers him freedom, although he does not love her and considers her a political liability. His career is at least partly motivated by a desire to serve the public, although the particulars of his political beliefs are unclear (except for his “liberal” views on the “Women Problem”). In his dealings with Maggie, John is always honest, never feigns unfelt affection, and feels extremely guilty...

(The entire section is 1030 words.)