Shaw’s An Unsocial Socialist is a mixed bag of a book to say the least. It begins in an upper class boarding school for girls where we are introduced to the students. However the focus quickly shifts to a labourer Jeff Smilash who is in fact Sidney Trefusis a wealthy gentleman who has disguised himself in order to pursue his socialist ideals.
The book is an extremely contradictory one and befittingly this is either to it’s credit or deficit depending on which way you look at it.
Trefusis’ contradictions are the most obvious.. He has disguised himself as a labourer in order to better relate to the working class and further the cause of socialism. However while in disguise he spends most of his time either with the upper class people who are associated with the college or locked in his cabin writing pamphlets, neither of which requires this disguise.
Even when he does try to interact with the working class he seems to still do so as an upper class gentleman, trying to cajole them into his ideology without seeming to believe they could really understand ideas behind it.
Trefusis’ psychology is also contradictory. He jumps between claims that he has no true feelings and what seem like sincere and passionate moments of emotion. Indeed in the beginning he leaves his wife both because he cannot love her and because he loves her too much. He seems to hold these ideas simultaneously.
The plot in general is also a contradictory one. In the beginning it seems very much like a typical Victorian novel set in a boarding school and following the lives of a number of witty upper class girls. However with the shift to Trefusis’ as the main character the book becomes an argument for socialism made through Trefusis’ mouth with the original Victorian novel themes receding into the background.. But nothing comes of Trefusis’ speeches and he is slowly reabsorbed into the traditional Victorian novel with its dramas of marriage and property. As result neither strand of the novel reaches a satisfactory conclusion.
Whether or not these contradictions and how they play out are a weakness or strength of the book comes down to whether Shaw was aware of them and I believe he was. Even the title of the book sets us up for unresolvable internal contradiction. The book is also so starkly dichotomised the whole way through, with the main character having a personality for each side, that it was almost certainly intentional.
So what is Shaw trying to do here? We must remember that Shaw’s position in life was much the same as Trefusis, a wealthy gentleman who is an ardent socialist but has not abandoned the class from which he originated. Thus the character of Trefusis is used to show us the contradictions and problems within class treachery of a certain sort and can almost be seen as Shaw’s critique of himself. All in all while not Shaw’s best work An Unsocial Socialist is funny and raises some interesting questions .