Originally, Brecht planned to call the play The Product Love (Die Ware Liebe), meaning "love as a commodity". This title was a play on words, since the German term for "true love" (Die wahre Liebe) is pronounced the same way.
The play follows a young prostitute, Shen Te, as she struggles to lead a life that is "good" according to the terms of the morality taught by the gods and to which her fellow citizens of Szechwan (Sichuan) pay no regard, without allowing herself to be abused and trod upon by those who would accept and, more often than not, abuse her goodness. Her neighbors and friends prove so brutal in their filling of their bellies that Shen Te is forced to invent an alter ego to protect herself: a male cousin named Shui Ta, who becomes a cold and stern protector of Shen Te's interests. The theme of qualitative "goodness" (which seemed so simple and obvious in the title of the play) is rendered unstable by application to both genders, as Shen Te realizes she must operate under the guise of both in order to live a good life.
Brecht's interest in historical materialism is evident in the play's definition of contemporary morality and altruism in social and economic terms. Shen Te's altruism conflicts with Shui Ta's capitalist ethos of exploitation. The play implies that economic systems determine a society's morality.