Study Guide

Major Barbara

by George Bernard Shaw

Major Barbara Themes

Themes

Parent and Child
In the opening act of Major Barbara, Barbara meets her father, whom she cannot remember ever knowing. Although she has been raised solely by her mother, the two do not seem close, and Lady Britomart is clearly unhappy with—even uncomprehending of—Barbara's interest in the Salvation Army. Barbara is not close to either her mother or her father, but in the Army she has found a sort of surrogate parent, a fact that is emphasized when Barbara later says that there are no orphans in the Army.

When Undershaft enters, however, the importance of the relationship between Barbara and her father becomes immediately apparent. Barbara sees him as a soul in need of salvation; he wishes to convert her to his view of life. While showing the importance of Barbara's relationship with her father, Shaw also establishes some tension between Lady Britomart and Undershaft as parents when, as Undershaft leaves the room with the children at the end of Act I, Lady Britomart expresses dismay over the possibility of the children changing their loyalty from the mother who raised them to the father who initially cannot remember their names or even exactly how many children he has.

As the play progresses, Barbara becomes disillusioned with her surrogate parent, the Salvation Army, because of its acceptance of her father's tainted money. At first she believes she has lost everything important to her, but after touring the Undershaft factories and town, she begins to see her father's point of view and to become closer to him. Because Cusins has been chosen as Undershaft's successor, Barbara has, in essence, become her father's heir. Her drawing closer to her father is concurrent with a newfound dependence on her mother. As the play closes, Barbara is seen calling out for her mother and clinging to her skirts like a child. Asking her mother to help her choose a home in her father's city, Barbara has finally become closer to both of her parents, though she also retains her own sense of self.

God and Religion
Through Barbara's involvement with the Salvation Army, Shaw offers an examination of Christianity in general and the Salvation Army in particular. Barbara's initial focus is on doing the work of God. Act II gives the audience a chance to look at the practical implications of this work, as seen through the eyes of its targeted beneficiaries. Through the conversation of Rummy Mitchens and Snobby Price, Shaw reveals that, while grateful for the material assistance the Army gives them, Mitchens and Price essentially earn this assistance by lying. Both talk about the Salvation Army meetings in which they are expected to "testify" about their conversions. Price prides himself on convincing the Army of his former evil. "I know wot they like,'' he says. "I'll tell 'em how I blasphemed and gambled and wopped my old mother.'" Mitchens bemoans the unfairness to women: their confessions cannot be loudly proclaimed but '"az to be whispered to one lady...

(The entire section is 1223 words.)