To appreciate the significance of the comparison made in George Bernard Shaw’s antiwar play Arms and the Man of Major Sergius Saranoff to Miguel de Cervantes’ antihero from his classic of literature, Don Quixote, it helps to appreciate the personality of the Irish playwright. The protagonist of Cervantes’ work, of course, is the titular character, a deeply-troubled man whose pronounced tendencies towards chivalry invariably run up against the realities of a violent, cynical world. Don Quixote is delusional, and attempts repeatedly to attack, or tilt, at windmills, imagining them as fearsome giants against which he will prove his worth as a man. The phrase “tilting at windmills,” in fact, derives from this character’s unusual practice, and the word “quixotic,” which became a part of the English-language lexicon, similarly refers to the act of bravery against imaginary or, conversely, too-powerful adversaries.
That understood, what is the association of Cervantes’ work with Shaw’s play? Major Saranoff, Sergius, is off at war as Arms and the Man begins. He is not only a soldier, but an idolized figure in the Bulgarian army. Early in Shaw’s play, two of the main characters, Raina and her mother Catherine, are discussing the major’s military exploits during the ongoing war between Bulgaria and Serbia. Raina, in love with Sergius, ruminates on his bravery to the point of sheer idolatry:
RAINA. Our ideas of what Sergius would do—our patriotism—our heroic ideals. . .When I buckled on Sergius's sword he looked so noble: it was treason to think of disillusion or humiliation or failure.
Raina’s exuberant praise of her boyfriend and intended husband continues when the stranger, Captain Bluntschli, appears in the family’s home. This interloper is no mere deserter; he is a thoughtful cynic whose experiences in war have jaded him and left him a spokesman for Shaw’s antiwar point of view. Note, in the following exchange, how Raina reacts to this stranger’s description of the folly of leading the charge in battle:
MAN. . . .Well, it's a funny sight. It's like slinging a handful of peas against a window pane: first one comes; then two or three close behind him; and then all the rest in a lump.
RAINA Yes, first One!—the bravest of the brave!
MAN (prosaically). Hm! you should see the poor devil pulling at his horse.
RAINA. Why should he pull at his horse?
MAN (impatient of so stupid a question). It's running away with him, of course: do you suppose the fellow wants to get there before the others and be killed? . . .
RAINA. Ugh! But I don't believe the first man is a coward. I believe he is a hero!
MAN (goodhumoredly). That's what you'd have said if you'd seen the first man in the charge to-day.
RAINA (breathless). Ah, I knew it! Tell me—tell me about him.
MAN. He did it like an operatic tenor—a regular handsome fellow, with flashing eyes and lovely moustache, shouting a war-cry and charging like Don Quixote at the windmills. We nearly burst with laughter at him; but when the sergeant ran up as white as a sheet, and told us they'd sent us the wrong cartridges, and that we couldn't fire a shot for the next ten minutes . . . Of course, they just cut us to bits. And there was Don Quixote flourishing like a drum major, thinking he'd done the cleverest thing ever known, whereas he ought to be courtmartialled for it. Of all the fools ever let loose on a field of battle, that man must be the very maddest. He and his regiment simply committed suicide—only the pistol missed fire, that's all.
The “brave” soldier to whom Bluntschli is referring, of course, is Major Saranoff. Bluntschli is comparing Sergius to Don Quixote, ascribing to this Bulgarian war hero the same absurdity with which one views Cervantes’ “hero.” Bluntschli, representing Shaw’s perspective, is subsumed with the folly of war. He has seen men die under ridiculous circumstances, and he has questioned the reasons for which he and other young men are sent to fight and die. The charge led by Sergius is militarily successful; it is highly questionable, the playwright suggests, as to whether the objective of the charge was worth the effort. Just as Don Quixote’s delusional attempts at chivalry and courage are all for not, so, Shaw would argue, was the efforts of Sergius.