What is the central theme of the play Arms and the Man?

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George Bernard Shaw was a self-effacing man, never concerned with how his comments and outspokenness would affect him. His main aim was always to share his message, and, in doing so, he would point out the shortcomings of any system of governance or unrealistic and over-romanticized views of life, love, and war, among others. In Arms and the Man, Shaw explores various ideas, and his views become apparent in his handling of the main issues.

In terms of theme, the central or main theme in any work is often universal in nature. It is particularly significant in Arms and the Man because Shaw's main theme of realism versus idealism is as relevant today as it was when the play was first performed in the 1890s. War, even if it appears necessary, is often over-idealized, divisive, and destructive, and yet there is still a romantic vision of a soldier returning from war as a hero, having removed a threat and saved a nation. However, even Sergius, the apparent hero of the day, recognizes the questionable nobility of war and its apparent contradiction when he says, “That is the whole secret of successful fighting. Get your enemy at a disadvantage; and never, on any account, fight him on equal terms.”

The paradox continues when Bluntschli, the man who would have been mercilessly killed had Raina not saved him, turns out to be a man whom Sergius and Paul hold in high esteem after the war; they even ask for his help. Shaw expertly reveals the predisposition of human nature, exposing its tendency toward frivolousness and inconsistency and not necessarily towards war, as some experts believe.

Upon hearing of his father’s death, Bluntschli makes plans to attend to his father’s affairs. His apparent matter-of-fact acceptance of his father’s death challenges the audience’s first impression of him. At first, when Bluntschli meets Raina, he is not a murderous, cruel enemy; he reveals a surprisingly soft side, with Raina even naming him her “chocolate-cream soldier.” Later, Raina makes a noteworthy observation, reinforcing the theme, when she says, “Grief!—a man who has been doing nothing but killing people for years! What does he care? What does any soldier care?” Shaw is defiant in his proposal that all is not what it seems. The concept of appearance versus reality fully supports the main theme of realism versus idealism.

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George Bernard Shaw was himself a pacifist and Arms and the Man is one of several anti-war plays he wrote over his long career. The main literary device Shaw uses to evoke this theme and support his anti-war position is satire, ridiculing the ways people are misled into supporting wars.

The particular target of this satire is the Romantic artistic portrayal of war as magnificent and heroic. A secondary theme is equally romantic and unrealistic understandings of love. Shaw contrasts the ideals of love and war found in Romantic poetry and opera with their actual realities. The traditionally heroic Sergius is not only contrasted with the pragmatic Swiss mercenary but eventually shown to have his own doubts about the relationship of his image to his own inner feelings.

In the matter of love, the traditionally good match of the heroic soldier and the charming young lady luckily doesn't happen, for as Shaw shows us, it would have been a mismatch. Instead, true love develops as men reveal their weaknesses and search for true compatibility and women (Raina and Louka) are placed in roles where they can show strength and intelligence, characteristics far better as grounds for relationships than the Romantic ideal of the heroine who is constantly in need of rescue.

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