What significant character traits does Satan (in Mark Twain's The Mysterious Stranger) and Major Barbara (in George Bernard Shaw's Major Barbara) have in common, and what significant traits they do they not have in common?
A more appropriate parallel than Satan in Mark Twain’s The Mysterious Stranger and Barbara Undershaft in George Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbara would be Satan and Andrew Undershaft, patriarch of the clan and owner of the armaments factory that sustains the town in which the play is set. The irony of Shaw’s play lies in the enormous financial good Undershaft can do for the town’s poor relative to that of his daughter, Barbara, who works at the local Salvation Army shelter, where she carries the rank of major. Early in Major Barbara, Lady Britomart is lecturing her son, Stephen, regarding the ambivalent moral state in which her son’s father exists:
“You know, Stephen, it’s perfectly scandalous. Those two men, Andrew Undershaft and Lazarus (note the Biblical reference, as well as the use of the name “Barbara” for the main protagonist, Saint Barbara being the patron saint of artillerymen, alongside Andrew Undershaft’s profession), positively have Europe under their thumbs. That is why your father is able to behave as he does. He is above the law.”
Compare the cynicism of Shaw’s work with that of the equally cynical Twain:
“Eseldorf was a paradise for us boys. We were not overmuch pestered with schooling. Mainly we were trained to be good Christians; to revere the Virgin, the Church, and the saints above everything. Beyond these matters we were not required to know much; and, in fact, not allowed to. Knowledge was not good for the common people, and could make them discontented with the lot which God had appointed for them, and God would not endure discontentment with His plans. We had two priests. One of them, Father Adolf, was a very zealous and strenuous priest, much considered.”
In The Mysterious Stranger, it is Satan himself who wanders into the morally abstract setting. That it is Satan who steps in (literally, in the case of the lawyer Wilhelm Miedling’s body) and successfully resolves the court case involving gold coins, Wilhelm being of suspect competency (“Wilhelm Meidling would be Father Peter's lawyer and do the best he could, of course, but he told us privately that a weak case on his side and all the power and prejudice on the other made the outlook bad.”). As with Andrew Undershaft, who stands in for Satan in Shaw’s play, Mephistopheles himself is a major character in Twain’s story. The parallels between the two characters – Undershaft and Satan – are so pronounced that the comparison is relatively simple. A comparison between Satan and Barbara, however, is more difficult, as the two represent opposite ends of the “good versus evil” spectrum. In Twain’s story, the devil makes no attempt to hide his efforts at corrupting humanity; in Shaw’s story, the integrity and enduring innocence of Major Barbara, who wants desperately to save souls and feed the hungry, cannot hold a candle to Andrew’s ability to help the very poor his daughter has dedicated her life to helping. At one point in Major Barbara, Undershaft rhetorically asks Adolphus Cusins:
“Have you ever been in love with Poverty, like St. Francis? Have you ever been in love with Dirt, like St. Simeon? Have you ever been in love with Disease and Suffering, like our nurses and philanthropists? Such passions are not virtues, but the most unnatural of all the vices.”
Now, this is a play. The text is drawn from Shaw’s script for Major Barbara, and is obviously intended to be spoken orally. Yet, the playwright has capitalized “poverty,” “dirt,” “disease,” and “suffering.” He is emphasizing Undershaft’s and, perhaps, his own, deeply held cynicism regarding the saints and role of morality in addressing the human condition, just as Twain has with the comically cordial demeanor of Satan. There is no real comparison between Satan and Barbara; the contrasts, however, are enormous. It has been noted that Twain's fictional town, Eseldorf, translates as "Assville." Both authors held a rather contemptuous view of mankind, but were entertaining nonetheless.