Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 465

Arms and the Man is most obviously an attack on the false ideals of warfare and the soldier’s profession. Late nineteenth century British society, especially the aristocratic element, tended to see war as noble and soldiers as brave, courageous, fearing nothing—resolved to conquer or die. Many military melodramas of the period upheld these virtues, but they were performed for a civilian audience; soldiers themselves did not think this way, as Shaw has Bluntschli make clear. Not a pacifist, Shaw is not opposed to war when necessary, but he does demand that it be seen for what it is—war makes men tired and hungry, afraid and nervous. In the person of Bluntschli and in his comments about battle, Shaw establishes the opposition with Raina and Sergius, the arch romantics of the play. The satire of the play is aimed at the poetic view of war and the soldier and at the commonplace conjunction between the soldier, aristocracy, and love. These were the staples of the standard military melodrama of the period; here, Raina breaks the pattern in which only the brave deserve the fair and chooses for her mate the practical, professional, middle-class Bluntschli.

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The key elements of the play are really contained in Sergius and Raina, rather than in Bluntschli. Bluntschli really never changes in the course of the play; he is the standard against which the others are measured. Raina learns to disabuse herself of her impossible ideals, ideals which have no relation to real life, and thus becomes a fit partner for the cool and efficient Bluntschli. Sergius, however, never does come to see the lesson taught by Bluntschli and Shaw—that the problem is not with a man’s inability to live up to the ideals, but with a man’s initial acceptance of impossible ideals as reasonable and real. Thus Sergius believes that he, and life generally, is to be despised because as a flesh and blood man he finds himself unable to match the ideals. For Shaw, the problem is with the ideals, not with the man.

From this point of view, Arms and the Man is a classic statement of the anti-romantic view of life, and its commentary is not directed only at the military. For example, the play presents a version of a common Shavian theme: the professional versus the amateur. The difference is not simply a matter of training—it is fundamentally a matter of attitude. It is Sergius’ attitude, not his lack of expertise, which marks him as an amateur. Life is serious for Shaw and Bluntschli, and romantic idealism makes folly of life because of its unreality and its impossibility of attainment. As Shaw made clear throughout his career, he was hoping to change attitudes and not simply amuse by outrageous foolery.

Themes

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 970

Romanticism of War

In line after line, Shaw satirizes the romantic notions about war that glorify a grisly business. If not for the comic dialogue, the audience would more easily recognize that they are being presented with a soldier who has escaped from a horrific battle after three days of being under fire. He is exhausted, starving, and being pursued. Such is the experience of a real soldier. Late in the play, Shaw throws in a gruesome report on the death of the man who told Bluntschli’s secret about staying in Raina’s bedroom; there is nothing comic or heroic about being shot in the hip and then burned to death. When Raina expresses horror at such a death, Sergius adds, “And how ridiculous! Oh, war! War! The dream of patriots and heroes! A fraud, Bluntschli, a hollow sham.” This kind of description caused Shaw’s critics to accuse him of baseness, of trying to destroy the heroic concept. That a soldier would prefer food to cartridges in his belt was considered ludicrous by critics, but in the introduction to Plays: Pleasant and Unpleasant, Shaw was reported to have said that all he had to do was introduce any doubters to the first six real soldiers they came across, and his stage soldier would prove authentic.

It is also noteworthy that Catherine is dissatisfied with a peace treaty because, in her unrealistic vision of glorious war, there is supposed to be a crushing rout of the enemy followed by celebrations of a heroic victory. Shaw’s message here is that there can be peaceful alternatives to perpetual fighting. He was dedicated throughout his life to curbing violence, especially that of wars, and Arms and the Man was one of the vehicles he used to plead his case.

Romanticism of Love

Shaw was a master flirt and he enjoyed the playful farce of romantic intrigues. But he recognized that playing a game differed from serious love, and he tried to convey as much in Arms and the Man, which is subtitled “An Anti-Romantic Comedy.” In the play, Raina and Sergius have paired themselves for all the wrong reasons: because their social status requires a mate from the same social level; and because Sergius plays the role of the type of hero that Raina has been taught to admire, and Raina plays the role that Sergius expects from a woman of her station. The problem is that neither is portraying his/her real self, so their love is based on outward appearances, not on the true person beneath the facade. They are both acting out a romance according to their idealized standards for courtship rather than according to their innermost feelings. Just as the cheerleader is expected to fall for the star quarterback, Raina has fallen for her brave army officer who looks handsome in his uniform. When Bluntschli and Louka force Raina and Sergius to examine their true feelings, Raina and Sergius discover that they have the courage and desire to follow their hearts instead of seeking to meet social expectations.

Class Discrimination

As a socialist, Shaw believed in the equality of all people and he abhorred discrimination based on gender or social class. These beliefs are evident in the relationships portrayed in Arms and the Man. Shaw allows a maid to succeed in her ambitions to better herself by marrying Sergius, an officer and a gentleman. This match also means that Sergius has developed the courage to free himself from the expectations of his class and instead marry the woman he loves. The silliness of Catherine’s character is used to show the illogical nature of class snobbery, as she clearly makes divisions between her family and the servants, even though, or perhaps because, the Petkoffs themselves have only recently climbed the social ladder. The play also attacks divisions of rank, as Captain Bluntschli has leadership abilities that the superior-ranking officers, Majors Petkoff and Saranoff, do not have, illustrating the fact that ability has little to do with rank. Ability also has little to do with class, as exemplified by the character of Nicola, who is declared the ablest, and certainly the wiliest, character in the play.

Idealism versus Realism

Arms and the Man illustrates the conflict between idealism and realism. The romantic ideal of war as a glorious opportunity for a man to display courage and honor is dispelled when Sergius admits that his heroic cavalry charge that won the battle was the wrong thing to do. His notable action does not get him his promotion and Sergius learns that “Soldiering, my dear madam, is the coward’s art of attacking mercilessly when you are strong, and keeping out of harm’s way when you are weak.”

Sergius and Raina must face the fact that their ideals about love are false. Fortunately, both of them are actually released by this knowledge to pursue their true loves. But first, Sergius goes through a period of despair in which he questions whether life is futile if the ideals by which he has set his standards of conduct fail to hold up when exposed to reality. This question is an underlying current throughout the play. Shaw gives a happy resolution, but it is a serious question that most people must face in life.

Much is made of Bluntschli’s realism—i.e., keeping chocolates instead of ammunition in his cartridge belt, showing contempt for sentimentality, and reacting in a practical manner to his father’s death. However, Nicola is the consummate realist in the play. Nicola’s message is: adapt, exploit, survive. Bluntschli proves to have a romantic side, after all, and thus is the most balanced character in the play in that he seems to know when to temper his romanticism with realism and when to stick to his ideals.

 

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