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The Development of Barbara's Identity

(Drama for Students)

In his play Major Barbara, Shaw focuses on the development of identity in his lead character, Barbara Undershaft. Although Barbara has a strong sense of self at the beginning of the play, Shaw shows that her identity is not fixed and simple but fluid and complex Her identity is composed of many factors that, initially, seem at odds. She is the daughter of wealthy parents whose lifestyles she rejects. Instead she chooses to work for the Salvation Army, accepting the tiny sum of a pound a week as salary. While her allegiance at the play's outset lies almost wholly with the Army, Barbara will come to realize that her family may enable her to better perform the work of God. This realization will bring her closer to God, closer to her parents and family, and, ultimately, bring her to a true concept of her identity within the world in which the play is set.

From the beginning of the play, Barbara has, in essence, three parents1 Lady Britomart, Andrew Undershaft, and her heavenly Father, God, whom she serves through her work in the Salvation Army. Act One establishes the positions of these three parents in Barbara's life. As the play begins, the audience discovers that Barbara has been entirely brought up by her mother and does not even know her biological father. Although her mother has raised her, it soon becomes clear that Barbara has rejected Lady Britomart's way of life. Before Barbara even walks on stage, her mother expresses disappointment in the path Barbara has taken: "I thought Barbara was going to make the most brilliant career of all.... And what does she do? Joins the Salvation Army; discharges her maid; lives on a pound a week; and walks in one evening with a professor of Greek whom she has picked up in the street."

Barbara has clearly forsaken the opulence of her mother's life as well as Britomart's idea of an appropriate career for a respectable society woman. Yet, there is another way to see Barbara's relationship with her mother. As feminist critic J. Ellen Gainor remarked in her book Shaw's Daughters: Dramatic and Narrative Constructions of Gender, "The first half of the play .. stresses Barbara's maternal resemblance, which Shaw notes in several stage directions as well as in a wonderfully comic speech by her mother.'' The speech Gainor referred to is that in which Lady Britomart complains about Barbara's "propensity to have her own way and order people about" and adds, "I'm sure I don't know where she picks it up," when it is, in fact, obvious that Barbara's behavior resembles that of no one so much as Lady Britomart herself. In addition, while Barbara has rejected the luxury of her mother's lifestyle, she continues to live in her mother's house; her autonomy and austere lifestyle are supported by a safety net in the form of her mother's wealth In spite of her verbal declarations of independence, Barbara is reliant on her mother's way of life and still very much Lady Britomart's daughter.

Undershaft's initial relationship with Barbara is also established in the first act. Barbara's name is Undershaft, and she has been raised on her father's fortune (though her determination to live on "a pound a week" symbolically rejects that wealth). But in his introduction to the critical collection George Bernard Shaw's Major Barbara, Harold Bloom points out that in the course of their initial discussion, Barbara and Undershaft are "[bonded] against the mother, as each stands for. religion as the Life force.'' The two also agree on the motto "blood and fire"—although there is considerable difference in the meaning each takes from the phrase.

At the end of Act One, when Barbara and Undershaft each agree to visit the other's place of work, the bond between father and daughter is again emphasized. After years of absence from their lives, Undershaft arrives and, while not completely winning them over, immediately wins the attentions of his daughters. When Lady Britomart complains about a father who "steals [the children's] affection...

(The entire section is 4,236 words.)