Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1223
Parent and Child
In the opening act of Major Barbara, Barbara meets her father, whom she cannot remember ever knowing. Although she has been raised solely by her mother, the two do not seem close, and Lady Britomart is clearly unhappy with—even uncomprehending of—Barbara's interest in the Salvation Army. Barbara is not close to either her mother or her father, but in the Army she has found a sort of surrogate parent, a fact that is emphasized when Barbara later says that there are no orphans in the Army.
When Undershaft enters, however, the importance of the relationship between Barbara and her father becomes immediately apparent. Barbara sees him as a soul in need of salvation; he wishes to convert her to his view of life. While showing the importance of Barbara's relationship with her father, Shaw also establishes some tension between Lady Britomart and Undershaft as parents when, as Undershaft leaves the room with the children at the end of Act I, Lady Britomart expresses dismay over the possibility of the children changing their loyalty from the mother who raised them to the father who initially cannot remember their names or even exactly how many children he has.
As the play progresses, Barbara becomes disillusioned with her surrogate parent, the Salvation Army, because of its acceptance of her father's tainted money. At first she believes she has lost everything important to her, but after touring the Undershaft factories and town, she begins to see her father's point of view and to become closer to him. Because Cusins has been chosen as Undershaft's successor, Barbara has, in essence, become her father's heir. Her drawing closer to her father is concurrent with a newfound dependence on her mother. As the play closes, Barbara is seen calling out for her mother and clinging to her skirts like a child. Asking her mother to help her choose a home in her father's city, Barbara has finally become closer to both of her parents, though she also retains her own sense of self.
God and Religion
Through Barbara's involvement with the Salvation Army, Shaw offers an examination of Christianity in general and the Salvation Army in particular. Barbara's initial focus is on doing the work of God. Act II gives the audience a chance to look at the practical implications of this work, as seen through the eyes of its targeted beneficiaries. Through the conversation of Rummy Mitchens and Snobby Price, Shaw reveals that, while grateful for the material assistance the Army gives them, Mitchens and Price essentially earn this assistance by lying. Both talk about the Salvation Army meetings in which they are expected to "testify" about their conversions. Price prides himself on convincing the Army of his former evil. "I know wot they like,'' he says. "I'll tell 'em how I blasphemed and gambled and wopped my old mother.'" Mitchens bemoans the unfairness to women: their confessions cannot be loudly proclaimed but '"az to be whispered to one lady at a time."
The audience discovers the Army's manipulation as well in Barbara's treatment of Bill Walker. In order to try to save his soul, Barbara works incessantly on Walker's feelings of guilt about striking Mitchens and Jenny Hill. In addition. Barbara believes the Army to be hypocritical when it takes money from Bodger Whiskey and her father's munitions business, both of whom seem to embody the very evil the Salvation Army wants to eliminate. In the end, it is Undershaft's religion that feeds. houses, and clothes people.
Yet Shaw is not simply maligning the Army or Christianity. There is sincerity in Jenny Hill "turning the other cheek.'1 And Barbara's intentions, though possibly misguided, are pure. In the end, though Barbara has abandoned the Army, she still speaks of saving souls but now without the Army's bribes of bread and heaven. She sees her new mission as "the raising of hell to heaven and of man to God. through the unveiling of an eternal light in the Valley of the Shadow." Though Shaw reveals problems in the Army's techniques, the play does not dismiss the search for God.
Good vs. Evil
Shaw throws the traditional concept of good and evil into question throughout Major Barbara. In the beginning of the play, it seems fairly obvious that Barbara, who lives on little money so she can work feeding and sheltering the poor as well as trying to save their souls, is doing good. At the same time, Undershaft, who has become a rich man selling armaments to combatants regardless of the morality of their causes, and who believes poverty to be the only sin, is evil. Barbara's Salvation Army seems to be doing only good while Undershaft's factories, which initially horrify most of the play's major characters, are inherently evil. Yet in the second act, good and evil become interconnected as it is revealed that the Salvation Army is glad to accept funding from Undershaft's armaments as well as Bodger's Whiskey. Barbara, who sees good and evil as entirely separate entities, is horrified to discover that the Army takes this tainted money, so horrified, in fact, that she abandons the Army altogether. The sense of interconnection between good and evil is continued in the third act. where the audience discovers the results of Undershaft’s evil— clean, well-kept homes for Undershaft's employees.. Through his armaments. Undershaft has saved his. workers from the evil of poverty; he has succeeded where the Army has failed. Through the success of her father's morally questionable business, Barbara is finally able to see the moral complexity of the concepts of good and evil.
Growth and Development
Barbara begins the play as an innocent who believes she has discovered the one right path in the Salvation Army. Moral issues are simple for her. The Army's mission of materially assisting the poor as well as working to save their souls is the work of God. Undershaft’s munitions and Bodger's Whiskey are the work of the Devil. As the play progresses, however. Barbara discovers that the Salvation Army, dependent on the funding of Undershaft, Lord Saxmundham, and others like them, is not as morally pure as she believed. Unable to accept the fact that the work of God is being done with the Devil's money, she abandons her idealism as well as the Army itself. Barbara says, "I stood on the rock I thought eternal; and without a word of warning it reeled and crumbled under me." Undershaft identifies her confusion as growth, saying to her, "You have learnt something. That always feels at first as if you had lost something."
Losing her faith m the Army, Barbara finally comes to see that eliminating poverty is in itself a good deed and that, because of the material success of Undershaft's workers, she can no longer bribe them with bread or heaven; she is free to work, unencumbered, on saving their souls Despite this sense of Barbara reaching a sort of maturity at the end of the play, Shaw presents Barbara's growth as a paradox. The audience's final view of Barbara is of her calling for her mother, seeking her guidance. Thus Shaw complicates the concept of growth and development, leaving the audience with the sense that Barbara has matured and yet is still, in some ways, a child.