Themes and Meanings
The biblical passage from which Shaw draws his title suggests the most important themes of the work: “Behold, I am against thee, saith the Lord of hosts, and I will burn her chariots in the smoke, and the sword shall devour thy young lions: and I will cut off thy prey from the earth, and the voice of thy messengers shall no more be heard.”
Shaw’s novel portrays a world, abandoned by Divine Providence, where war is nothing more than senseless destruction. Not only does the world, in the constant battle between light and dark, lack divine guidance, but it also lacks the guidance of wise statesmen. Shaw does not explicitly state these themes, but God and presidents are conspicuous by their absence. The novel remains so firmly focused on the loves, hates, hopes, and fears of the soldier’s microcosm that the characters live and die with no comfort from abstractions or slogans about Good overcoming Evil, about Democracy surpassing Fascism, about God and Truth proving to be on Our Side. For soldiers there is only the fact of combat, and their only hope—political or physical—is expressed in the wretched vision which Michael has: “The exiles, living in mud and fear of death, had, in one way at least, found a better home than those from which they had been driven, a blood-spattered Utopia, now on the fringe of German soil, where no man was rich and none poor, a shellburst democracy, where all living was a community enterprise.”
Many parts of the novel gruesomely depict death in battle and may be read as clear antiwar statements. Yet Shaw suggests that out of slaughter may come a fragment of knowledge that could save the world. Noah is shot as he is exclaiming, “The human beings are going to be running the world!” Though warfare is horrible, even the man sickened by slaughter can draw a distinction between those who must be fought because they reject Noah’s simple hope and those who fight in order to make that hope a reality. The novel possesses a tragic sense that even good men cannot reform the world without shedding blood.