Arms and the Man | Study Guide

George Bernard Shaw

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Arms and the Man | Themes

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To some degree, the themes in Arms and the Man dovetail. Shaw writes a love story set during a war, begun during a battle, involving characters of different classes who realize they belong together. By so doing, he makes three points:

Soldiers lie about their gallantry in war. People lie (to others and to themselves) about love, pretending to be something they aren't. To judge people by their social class is pointless.

Heroism in Battle

The play begins with Catherine telling Raina of Sergius's heroism in battle. Raina is pleased and also a little relieved to hear of it, indicating she doesn't really know much about Sergius. Still, she accepts Catherine's statements at face value and assumes he was brave. Thus, when the man (Bluntschli) later tells her that all soldiers feel fear in battle, Raina says that some soldiers do, meaning that Sergius doesn't. He assures her quite confidently they do: "All of them, dear lady, all of them, believe me." In writing this, Shaw did not consider this to be an insult to soldiers or an admission of weakness. Rather, he considered fear to be a normal human emotion and an appropriate response to being in battle.

Shaw, a pacifist (a person who is opposed to war), knew that soldiers were hungry, cold, unwashed, and worn down from days of battle. He indicates this in Bluntschli's statement that he hasn't closed his eyes in 48 hours. Shaw knew that sometimes soldiers want to give up. This is not necessarily a betrayal of their cause. They are just desperate for the relief of uninterrupted sleep.

Bluntschli refers to Sergius's heroic charge as not being heroic at all. Rather, he saw him as being laughable, like Dox Quixote or an operatic tenor, simply pretending to be brave. Later, in Act 2, Sergius calls soldiering "the coward's art of attacking mercilessly when you are strong, and keeping out of harm's way when you are weak." This statement may arise from Sergius's feelings of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a psychological condition that occurs when someone suffers extreme stress. A near-death experience such as the cavalry charge might well cause PTSD. However, Sergius is unwilling to admit to such symptoms. Indeed, he later says honestly to Louka that he discovered in the charge that he was really brave. Nevertheless, he does not want to stay in the military.

Near the end of the play, Sergius states that war, "the dream of patriots and heroes" is "a fraud ... a hollow sham." He means that he realizes war is not simply a matter of the strongest army representing the noblest cause and winning. He sees now that bravery and heroism have little to do with it.

Lovers Lying about Love

Just as Shaw portrays soldiers lying about their heroism in war, he portrays the young lovers lying about love. They lie both to themselves and to each other. Raina tells herself that she loves Sergius, she adores him, she admires him. However, she barely knows him and hasn't had a real conversation with him. When her mother tells her he was heroic in battle, she is pleased but also relieved. She's never discussed the upcoming battle with him. She's never discussed what it entails, what risk it will pose to him, or whether he is scared. Rather, she is like a knight's lady, giving her hero a ribbon and happily waving as he goes off to get run through with a sword.

When Sergius and Raina reunite after the war, he drops to one knee and kisses her hand. Sergius has just announced he is quitting the army—something that troubles him but which he says anyone who knew him would understand. However, he doesn't discuss this with Raina. Rather, they call one another "my queen" and "my king," and Raina talks about being unworthy of him. Raina says she thinks they have found a "higher love."

When Raina leaves the room, Sergius repeats this phrase to Louka, saying he finds "higher love" tiring. But he is not blaming Raina. Rather, he blames himself for not being able to live up to her impossible expectations of him. In fact, they both have impossible expectations of themselves and of each other. Raina believes she can never lie to Sergius but also that to be worthy of him, she must be perfect in thought, word, and deed. Barring that, she must never allow him to realize she is imperfect.

She cannot live up to this standard, and neither can Sergius. Rather, he must be "Sergius, the hero of Slivnitza ... Sergius, the apostle of higher love." He wonders what those Sergiuses would think if they saw him now, imperfect as he is.

But both Raina and Sergius can be their real selves with other people. Raina tells Bluntschli that he is the first man who hasn't taken her seriously, but he knows she is mistaken. He is the first man who has taken her seriously. He is the first man who has really talked to her. Indeed, he is the first man who loves her for herself rather than for the façade she puts on.

Irrelevance of Class and Rank

Shaw was an avowed socialist and believed that the class system in Britain at his time was wrong. Birth should not determine one's success. Rather, merit should. Shaw was a member of the Fabian Society, whose goal was to take over not through violence but through gradually changing people's minds. To help change minds, Shaw inserted socialist ideals, such as the ideal of a classless society, into his plays.

This point is mostly revealed through the character of Louka, a clever, pretty girl who deserves to be rewarded for her intelligence. Louka is initially described as "so defiant that her servility to Raina is almost insolent," but she does what she needs to do. She also knows what's going on in the house. She knows Raina's shutter is broken, she knows Raina has a man in her room, and she knows Raina loves that man more than she loves Sergius.

While Nicola, her fellow servant, knows his place, Louka doesn't want to know hers. She considers it cowardly to cling to old beliefs about class. She says if she were queen, she'd be brave and marry the person she loved even if he were a common man. Of course, this is easy for her to say because she isn't queen and, if she were, she'd be the one making the rules. However, this statement has an effect on Sergius. He realizes it is more important to marry someone for whom he feels true affection than someone of the same class.

Perhaps part of what persuades him is Louka's question: "Did you find ... that the men whose fathers are poor ... were any less brave than the men who are rich?" Sergius responds, "Not a bit." Shaw's point is that social class and money have little to do with bravery.

What's more, class has little to do with intelligence. Bluntschli is Swiss, a nationality that doesn't recognize ranks of nobility. He states that he has the highest rank known in Switzerland, that of a free citizen. However, he is also a soldier for hire. This implies that he is of a lower class than Sergius, and Catherine is horrified that her daughter might marry someone like him. Yet both Sergius and Petkoff sit in awe while Bluntschli drafts orders they were at a loss to draft.

In the end, both Sergius and Raina realize that the military ranks and social classes of their sweethearts are irrelevant. Raina says she helped Bluntschli because he was her chocolate cream soldier, no more than that.

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