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Major Barbara | Study Guide

George Bernard Shaw

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Major Barbara | Context


Social Satire and Realism

Satire is less of a genre and more the purpose of a creative work. Satirical works poke fun at weaknesses, habits, flaws, or sins of a person or group by means of parody, exaggeration, or caricature. Some satires go a step further by advocating change. Most often found in literature, satire is also at home in film and in art.

Various literary genres have been successfully paired with satire, going back to the ancient Romans, particularly poets. The rhetorician Quintilian (35 CE–after 96 CE) coined the term. It has since been used in everything from comedies and tragedies to science fiction novels, such as George Orwell's 1984 (1949). Anglo-Irish author Jonathan Swift in his utopian novel Gulliver's Travels (1726) wildly satirized the social ills of European society.

Norwegian realist playwright Henrik Ibsen influenced George Bernard Shaw's portrayal of English society. Shaw admired how Ibsen revealed the facade of idealism through the self-disillusionment of characters, such as Nora and Torvald, the husband and wife in A Doll's House. Like Ibsen, Shaw sought to force his audiences to examine themselves and the basis for their moral choices, but Shaw did not stop merely at exposing hypocrisy. He wanted to provoke people into action to bring about real social change.

In some ways Major Barbara is not only a satire but also a realist drama, particularly in its portrayal in Act 2 of the grimy slums of late 19th-century London. As English writer Charles Dickens (1812–70) did, Shaw describes the slums without romanticizing or adding any artistic slant. But the play defies efforts to place it neatly in a category of genre in other ways. Indeed it is a combination of domestic comedy and utopian fiction, propelled by Shavian social satire. Act 1 is something of a drawing-room comedy, a comedy of manners in a close, domestic setting. Act 3 is partly utopian fiction, imagining an ideal reality.


The story of Faust first appeared in literature in 1587 in the German story collection Faustbuch. According to legend, Faust made a deal with the devil, or fallen angel, Mephistopheles, to whom he offered his soul in exchange for dark powers and knowledge. The story has appeared many times in poetry, folklore, and drama. Depending on the version of the story, Faust is an evil magician, alchemist, astrologer, sorcerer, or necromancer. A necromancer is a kind of magician who specifically conjures spirits of the dead to use as the source of their magic. The heartless devil Mephistopheles, who captures Faust's soul, is usually known for his wit and cynicism.

In Major Barbara Cusins calls Undershaft "Mephistopheles," suggesting Undershaft has dark powers to offer and Cusins may have to sell his soul to get them. What Cusins, a man of peace, must sacrifice to gain Undershaft's power of wealth and industry is his own sense of morality: his scruples against the harm caused by weapons of war. Like Mephistopheles, Undershaft is witty, crafty, and cynical, with no commitments to fixed ideas of good and right. He is hungry to gain the soul not only of Cusins but of his daughter Barbara, as well.

The name Mephistopheles also relates to the theme of heaven and hell in Major Barbara. Mephistopheles's home is in fiery hell, where other fallen angels, or devils, reside. Barbara imagines Undershaft's foundry to be "a sort of pit where lost creatures with blackened faces stirred up smoky fires and were driven and tormented by my father," a hellish place with Undershaft in the role of a devil. Barbara and Cusins even call Undershaft a devil. However, Shaw inverts the idea of heaven and hell by showing the Salvation Army to be a darker, more despairing place than the clean, organized heaven of Undershaft's factory town.

Saint Barbara

According to legend Saint Barbara was the daughter of a wealthy, pagan (person who believes in many gods) businessman who built a tower in which to keep her. He hoped that in isolation and under his influence he could ensure her protection and instill in her his faith. However, while her father was away, Barbara is said to have descended from the tower to inspect a bathhouse being built for her. While looking eastwards from a third window she had insisted the workers install, Barbara had a spiritual experience in which she converted to Christianity. She miraculously engraved the sign of the cross on the wall of the bathhouse. Her father was enraged on his return. When Barbara refused his orders to follow his pagan beliefs and to marry, he sent her to the local Roman prefect, or magistrate, who tortured her, trying to force her to renounce Christianity. When coercion failed, she was beheaded by her father. Shortly after, he was struck dead by lightning. Barbara was later canonized and is the patron saint of artillerymen and miners.

Like Saint Barbara, Major Barbara is an unmarried, earnest, young Christian who is the daughter of a wealthy, unbelieving father. Both fathers seek to coerce their daughters to change their beliefs to reflect their own. In a manner of speaking, Major Barbara, like the saint, becomes a leader to artillerymen, as she stands to inherit her father's arms business through her marriage to Cusins.

Salvation Army

The Salvation Army is a religious organization founded by William Booth in London's East End in 1865. Although it is a Christian institution, it models its structure on the military, and its war is against injustice and social ills. It was important to Booth that the Salvation Army welcome those most often excluded from other churches, including the poor and underprivileged. One way the Army sought to reach out to those in need was through lively music in outdoor services. Thus, brass and other loud instruments came into common use by the Salvation Army. In addition to converting its followers to Christianity, and thereby saving souls, the Salvation Army offers charitable services providing food and shelter. Still in operation today, the Salvation Army has become an international organization.

Major Barbara is a Salvation Army officer, her rank indicating seniority in the organization. She is proud of her role and considers it a large part of her identity. Lomax is shocked when she takes her uniform off, and Barbara despises her dress as "vulgar [and] silly" in comparison. The audience gets a view of the Salvation Army in Act 2. Workers are giving out bread and "diluted milk" in the slums of London, seeking to save the souls of people like Bill Walker. Their outdoor meetings are accompanied by cheerful music, performed by Barbara's fiancé Cusins and others. However, the play portrays the Salvation Army and those who benefit from it as hypocritical. Rummy and Snobby pretend to be converted and exaggerate their situations so they can receive the organization's charity. The organization itself is hypocritical because it takes money from a distiller, seeking to ease his conscience, and an arms manufacturer, with an uncharitable ulterior motive. Furthermore, Shaw suggests it does nothing to end poverty.

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