Major Barbara | Study Guide

George Bernard Shaw

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Major Barbara | Plot Summary

See Plot Diagram


Act 1

In the stylish, wealthy London neighborhood of Wilton Crescent, Lady Britomart Undershaft, an overbearing mother, calls her son Stephen to the library for a serious conversation. She shocks him by announcing he must begin to make decisions for the family and advise her about how to provide for the financial needs of his two sisters. Stephen—a snobbish, upper-class young man of whom nothing of the kind has been demanded before—learns his family's money comes not from Lady Britomart's father, an earl, but from his own estranged father, Andrew Undershaft, a millionaire arms manufacturer.

Lady Britomart explains she separated from Undershaft many years previously mostly because he refused to name Stephen as the heir to his business. However, the family has remained dependent upon Undershaft for money, which he has provided. Stephen is surprised his sisters need additional funds since they are both engaged. Lady Britomart points out that until her daughter Sarah's fiancé comes into his fortune, the two will need financial support. Her daughter Barbara, engaged to Adolphus Cusins, a Greek scholar, will need a stipend permanently. Stephen is appalled at the idea of taking money from Undershaft. Lady Britomart abruptly announces Undershaft will be arriving shortly. She gathers the family together.

Andrew Undershaft, who hasn't seen his family in many years, greets everyone, comically getting their names wrong. He doesn't even recognize his own son Stephen. Barbara, a major in the Salvation Army, invites her father to visit her posting in the East End. He agrees if she will return the favor by visiting his weapons factory. Cusins, who has associated himself with the Salvation Army, plays a drum for meetings, but his real, and only, devotion is to Barbara, not religion.

Act 2

At the Salvation Army station the poor are being fed. A man and woman, experienced in playing the game, talk about how they exaggerate their needs and pretend to be converted in order to take advantage of the assistance of the Salvation Army. Barbara and another sincere Salvation Army worker, Jenny Hill, express genuine concern for the poor they serve, ever hopeful of saving more souls.

Bill Walker, a blustery, violent man demands the return of his girlfriend, whom he assumes is inside the shelter. He grabs Jenny by the hair and hits her across the face when he doesn't get what he wants quickly enough. Barbara calmly confronts him, working cleverly to awaken his sense of guilt and turn his soul to God.

The shelter is in danger of closing because it lacks funds. When Mrs. Baines, a Salvation Army officer, tells Barbara a local distiller has offered to donate a large sum of money if it is matched by other donors, Barbara expresses her qualms about accepting money from the manufacturer of alcohol, which causes much suffering and sorrow among the poor. While visiting, as promised, Undershaft offers to donate a matching sum. Barbara is appalled when Mrs. Baines accepts it without reservation, assuring Barbara and others that the money will be put to good use. Disillusioned, Barbara takes off her Salvation Army pin and refuses to go to the meeting with the others. Bill Walker, no longer sympathetic to the pull of salvation because of the Army's hypocrisy, gloats at Barbara's pain.

Act 3

Barbara has resigned from the Salvation Army. The next morning Cusins admits he was part of the Salvation Army only because of his love for Barbara. Lady Britomart tries to convince Undershaft to leave the business to Stephen, but he refuses again because of a tradition of the business, which dictates it should be left only to a "foundling," a child born out of wedlock. Stephen expresses his disgust with the idea of being in business of any kind and claiming to have no talents, knowledge, or interests thus decides a career in politics would suit him best.

The whole family, along with fiancés, visits the munitions factory and attached town of the Undershaft business. Undershaft has created a spotless, organized manufacturing system as well as a clean, ideal town—a utopia—for his employees. He pays them well and provides for all their needs. In return, the workers govern themselves and their work. Everyone is impressed, for it all is quite different from their expectations, although there are qualms about the source of the wealth being "death and destruction." Undershaft claims the greatest crime is poverty, and he has saved his workers from it.

Faced with the enormous display of wealth, Lady Britomart once again expresses outrage that it should be left to someone outside the family. Cusins then reveals he is technically eligible to be the heir because his father married his wife's sister, Cusins's mother, after his first wife's death. While legal in Australia, where Cusins was born, the marriage would not be recognized in England. Therefore, he is in fact a foundling. Through her marriage to Cusins, the new heir to the Undershaft fortune, Barbara will help control the munitions factory and town, thus finding a way, and a new rationale about how, to save the poor.

Major Barbara Plot Diagram

Falling ActionRising ActionResolutionClimax123456789101112Introduction


1 Stephen learns his father won't leave the business to him.

Rising Action

2 The family meets Undershaft, on whom they are dependent.

3 Barbara and her father invite each other to their workplaces.

4 Undershaft visits the Salvation Army.

5 He sees poverty, hypocrisy, violence, and deceit.

6 Barbara nearly saves Bill's soul.

7 Undershaft and Cusins get to know and like each other.

8 The Salvation Army accepts Undershaft's large donation.


9 Seeing the Army can be bought, Barbara resigns.

Falling Action

10 The family visits Undershaft's spotless factory and town.

11 Cusins reveals he is a foundling and can inherit the business.


12 Barbara believes she can do some good through the business.

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