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Major Barbara | Study Guide

George Bernard Shaw

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Major Barbara | Themes


Forms of Power

Taking different forms, power is a theme that permeates Major Barbara. The play opens with a comic display of Lady Britomart's power over her son. She controls when and where he sits, how he speaks, and what he knows. Although mothers always have some degree of power over their children, this scene is comic because Stephen is an adult, still under his mother's thumb. It is also funny because Lady Britomart demands he act like a man and advise her, as long as he gives the advice she wants.

Barbara was under her own power before she found the Salvation Army, after which she was "in the power of God." Even when she is forced to rethink her ideas of good and evil in Act 3, she wants to exercise power to bring about salvation of the needy. She seeks "to make power for the world ... but it must be spiritual power." The audience is left to question the effect of this kind of power, as Shaw leaves the question unresolved. It remains to be seen whether Barbara's leadership will bring about change through her attempt to use her power to create "the raising of ... man to God."

Cusins represents the power of intellect. Highly educated and a self-professed "collector of religions," Cusins believes the power of intelligence can be used for right or wrong. His beliefs suggest Undershaft uses his power in a Machiavellian way, promoting evil to achieve his own ends. Cusins says power always has the capability to be used for good or evil, and he wishes to create power that will force "the intellectual oligarchy" to use their brains to help everyone.

There is also the power of brute force, personified in Bill Walker. He physically controls Jenny Hill by grabbing her by the hair, pushing her, and hitting her in the face. He uses his power to intimidate and control. The only power Bill seems to fear is that which comes from social position. When he learns Barbara is the granddaughter of an earl, he is suddenly meek. Interestingly, Bill's physical power has no effect on Barbara, indicating it is weaker than spirituality.

Undershaft exercises the power of money, which is arguably, the strongest of all. Lady Britomart criticizes the power of wealth that makes its owners above the law. She claims Undershaft can act immorally because his money means he has European governments under his thumb. Undershaft doesn't deny this statement. He boasts that because of the wealth of his business and its influence, he is, in effect, the government. More altruistically, on the other hand, Undershaft uses the power of his money to save his workers by removing the "millstones" of poverty from around their necks.

Good and Evil

Shaw uses various characters to represent different beliefs about good and evil. In the process he questions whether the two are necessarily opposites, suggesting they may exchange places or even become part of each other. Several characters are of the opinion that good and evil are absolutes. Lady Britomart tells Undershaft he can talk all he wants, but he "can't change wrong into right." Stephen has learned from his mother and agrees "right is right, and wrong is wrong; and if a man cannot distinguish them properly he is either a fool or a rascal." On the other hand, Undershaft argues good and evil are relative. He claims "every man has not the same morality." Cusins seems to understand Undershaft's statement, adding what is good for one man is poison to another, morally speaking. In this idea Shaw was influenced by William Blake's belief that "one law for the Lion and Ox is oppression." Blake's analogy illustrates the idea that good and evil are relative. The lion's nature, which is to hunt and kill, is quite different from the ox's nature, which is not predatory and is docile after it is domesticated. Having "one law," or rather the same moral expectation—in keeping with the analogy—for both animals does not make sense. The animals, if made to follow the same law, would no longer be true to their natures, and, hence, to expect them to conform would be oppression. In Undershaft's view, "the greatest of our evils ... is poverty." Anything done to end poverty, in his opinion, then becomes necessary and good, even if others view it as wrong. Charles Lomax comically echoes the position by asserting "there is a certain amount of tosh about this notion of wickedness."

Although Barbara begins the play as a Salvationist with traditional Christian ideas of right and wrong, she comes to believe that good and evil are both part of life, which is "all one." Since she cannot avoid evil, she must find a way of integrating the two by "the raising of hell to heaven, of man to God." Good and evil are often embodied as heaven and hell. Barbara imagines her father's factory to be a lot like hell, full of smoke and fire with pitiful individuals tormented by her father, whom Cusins calls Mephistopheles, a devil who tricks a man into selling his soul. To her surprise, the factory town he built is spotlessly clean, as he promised. It is like "a heavenly city," full of peaceful people who willingly obey their master. In the play Shaw complicates ideas of good and evil, inverting and eventually integrating the two.

Salvation of Souls

Barbara and the Salvation Army offer spiritual salvation of souls through God's forgiveness and promising eternal life. In the characters of Snobby Price and Rummy Mitchens, Shaw shows how easily such salvation can be counterfeited. They exaggerate their sins and at public meetings claim to be redeemed, while privately they gloat to each other about their successful deceptions. Yet, for a time, such salvation has Barbara's confidence. She tells Bill he can enjoy "eternal glory in heaven" if he will give over his soul. When he offers a small amount of money to make up for his violent behavior, Barbara refuses it and claims spiritual salvation cannot be bought. However, after the Army accepts large amounts of money from Bodger and Undershaft, Bill gloatingly asks what the price of salvation is now.

Undershaft believes what people need is salvation from poverty by "money and gunpowder." He wants to convert Barbara to his way of thinking, claiming he has saved her soul by providing for her needs in life and that the poor need the same. He believes she will eventually "make [his] converts and preach [his] gospel."

Shaw asserts "there is no salvation ... through personal righteousness, but only through the redemption of the whole nation." It is poverty from which the nation must be saved. By this measure, even Undershaft falls short of achieving true salvation outside of his small town. By this measure "even the Salvationists themselves are not saved." He, however, offers his workers salvation from "the crime of poverty."

Idealism versus Realism

Shaw is interested in "the conflict between real life and romantic imagination." As a playwright, Shaw makes his audience comfortable, using the familiar setting of a drawing-room comedy only to upset their expectations by showing the idealism of the characters to be an illusion. Although Lady Britomart and Stephen have idealistic views about what is moral and immoral and don't want to be involved in the actual making of money, they must acknowledge the reality that their livelihoods depend upon the munitions business, however distasteful they find it. Barbara, too, moves from an idealistic view of salvation and sin when faced with the fact the Salvation Army is in the pay of the very businesses that, in her opinion, cause so much human suffering. Shaw, too, attacks the idealism of the Salvation Army with a humorous portrayal of its patrons. Price and Rummy are dishonest characters who easily play the idealistic Salvation Army workers to get free assistance.

Undershaft, Shaw's mouthpiece, unapologetically embraces pragmatism. He is a realist with no patience for those who "make a virtue" of poverty. Realistically, it is better to be rich and dishonest than poor and honest like Peter Shirley. As critic J.L. Wisenthal explains, Shaw believes "one must act, not from any absolute moral principle, but according to the practical demands of a particular set of circumstances." Interestingly, Undershaft creates an ideal community. Shaw paints a picture of Undershaft's town as a place in which workers peacefully govern themselves, and everyone has everything they need. Cynical readers will question whether Shaw is as unaware of his own idealism as the audiences he seeks to confront.

Physical and Spiritual War

The theme of war is an undercurrent in the play. While there is no overt violence, the idea of war is implicit in the name and organization of the Salvation Army and the Undershaft weapons business. The Salvation Army fights a spiritual war on sin, seeking to save souls. It is organized and run like a military organization. Barbara's title is a military rank, a major, in God's army. Undershaft's business, he readily admits, fuels wars around the world and will continue to do so. Contradicting Lomax, who thinks deadlier weapons will deter war, Undershaft asserts, "the more destructive war becomes the more fascinating we find it."

Cusins and Barbara are horrified at the idea of the destruction of warfare, however. Cusins promises to use his influence in the business to "make war on war" to bring about good for everyone.

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