A Critical Analysis Of The Play “Arms And The Man” By George Bernard Shaw

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Setting

The play has both physical and historical settings. It is set in Bulgaria of 1885 when Prince Alexander I of Bulgaria revolted against the Serbs and refused to pay compensation. The Serbs declared war against them but were defeated in the Battle of Slivinitza. Austrian officers fought with the Serbs while Russian officers led the Bulgarian army. Swiss mercenaries (professional soldiers who are hired during wars) fought on both sides. Captain Bluntschli fought on the Serbian side but when he met Raina, he wished he “had joined the Bulgarian army instead of the other one”.

Captain Bluntschli exemplified the Swiss mercenaries in the play. All the actions of the play take place in Major Petkoff’s house – Raina’s bedroom, their library and their garden.

Language

The language of the play is simple, straight forward and direct. It is devoid of flamboyant imagery and symbolism. The dialogue is true to life and appropriate. All these enhance an easy understanding of the play. However, Shaw made extensive use of humor and ironies in the play.

In the play there is an extensive use of imagery. The imagery help to create a mental picture of all the wars fought and won (real war and romance) to the reader. The language is simple, this makes it easy for the reader to read and understand it.

Humour and Ridicule

The play presents an extravagant exhibition of humor. It is ridiculous that a soldier should prefer chocolates to his gun to the extent that he is nicknamed “chocolate cream soldier”. See also, the way Captain Bluntschli attacks the chocolate box and licks his fingers.

And that the Petkoffs should conclude among themselves that they are superior to their neighbors simply because of the mere possession of a library and an electric bell. The scene when the Captain returns and Raina and Catherine pretend not to know him and the eventual discovery of the truth are some of the scenes that provoke humor. The accepted views of heroism and nobility are also ridiculed in the play. Raina and Sergius are the main targets here.

Dramatic Irony

It is ironic that a soldier, Sergius, who has learnt the horrors of war and becomes so worn out that he declares that “soldiering…is the coward’s art of attacking mercilessly when you are strong and keeping out of harm’s way when you are weak,” is treated and regarded as a hero by Raina. It is also an irony of situation that “Raina’s chocolate cream soldier” whom she sheltered from the ravages and wreckage of war, eventually marries her, regardless of her avowed expectations to marry her fiancé, Sergius, and her day-dreams of striking a lasting companionship with her childhood hero.

Stage Direction

The playwright uses elaborate and detailed stage directions. These help to enhance the mental picture of the reader, as plays “are meant to be performed not read”. Thus, those who are not opportuned to watch the real performance can watch it with their minds’ eyes. These stage directions also help to give insights into the characters hence he describes Catherine Petkoff as “…imperiously energetic…a very splendid specimen of the wife of a mountain farmer, but determined to be a Viennese lady…”(16).

Characterization

Shaw presents well-developed characters who are consistent and properly motivated. Each character acts consistently from the beginning to the end; for instance, Raina and Sergius remain romantic throughout, Bluntschli maintains his unperturbed and unpretentious pose throughout. Shaw also uses characters to foster his theme. For example, Louka maintains her derogatory attitude towards Raina and even the entire household. Her attitude questions the issue of social status in the society.

Raina Petkoff

Raina is a beautiful young lady. She is twenty three years old but behaves like a school girl of seventeen, perhaps because as an only child of her parents, they pampered and spoilt her. To her mother she is still a child and her father calls her ‘little one’. (p. 78). Her parents are rich, so she is accustomed to very comfortable establishments like going to Bucharest every year for the opera session and spending a whole month in Vienna.

She is very romantic, and appreciates beauty as she is seen in the opening scene; intensely conscious of the romantic beauty of the night, she has heroic ideas about love and marriage. Though she does not really love Sergius, she wants to marry him because of his heroic qualities. However, the marriage does not work out and she agrees to marry her chocolate cream soldier, another hero. Raina is generous, hospitable, compassionate and impulsive. These aspects of her character come out clearly in her relationship with Blutschli. It is on impulse that she decides to hide him from the Bulgarian soldiers; she takes pity on him and calls in her mother to help save his life. As Bluntschli notes later, she had accepted him a fugitive, a beggar and starving man, her hand to kiss, her bed to sleep on, her roof to shelter him ( 83). Above all she offered him chocolate.

Despite the above sterling attributes, Raina tells lies and pretends a lot. Her pretentious character is made manifest especially in her relationship with Sergius. Both of them played roles expected of people who are in love while in the real sense, neither cared deeply for the other. Her pretence is found out by Bluntschli who is a practical man. Her mother also is aware of this aspect of her character for she once acclaimed “Oh Raina! Raina. Will anything ever make you straightforward”(511). She, however, shows that she could be natural and sincere when she is in a congenial company. She told her mother the truth about how she felt about Sergius and declared that she did not “care whether he finds out her chocolate cream soldier or not” ( 51).

Catherine Petkoff

Catherine is Raina’s mother and is very fond of her only child. She is well “over forty, imperiously energetic, with magnificent black eyes”(16). She makes effort to live like a wealthy woman by “wearing fashionable tea gown on all occasions” (16). She is determined to live like a modern aristocrat everyday despite the fact that it gives her sore throats. Her husband observes that she goes”… too far with these modern customs … Carrying the things to a ridiculous extent” (39). She also likes showing off her modern acquisitions and social status as is clearly shown in her pride at owning a library and an electric bell.

She is domineering and rules the Petkoff household. Her husband takes instruction from her even in official state matters. She is fully involved in the political affairs of the country and is respected and feared more than her husband. Her husband confirms this as he prepares to go and give orders on the demobilization exercise when he said “…Catherine, you may as well come too. They’ll be far more frightened of you than of me”(60). She is ostentatious and materialistic. She encourages her daughter to marry Sergius who she believes is a hero and also rich but changes her mind as soon as she realizes that Bluntschli is richer than Sergius.

Major Petkoff

Major Petkoff is an amiable easy-going man. Though he is a major he is not knowledgeable in military strategy and organization, so one can easily conclude that he does not merit his rank but earned it because of his social status in the town. That he is not even interested in politics is evident from one of the important questions he asked his wife as soon as he came back from the war: “you haven’t been campaigning”. For him the best thing in the world is for them to sit down in their house “after a good lunch, with nothing to do but enjoy ourselves” ( 58).

He is complacent and is ruled by his wife. In fact, he is afraid of his wife and takes instruction from her most of the time. He is content to have others do his work for him. He loves his only daughter and pets her. He is gullible as he is deceived by his wife and daughter when Bluntschli arrives in the house. He is also materialistic and wanted his daughter to marry a rich man because according to him, she is “accustomed to very comfortable establishments” ( 83).

In conclusion, he is, as the playwright puts it, “a cheerful, excitable, insignificant, unpolished man of about 80, naturally unambitious” (37). He is not interested in modern way of life. His wife describes him as a “barbarian at heart” (39), but he is not bothered, and prefers to shout to call his servant instead of using the electric bell.

Major Sergius Saranoff

Sergius is a tall handsome man. He is rich in their local estimation, as he owns twenty horses. He is Raina’s romantic hero. Like major Petkoff, he is not well versed in military strategy and organization. He allows Bluntschli to map out their disengagement strategies and proudly appends his signature. This is why he led a suicide squad in the name of a cavalry charge. He escaped with his life because the enemies had the wrong ammunition. He does not admit his error instead he is cynical about their Russian officers who he said have been promoted while he is “…still a simple major” (41).

This shows that he is arrogant and selfish. He wants to be promoted to a higher rank despite the blunder he committed at the war front. He resigns because he was not promoted. He claims that he never apologises when he offends anyone. He does not consider anybody’s feelings as long as he gets what he wants.

He is affectatious as seen in her relationship with Raina. He pretends to love her while in actual sense he does not, but flirts with her maid, Louka. He honors his words in the end by proposing to marry Louka. He is boastful, impulsive and proud. He challenges Bluntschli to a duel when he learnt that Raina had an affair with Sergius, according to him “ I brook no rival”. However, he is a coward and the fight did not take place eventually.

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