What makes a hero? What makes a coward? Is bravery all a matter of perception? The mastermind of irreverence, George Bernard Shaw delves into these questions, and in the process skewers the social construction of honor and manliness present throughout 19th century Europe.
Who Is George Bernard Shaw?Shaw began his writing career as a critic. First, he reviewed music. Then, he branched out and became a theater critic. He must have been disappointed with his contemporary playwrights because he began writing his own dramatic works in the late 1800s, and crafted a successful career as a playwright well into the 1940s. Shaw's work possesses a deep love of language, high comedy, and social consciousness. His more popular plays include Pygmalion and Major Barbara.
The Plot of "Arms and the Man"
The backdrop of Shaw's comedy is the Serbo-Bulgarian War, an ill-planned campaign that lasted less than a month and resulted in over 1000 casualties as well as Bulgaria's unification with a small province of the Ottoman Empire.
The play takes place in the wealthy home of Major Petkoff. The Petkoff estate is the only home to possess a library, albeit a small, shabby one. The Major is commanding forces on the front line while his matronly wife (Katherine) and his duplicitous 23-year old daughter (Raina) wait for the end of the war.
Katherine and Raina discuss the heroics of Sergius Saranoff, Raina's fiance. News has recently arrived, indicating that Sergius led a valiant charge that secured a victory for Bulgaria. Yet, since the conflict is not over, Katherine fears that Serbian soldiers might do damage to the town (and perhaps their home) as they retreat.
Just as Raina is about to turn in for the evening, a man climbs up a drainpipe and stumbles through her second story window. Desperate to survive and armed with a pistol, Captain Bluntschli seems threatening at first. However, Raina soon learns that this "professional soldier" carries chocolates instead of ammunition. After he begs for sanctuary, Raina is at first disgusted and then intrigued by what she believes to be cowardice. She takes pity on him, concealing him in her room when Bulgarian soldiers come searching for him.
Bluntschli fascinates the young lady because he does not attempt any facades of heroism or nobility. As a Swiss mercenary, he had been fighting against Bulgaria merely for profit, not national pride. For the past fifteen years he had been risking his life as little as possible. His discussion captivates Raina when he speaks of a young commander (who turns out to be Sergius) leading a foolish charge that only worked because the Serbians had the wrong cartridges and could not return fire.
Perhaps because she has never met anyone with such bluntness, Raina assists with his escape the next day. She lends him her father's coat, covertly placing a portrait of herself in the pocket of the jacket. In spite of his cowardly, chocolate munching ways, she likes him.
Act Two begins days later, shortly after a treaty has been side between the opposing forces. Major Petkoff rejoices in his return to a peaceful home life, complete with servants to boss around.
The Servant Subplot:
Nicola is the principle male servant of the Petkoff household. Louka is the fiery, ambitious (not to mention attractive) maid. She disdains her occupation, and constantly insults Nicola (with whom she is reluctantly engaged), declaring that he has the meager soul of a servant. Nicola, however, has his own ambitions. He hopes to start his own business, and when he realizes that Sergius has romantic desires for Louka, he decides that he would rather have her as a wealthy customer rather than a wife. Therefore, at the play's end, Nicola encourages Louka's engagement with Sergius.
During Act Two, the audience discovers that the noble Sergius is not so noble. He doubts his own reputation for bravery, yet still tries to maintain an appearance of pomp and dignity. When reunited with his betrothed Raina, the two exchange the trappings of romance. However, as soon as she leaves the room, he takes an interest in the maid.
Louka's clever schemes don't seem to work at first. During Act Two, when she reveals the secret of the hidden "chocolate soldier," Sergiius becomes outraged, grabbing onto her, even bruising her. Undeterred, the maid continues her pursuit of Sergius, eventually luring him into an announcement of their engagement. Thus, Louka shocks her employers (the Petkoff family) by rising above her station, becoming a lady - just like Raina. Nicola is satisfied as well, gaining an affluent customer of his new business.
Stumbling Into Prosperity
Considering Shaw was a British socialist, it seems surprising that many of his comedies conclude with his characters gaining a sizable increase in wealth and status. For example, Captain Bluntschli first appears as a common soldier. By Act Two, when he returns the borrowed coat, the audience learns that he is acquainted with both Sergius and the Major. In fact, shortly after his escape he began working for the Bulgarian side, demonstrating his mercenary nature but also his organizational skills. For example, the Major cannot fathom how to organize his troops so they can effectively travel back to their base. Bluntschli, on the other hand, easy tackles the assignment, quickly writing up orders and knowing just how the troops should be properly motivated. By Act Three, we learn that Captain Bluntschli has inhereted an enormous franchise of hotels from his recently deceased father (whom he does not seem to mourn in the slightest). When Raina is lured into an offer of marriage (which she coyly accepts since she seems enamored by him in spite of herself), she will be marrying into a fortune.
So, why the fixation with wealth? Why is Bluntschli a practical at times cowardly protagonist instead of a dashing hero? Perhaps because Shaw wants us to see through the illusion if economic class and beyond the gleam of military medals. Bluntschli is the most "manly" character of the play simply because he openly acknowledges and understands his own limitations, and has a keen insight into the motivations of others. He follows the golden advice of Socrates: "Know thyself."