Arms and the Man: Theme Analysis
The Reality of War
The play opens with a romantic view of war held by the Bulgarians, especially the young Raina and Sergius. They will learn from experience and their lessons from Bluntschli that war is not glorious.
Raina and Sergius have learned their ideas of war from books. They speak of knights and ladies and the combat of honor between equals. Sergius says that war is like a “tournament” (Act II, p. 31). His idea of leading the victorious cavalry charge was a mistake from the point of view of modern warfare, for horses cannot override cannon and guns. Sergius resigns from the regiment, disillusioned that the other soldiers do not take him seriously. He refuses to play the modern game of war; it is for a “tradesman,” he complains (Act II, p. 29).
Catherine Petkoff is even more locked into an old-fashioned conception of war and patriotism. She is upset when peace is declared and asks her husband if he couldn’t have “annexed Serbia and made Prince Alexander Emperor of the Balkans” (Act II, p. 24). Major Petkoff explains they would have had to subdue Austria first (the allies of the Serbs). Catherine has no idea what war is or what it costs. Her ideas are as flimsy as Raina’s. The two women are excited as they hear about the victory at Slivnitza and that Sergius is a hero. Catherine wants to worship Sergius and tries to persuade her husband about his promotion. Major Petkoff remarks that Sergius will not be promoted because everyone knows he is rash and incompetent.
Bluntschli tries to shock Raina into reality by reminding her that if the Bulgarians find him in her room, they will butcher him before her eyes. There will be blood everywhere. He appeals to the mother in her by asking for a place to sleep and food to eat. He admits he is frightened for he has had no sleep in three days. At this point, she heroically makes an effort to save him.
The Bulgarians are shown as naïve about war. Major Petkoff admits that neither the Bulgarians nor Serbs knew anything about war until their officers (the Austrians for the Serbs, and the Russians for the Bulgarians) taught them. Petkoff says, “there’d have been no war without them” (Act II, p. 29). Russia and Austria were considered Great Powers, more advanced and powerful countries that exerted a political influence on lesser powers. They jumped into the border dispute between Serbia and Bulgaria because they were worried about the balance of power. The Serbs and Bulgarians had once been friends. Neither were experienced with modern warfare.
As a professional soldier, the Swiss mercenary, Bluntschli, is the last word to his Bulgarian friends on the sober reality of war. He describes the soldier’s point of view of how to stay alive by carrying more food than ammunition, and by avoiding the front lines. He beats Major Petkoff at horsetrading. Bluntschli is scorned at first because of his middle-class notions of war, but his practical knowledge of how to move troops and keep them supplied is soon appreciated by Sergius and Petkoff. Bluntschli as a Swiss Republican has modern democratic ideas that contrast sharply to the older feudal ideas of aristocracy held by the Bulgarians. They are used to a society of privilege and class stratification. They are impressed, however, by Bluntschli’s modern power, knowledge and wealth. Unlike them, he holds no lingering feuds after the war, but is more interested in managing his hotels. Business can be a force of economic stability across national boundaries, more powerful than war. He is ready to sign on Nicola, a former enemy, as one of his managers.
The Ideal vs. The Real
Raina lives in a make-believe world, and she is aware of it, though she believes it is a more noble world than the one other people live in: “the world is really a glorious world for women who can see its glory and men who can act its romance” (Act I, p. 4). She and Sergius declare one another knight and lady, an example of the “higher love” (Act II, p. 31). Raina is always found posing, dreaming, or making a dramatic entrance. Her mother and father note her uncanny ability to come into a room at the right moment: “Yes, she listens for it,” Catherine says (Act II, p. 28). Life for Raina is what she picks up at the opera season in Bucharest. Extending sanctuary to an enemy was in the opera she saw, and so she saves Bluntschli’s life.
Bluntschli believes Raina is underage because of her romantic pretense. He is surprised to learn she is twenty-three. He admits he admires her thrilling voice, but he cannot believe a single word she says, he declares to her. He points out in his direct way in Act III that her life is a lie. Raina is relieved to be accepted as she is, a real person with faults. She is surprised to find she has more affection for her “chocolate cream soldier” who admits to hunger, cold, fear, and cowardice than for Sergius, who is full of noble bombast. She tells her mother to marry Sergius, because he is more to her taste.
Both Raina and Sergius find it fatiguing to keep up their higher love. Each of them is a secret realist at heart. Shaw makes the case for love being simple and real. Louka and Bluntschli are the antidote both romantic characters need. Bluntschli’s ability to do away with romantic nonsense with common sense is good comedy and underscores Shaw’s animosity towards Victorian melodrama, which gave audiences a distorted view of life.
The tension of class rivalry is present throughout the play. Shaw treats it playfully, though it is a serious topic for him as a socialist dedicated to doing away with class injustice.
The Bulgarian society is pictured as a primitive holdover of the feudal class structure that Europe was slowly doing away with. England, for instance, was dealing at the turn of the century when Shaw was writing, with melting class distinctions. The working classes had gained the vote and the right to education. Improvement of slums, improvement of factory conditions, and greater representation of the lower classes in government signaled the democratic reform going on in advanced countries. In addition, it was a time of the rising power of the middle class, with the entrepreneurial spirit reigning as the force of the future. Bluntschli represents the middle-class business spirit of Europe; the Petkoffs are the aristocratic great landowners of the past; Nicola and Louka represent the old peasantry, bound to the land and landowners.
In the Bulgaria Shaw portrays, the higher classes hold the lower classes in subjugation through power, fear, and custom. Nicola warns Louka that the Petkoffs could destroy her if she defies them: “you don’t know the power such high people have over the like of you and me when we try to rise out of our poverty against them” (Act II, p. 22). Nicola is cunning, but he accepts being the scapegoat of the family because they pay him off. He has dreams of rising out of his position as Louka does. He will buy a shop in Sofia to be independent, but even then “I shall always be dependent on the good will of the family” (Act II, p. 22). She accuses him of “selling his manhood for 30 levas” (Act III, p. 55) and swears that “You’ll never put the soul of a servant into me” (Act II, p. 23).
Louka’s ambition is higher than Nicola’s: she wants to marry into the aristocracy. She plays on Sergius’s sense of rebellious individualism to get him to defy social convention. She shows him that underneath his noble rhetoric, they are both human and made of the same “clay” (Act II, p. 35). Nicola gives Louka lessons on how to change classes through her thinking and actions. He teaches her to stop wearing false hair and make-up, to trim her nails and keep her hands clean. He tells her a lady must act as if she will get her own way. He lies to Sergius and says that Louka has been reading in the library, trying to get education above her station.
Sergius himself points out that class discrimination spills over into military life. Both the upper and lower classes fight the enemy with equal courage. The poor soldiers, however, fear their own upper class officers who can keep them in their place: “they put up with insults and blows” (Act III, p. 58).
The Petkoffs are initially contemptuous of Bluntschli’s middle-class or bourgeois background. He is no gentleman. Sergius calls him a “commercial traveler in uniform” (Act II, p. 30). Raina accuses him of having a “low shopkeeping mind” (Act III, p. 53). They change their minds when he turns out to be a problem solver (getting the troops home), and rich (inherits hotels). Petkoff says he must be the Emperor of Switzerland, but Bluntschli points out that “my rank is the highest known in Switzerland: I am a free citizen” (Act III, p. 72). If Louka is the rebellion of the lower classes demanding equal treatment, Bluntschli is the force of democracy. He congratulates Louka on her engagement with “the best wishes of a good Republican” (Act III, p. 69).