Saint Joan: Essay Q&A
1. What influence do Darwin's theory of evolution and associated schools of thought have on Shaw's interpretation of Joan's story? Cite specific examples from the text to support your argument.
Essays should discuss the preface's contention that Joan manifests a "superhuman" "evolutionary appetite," as well as Shaw's classification of Joan as "what Francis Galton [Darwin's cousin and founding eugenicist] and other modern investigators of human faculty call a visualizer." The identification of the law of change as the law of God also reinforces the importance of evolutionary theory in Shaw's play. One of its overall messages is that, if human society is to avoid stagnation, it must be sufficiently tolerant to accommodate those individuals, like Joan, who rise above what Shaw calls in the preface the "average" humanity. Responses might also point to The Gentleman from 1920 in the epilogue who, no different from his medieval counterparts, rejects Joan.
2. In what ways is Joan a Christ-figure in Shaw's play, and in what ways is she not?
Joan might be regarded as a Christ-figure in Shaw's drama, as she often has been throughout history and art. The allusion to John 11:50 in Scene IV, for instance, invites such comparisons, as do her claims of an intimacy with the divine not shared by others, and the fact of her martyrdom-her rejection at the hands of her own people: "O God," she cries out in the epilogue, "when will [the earth] be ready to receive Thy saints?" The reactions of others to her judgment also reinforces a view of her as Christ-like; for example, Ladvenu's taunting question, "You wicked girl: if your counsel were of God would He not deliver you?"-high reminiscent of the taunts hurled at Christ as he hung on the Cross-and in the epilogue, when Joan is rejected by "her own" (cf. the Prologue to the Gospel of John). Joan seems to have, in Shaw's eyes, a salvific function, as she represents the "evolutionary appetite" driving humanity forward. True, Shaw does not portray Joan as perfect; her stubbornness is a large contributing factor to her death. However, it is the "stubbornness" of one who is right, and may be viewed on a par with Christ's insistence, according to the New Testament, on obeying God's will at all costs.
3. Discuss the direct and indirect ways in which Shaw develops Joan's character throughout the play.
Shaw uses both direct and indirect techniques to develop Joan's character. He shows us Joan in action and allows us to hear her speech; thus, for instance, we see her bold approach to people of power in Scenes I, II, and III, and we hear her talk of her love of France and of God. He also allows us to "eavesdrop" on others' conversations about Joan, and to hear the stories and rumors that others tell about her. For example, the discussion the nobles have in Scene II about the drowning of Foul-Mouthed Frank tells us much about Joan's power to strike awe into others, just as the arguments about Joan in Scenes IV and VI do-although in those instances, we learn of Joan's power to inspire opposition as well as support.
4. Captain Robert de Baudricourt appears only in the first scene of Saint Joan. How does he, and Scene I in general, establish what follows?
In Shaw's stage directions, we learn that Baudricourt has "no will of his own," and attempts to compensate for that lack by acting as a blustery, bellowing bully toward his servants. When confronted by Joan, however, he becomes almost docile: Shaw's stage directions state, in fact, that the "sensation" of having "lost ground" before a more forceful personality is "unwelcome and only too familiar." Whatever the historical Baudricourt may have been like as a man and a squire, for Shaw's dramatic purposes, he dramatizes a contrast between an individual of great purpose-Joan-and one of little or no purpose at all. He epitomizes the effect Joan has on many people throughout the play. And not only the positive effects: consider his words, "I wash my hands of it," once he agrees to have his servants escort Joan to the Dauphin. These words echo those of Pontius Pilate at the trial of Jesus, and represent the first of many instances in the play where characters attempt to "was their hands" of the "messiah" they "crucify." Baudricourt is a man of authority and power who lacks the will, and perhaps even the desire, to use it positively-anticipating the questions raised in the play as a whole about the use and abuse of power.
5. As a consequence of his approach to his subject, is Shaw's Joan ultimately more or less than human?
Although students may focus on any portion of the play in their response, the preface yields some directly relevant information for answering this question, in both directions. On the one hand, Shaw goes to great lengths to "deconstruct" the whitewashed, stained glass construct called "Joan" that he finds in other writers' and dramatists' works. On the other, he forcefully argues-how persuasively, individual readers must decide-that Joan was a "visualizer," a visionary who exemplifies the "evolutionary appetite," the force that drives humanity forward into progress and advancement. Surely, Shaw does not shrink from calling her a "genius" (although just as surely he does not mean in the strictly intellectual sense). "There was nothing peculiar about [Joan,]" Shaw declares, "except the vigor and scope of her mind and character, and the intensity of her vital energy." In this respect, Joan is more than human. In their essays, students will want to argue whether they believe the human or more-than-human Joan is ultimately predominant.