Themes in 'Arms and the Man' by Bernard Shaw

The title “Arms and the Man” derives from the opening lines of the popular epic of Virgil, “Aeneid” : “I sing of Arms and the Man” However, as Virgil highly praises war as described by its heroes, Shaw’s aim in writing “Arms and the Man” is to provide a more realistic picture of war and to remove all pretensions of the nobility from war. As General Philip Henry Sheridan put it “Many of you here believe that war is all glory; but let me tell you, boys, it is all Hell”. Even though Shaw is very critical of the romantic view of war and soldiers, he does not entirely condemn them.In fact, in “Arms and the Man” he makes a satire of the perception people from the Romantic period had of soldiers. Besides, Shaw himself has always insisted that his way of joking was only to tell the absolute truth. The Romantic period saw war as the opportunity for a man to show courage and bravery.

Hence, Sergius, though it is his foolishness that led to the victory of the Bulgarians, is worshipped by Raina as the ideal hero. Yet, the more we learn, the more we are made to realise that Sergius, who is the representation of the traditional heroism in war, is only a caricature that desperately clings to his romanticised ideal of a hero.Little by little, Shaw deconstructs society’s myth about heroism. Indeed, Sergius, first presented as being the hero proves to be an arrogant full of vanity and an obstinate fool. He is seen as incapable of helping Captain Bluntschli with troop movements and flirts with Louka, Raina’s maid, whenever they are alone. On the other hand, Shaw provides the reader with a much more practical and realistic image of a soldier through the character of Captain Bluntschli. Bluntschli has escaped from a horrific battle after three days of being under fire and therefore represents the real experience of a professional soldier.Shaw believes that one requires a futile nature to be able to take up the “Arms” and via Bluntschli, he demonstrates that a soldier can be a good one without depending on the arms to win a battle: “What use are the cartridges in battle? I always carry chocolate instead” From a Romantic perspective, war is a ‘place’ where love stories can develop.

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In Romantism, the love is usually platonic. Raina embodies this topic since she sees Sergius as an ideal hero, thus the perfect match for her. It is obvious that all she loves is the sense of the higher love.Indeed, Raina’s love for Sergius is based on outward appearances since he is the type of hero she has been taught and encouraged to admire. Likewise, Sergius loves Raina for what she represents and not for the true person beneath the facade. It can be said that Bluntschli and Louka force Raina and Sergius to examine their true feelings.

Raina instantly chooses the realist one over the ‘sensible’ Sergius. She loves the person he really is, her chocolate cream soldier. Similarly, Sergius is attracted to Louka in spite of his ‘love’ for Raina.

They are made to discover that they have the courage and desire to follow their hearts instead of continuously seeking to meet social expectations. Shaw makes a mockery of these ideals by eventually allowing them to realise for themselves the absurdity of their attitudes. For instance, Raina realises that war has nothing glamorous and Sergius admits that he loves the maid and agrees to marry her. Exaggeration about notions of war and of love forms part of the Romantic culture.

So, the characters and the situations are exaggerated in some ways. Using satire, Shaw attacks the biased image of war and of love that people of that period created.

Author: Darrin Tate


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