Idealism and Realism in Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbara

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Idealism and Realism in Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbara

Submerged in their own ideas about idealism and realism, Barbara and her father Undershaft are at odds with one another in Major Barbara. In this Bernard Shaw play, minor characters are important in exemplifying these conflicting values. The moral perplexities of capitalism and charity are explored through the words and actions of Undershaft’s family, his future sons-in-law, and the common folks at the Shelter.

Thriving in the British upper class, Undershaft’s wife and son are well aware of Undershaft’s grip on Europe’s economy and government. Lady Britomart separates from her husband because he refuses to break the Undershaft tradition of training a foundling to succeed him in his arms business. Stephen does not comprehend this, and Lady Britomart attempts to explain her husband’s ways to her son: “Andrew did it on principle, just as he did every perverse and wicked thing on principle” (58). She also confides that she cannot tolerate her husband “preaching immorality while he practised morality” (59). After all, it is Undershaft who supports his family financially; however, it is also Undershaft who unashamedly laughs when others question him about his views on “right” and “wrong”. With high hopes for Barbara, Lady Britomart is disappointed that her daughter decides to join the Salvation Army: “Ever since they made her a major in the Salvation Army [Barbara] has developed a propensity to have her own way and order people about which quite cows me sometimes. It’s not ladylike” (61). Lady Britomart also comments on Barbara wanting to marry “a professor of Greek whom she has picked up in the street, and who pretends to be a Salvationist” (54), for ...

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...ey. This becomes too much for Barbara to bear: she takes off her badge and thinks that she may never be able to pray again. Bill’s taunt “Wot prawce selvytion nah?” (112) is quite right, for the common people cannot be saved simply by spiritual redemption at the Salvation Army – they need practical solutions such as jobs that will provide food and money for them.

Barbara’s Christian beliefs of “poverty and salvation” grapple with Undershaft’s gospel of “money and gunpowder”. Contributing to the moral debate are Undershaft’s family, his future sons-in-law, and the Salvation Army. Mingling idealism with realism, Major Barbara demonstrates that neither extreme is viable, for idealists often do not accomplish anything, and realists are too concerned with the practical.

Work Cited

Shaw, Bernard. Major Barbara. New York, New York: Penguin Books, 1980.

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