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Examining the Incompatible Philosophies of Idealism and Realism in Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbara

Jun 9, 2023 | 0 comments

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Jun 9, 2023 | Essays | 0 comments

The play, Major Barbara, was written by Bernard Shaw in 1905. The play discusses the incompatible philosophies held by father and daughter, Mr. Undershaft and Barbara, placing emphasis on the contrast between idealism and realism. Shaw addresses social and economic problems, like poverty, facing the society and how individuals and religious charitable organizations attempt to curb the situation. He also examines the morality of poverty. This paper analyzes Shaw’s ideas presented in the play concerning the ways used by people in the society to solve daily problems and their effectiveness.
Barbara is a devoted Christian working with Salvation Army as an official given the tittle ‘Major’. Her parents separated when they were kids and her father vanished from their lives until he reappeared after being summoned her mother, to discuss the financial future of their children, Barbara, Stephen and Sarah. Andrew Undershaft is a wealthy man who obviously spent his time acquiring wealth than thinking of his family since he fails to recognize his children and has no recollection of how many they were. Barbara works at Salvation Army feeding the poor and the hungry as long as they repent their sins and live piously but his father thinks of her as naïve and misguided as stated by Horizon (10).


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Munista (10) says that the play places emphasis on moral values and respects the work of Christian organizations and movements, like Salvation Army, in helping members of the society but questions the effectiveness of their approach and their real intentions. Barbara helps the poor by providing for their basic necessities like shelter, food and clothing. She is passionate about her work since as she believes and finds it spiritually rewarding such that she treats people with caution, firmness and humility. The rules of Salvation Army require individuals to be saved first before they are helped and Undershaft thinks that is unrealistic (Munista 14).

The play revolves around conflicting social and moral ethics believed and practiced by people in the society. Major Barbara is portrayed to be idealistic since she accepts and practices the teaching of the church. For instance, she believes she can rescue the needy and the hungry by preaching forgiveness and encouraging them to be righteous. However, Mr. Undershaft disagrees since he believes in realism. To him providing basic needs for the disadvantaged in the society is covering the real problem. He believes in providing a means for people to earn money to sustain them as depicted by Harrison (8). Undershaft runs a successful munitions factory that supplies guns and cannons which according to Barbara, is a dishonest way of earning a living and does not want any association with it or his money. He believes his way of curbing poverty which is giving people jobs and paying them well so that they are able to provide for themselves a home and put food on the table is realist and most effective. His belief is influenced by his painful experience as a poor man.

Barbara experiences reality that shakes her faith when Salvation Army accepts a denotation from his father that is tainted arguing that it does not matter the source of the fund as long as they serve a good purpose against her will. As a strong advocate for noble moral values she resigns from the job and her objection was seen as selfish since the organization was about to close due to inadequate funds and her arguments shallow. Moreover, she suffered another blow when she discovered that some of the converts were pretending in order to get their basic needs supplies from the organization resulting to her questioning the relevance of the teaching she had gladly accepted and practiced (Munista 7).

According to Munista (15), Shaw criticized the intentions of charity religious organizations, like Salvation Army. He tends to think that they glorify in the vulnerability of the disadvantaged members of the society. They seem to encourage poverty and thinks it is a blessing. They appear to be helping but in reality they are the sole beneficiary of the program as it helps accomplish their mission of spreading their religion. They turn their backs on reality by pretending the world revolves around good and evil and the only way to survive is by praying. They preach forgiveness with the hope that the converts will believe and practice so that they avoid any future uprising by the members and workers in advocating for their rights paving a clear path for exploitation by the wealthy who ironically funds the these organizations.

Shaw in his play, Major Barbara, emphasizes the political ideology that poverty is indeed a crime not a blessing as perceived by some individuals since no poor person is respected. Undershaft believes that poverty is a crime and the way to save the society from this distress is by guaranteeing every individual the money he/she needs to lead a comfortably life. For instance, Undershaft’s munitions factory represents a means of providing the funds required to satisfy the workers’ necessities since Undershaft pays his workers well so that they do not have beg and lead respectable life as implied by Albert (12).
The play exposes the unfortunate fact concerning politics. It views democratic right to vote as a complete felony that covers the undesirable truth about politics that lies to the middle class that by voting they are represented in the government. Shaw implies that the government’s national decisions are influenced by the wealthy industrialists like Undershaft. Undershaft says that only the names of government officials change each voting year but the government remains the same, corrupt, and suggests that real changes can only be made by using guns justifying the relevance of his business as expressed by Albert (15).

Harrison (20) points out the desire for power and influence with the intention of changing the world that was Undershaft driving force. Undershaft talks of the importance of wealth in acquiring power and influencing the world. Barbara begins to view the world differently as she gets to know the ways of his father. She realizes that without money one has very little power and develops desire for power which makes her agree with her fiancée, Cusins, for accepting her father’s factory with the hope that they would use it for the good of the common people. They believe that they can only fight a war by force and acknowledges corruption as a major threat. In addition, she does not abandon her faith but come up with a new perspective on how to serve God. She proclaims that God’s work ought to be done by raising the standards of life for the ordinary citizen instead of offering them salvation in another life as explicated by Harrison (14).

Although the play is an ancient one, it is indeed relevant to the current society. There is exploitation of the needy by the wealthy who views helping them as a way of gaining more power and charity church organizations that thrive from their vulnerability since they actually view poverty as a blessing and kind of encourages it yet in real sense according to Shaw, poverty is a crime and the only way to deal with it is providing a means of income for people to sustain their needs so that they do not have to beg not idealist ways where their necessity is provided as long as they remain followers blinding people from the real world.

Works cited

Albert, Sidney P. Shaw, Plato, and Euripides: Classical Currents in Major Barbara. Gainesville: UP of Florida, 2012. Print.
Harrison, David B. “1920- A New Source for Shaw’s Major Barbara.” English Literature in Transition 1880-1920 (1985): n .pag. Print.
Manista, Francis C. “Doing Proper Things for Improper Reasons: Spiritual Ambivalence in Major Barbara.” Shaw The Annual of Bernard Shaw Studies (2006): n. pag. Print.

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