“You see, sleep or no sleep, hunger or no hunger, tired or not tired, you can always do a thing when you know it must be done. Well, that pipe must be got down...”
Bluntschli speaks this in Act One, in conversation with Raina when hiding in her room. The quote indicates his thought processes as a person and as a soldier. After all, Bluntschli is a mercenary. He fights as a Swiss with the Serbians because they have paid him to do so, because it is his occupation. This means that the war does not seem to touch the deepest part of him. He’s not invested in it as an outcome of good against evil. But he is invested in it as a man doing his job, and for whom that kind of work is important. Thus, when Raina says that he must leave her room, he knows what a soldier must do is obey a woman in her social position.
He seems to recognize that as a soldier, his life is dominated by a desire for food and a desire for sleep. And in this instance, he has satisfied at least part of that, by eating the chocolate creams that Raina has given him. But he is not yet willing to abandon his desire for sleep, because he has gone so long without it, and because his very ability to reason seems to be slipping away. Yet, again, he is willing to toss all this to the side in order to do what an obedient man of honor would do, which is to leave the room of a woman who is asking him to do so.
All these opposing forces are at play in Bluntschli’s decision-making. He has a desire to preserve his life, and also a desire to do what Raina asks. He has an obedience to principle as a “good” soldier, and also an obedience to whatever puts those principles into action, which is the overwhelming fear any solider has of injury or death. Bluntschli demonstrates a kind of rational self-mastery that will only be overturned by Raina’s willingness to let him nap for part of the evening in her room.
These quotes take place between Nicola and Louka in Act Two. They seem to understand the terms of their debate, but it is their underlying attitudes toward those terms that dictate their behavior. Nicola can, fundamentally, accept the task of a servant. It is the office into which he was born, and he believes that the way best to behave nobly is to accept the strictures on his life that being a servant provides. For Nicola, one behaves to do best by one’s masters, and nothing more. For him, this is his kind of nobility, or a kind of high-mindedness, and to do any different would be to behave dishonorably.
Louka, however, sees these social considerations as open to change. She doesn’t believe that being born a servant means one has to accept this mantle, or behave that way for the rest of one’s life. Louka instead wants to do everything she can, within her capacity as a servant, to upend social hierarchies. Her goal is to achieve a nobility not just of manner, as perhaps Nicola has in his dependability, but of actual practice. She wants to be a lady.
The paradox is that Nicola observes a stricter set of social norms. He is perhaps more truthful than Louka. Louka, however, is willing to lie and cheat within reason in order to further her own aspirations, which involve becoming a member of a higher class. And so this relationship of power to servitude is drawn out between them, and eventually leads to the amicable dissolution of their engagement.
“I have no ambition to shine as a tradesman; so I have taken the advice of that bagman of a captain that settled the exchange of prisoners with us at Peerot, and given it up.”
Sergius complains in Act Two about precisely the view of soldiering that Bluntschli holds. Bluntschli thinks that being a solider is simply fulfilling a job that entails loyalty and courage without necessarily being honorable. For Sergius, being a soldier has much more to do with issues of pride and self-regard. After all, Sergius led the doomed charge on the Serbians, which succeeded only by luck, because he wants to look the part of the soldier and commander. As many characters note, and as Sergius himself is willing to admit, he does not have the natural skill in warfare that Bluntschli does. He will never be promoted through the ranks as others might be who understand the art of war. Rather than admit to war as an art or craft he does not possess, Sergius instead resigns his commission.
This marks the beginning of Sergius’s slippage from a position of moral authority in the work. Soon thereafter, he begins flirting seriously with Louka, who is shocked by his duplicity as regards Sergius’s engagement to Raina. And when Sergius finally loses Raina to Bluntschli, he winds up marrying Louka, a woman who is looking to improve her own social station by finding a nobleman willing to “stoop” to marrying her.
“My husband has just returned, with my future son-in-law; and they know nothing. If they did, the consequences would be terrible. You are a foreigner: you do not feel our national animosities as we do.”
Catherine says this to Bluntschli in Act Two. She wants to make sure that her behavior with Raina, in helping Bluntschli to avoid detection by the Bulgarians, will not upset her carefully orchestrated plans. While Louka wishes to improve her life by no longer being a servant, Catherine wants to maintain the family’s social advantages by ensuring that Raina marries a worthy man. Catherine plays up the idea, which recurs in the work, that there is something special about being a Bulgarian. She thinks Bulgaria it is a country poised between modernity and tradition. In Bulgaria, nobility and pride matter, whereas, as Catherine assumes for Bluntschli, being a Swiss means being entirely given over to markets and money-making.
Ironically, the money that Bluntschli acquires from exactly these means is well worth Catherine’s consideration by the end of the play, when she realizes that Bluntschli’s fortune far exceeds the Petkoffs’. Catherine protects the family’s name, but understands that that name must sit atop a pile of money. Bluntschli, in addition to his mixture of charm and even-headedness, has a good amount of money to spare. It is useful to note that Bluntschli’s Swiss heritage makes him “neutral” in every sense. He is neutral in being a mercenary in war. But he is also a man from a country that itself has tried hard to avoid alliances with other countries over the centuries, and to preserve its position as a part of Europe cut off from some of the bloodier conflicts that have wracked the continent. In the same way, Bluntschli is “neutral” to conflicts as much as is possible, avoiding both the Bulgarians who track him down, and fleeing from the Serbs with whom he fought in their battle with Sergius’s men.
“If you were twenty-three when you said those things to me this afternoon, I shall take them seriously.”
In Act Three, Bluntschli worries that because he perceives Raina to have been a just girl when he met her, she was not capable of making lasting statements of romantic love. Thus he places a hard limit on the notion that Raina’s youth makes her unmarriageable. But of course Raina is the same person at seventeen as she is at her real age of twenty-three. This indicates, perhaps, the limits of Bluntschli’s own rationality. He will not make a marriage proposal to a girl, only to a woman, but that insistence on rules ignores the fact that Raina, despite her relative youth in either case, has saved his life, and is clearly old enough to organize her affairs in other realms.
This comment is also an occasion for comedy, as Raina has argued she does not lie about anything. However, both Catherine and Raina are shocked when they find out that Bluntschli has believed Raina to be truthful about her own age. They believe that no woman could ever be truthful about age. This points to Bluntschli’s warm and childlike credulity, something that Raina finds as appealing as his desire for chocolate creams.
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