What are the playwright’s views on innate human qualities, like goodness or heroism? Does he believe these exist? Why or why not?
Throughout the play, Shaw demonstrates that concepts like good versus bad, or courage versus cowardliness, have at least as much to do with the situations in which one finds oneself as they do with the innate qualities of that person. Bluntschli is innately a person for whom innate qualities don’t seem to matter. He is a man who makes his decisions based on the circumstances in which he finds himself. This view on life might be bewildering to an outsider, but it allows him to survive the war as a soldier, and to eventually win Raina’s hand in marriage.
It would be tempting to say that Bluntschli achieves these successes because he is simply a better man, soldier, and lover than Sergius. But what makes Bluntschli better is precisely his willingness to cast aside those categories in favor of a morality that’s more fluid and that allows for lying and misrepresentation to protect his life. Bluntschli is willing not just to overlook the mistakes Raina makes. He believes that that is a natural part of loving anyone, just as it’s natural for a soldier to want to survive a conflict rather than to die in it.
In this sense, Bluntschli most strongly embodies Shaw’s understanding of circumstantial ethical decision-making. Raina does, too, in her admission to Bluntschli that she is not always perfectly honest. On the other side is Sergius, a man who purports to be good all the way to his core, but then admits to Louka that he contains “many persons” inside him, some of who behave admirably, and others who will do whatever it takes to satisfy their basest urges, as in philandering while his fiancée is off-stage.
Does the play demonstrate that romantic love is real, or genuinely possible? What are the limits to romantic love in Arms and the Man?
Shaw’s discussion of romantic love is more complex than it seems initially. Love is most certainly not what Raina imagines in Act One, which is the joining of her soul to Sergius’s, and the idea that they might live happily together. Their union seems perfect, with her perfect virtuosity, and his bravery and nobleness. Shaw depicts that kind of love as being built on misrepresentation of how humans actually behave apart from fairy tales.
But Shaw does not abandon the idea of romantic love entirely. Instead, he seems to allow for it only when characters get rid of most of their presuppositions about what the love could, or should, be. Bluntschli abandons much of the pretense of soldierly bravery in front of Raina when he hides in her room and is fearful and sleepy. And Raina admits that she is not a perfectly pure individual, as she occasionally does and says things that go against classically good and upright behavior.
It’s slightly more difficult to place Sergius and Louka on this spectrum of romantic love. For them, a relationship is a network of lust and a desire coupled with the improvement of one’s social standing. This is perhaps not romantic love in the way Bluntschli and Raina demonstrate, and it is surely not romantic love according to Raina’s conception at the start of the play. But it is nonetheless a foundation for a relationship in practice. Shaw seems to place far more emphasis on the way people really behave, rather than on their idealized notions about “correct” attitudes and conduct.
Arms and the Man is a satire of many parts of late nineteenth-century European society. Pick two aspects of society that Shaw satirizes, and explain how he does so.
First, Arms and the Man satirizes Bulgarian and European attitudes toward modernization, technological development, and the centers of cultivation like Paris, London, and Moscow. Catherine brags that the family has installed an electric bell for the servants, even though Petkoff is much more comfortable continuing to yell for them at the top of his lungs. Raina, Catherine, and Petkoff brag that the family has a library in the estate, which is the only one in the region. Yet as the scene description finally notes in Act Three, this library is actually just a room with a few old volumes in it. Despite this reality, the Petkoffs truly believe they are at the vanguard of artistic and cultural life at the time.
The play also satirizes the reasons that nations seem to have for going to war and for making peace. As Petkoff admits to Catherine after the war is ended in a peace, the only way war would be meaningful would be if both sides continued fighting long enough really to enable geographic or political change. The Bulgarians know that this is beyond their capabilities. Thus, war becomes something more like a performance with the only outcomes being almost insignificant, like a slight shift in a nation’s border. In this sense, Shaw speaks to arbitrary outcomes of conflicts that would later define the early part of the twentieth century, in which enormous bloodshed resulted in only very small changes to the map of Europe in most instances.
Track the behavior of the women in the play: Raina, Catherine, and Louka. Does Shaw indicate that the behavior of one or the other is exemplary, to be replicated by others? If so, how and why?
What do you think Shaw’s political attitudes were, based only on the tones and arguments in this work. Was he a supporter of European “advancement”? Was he on the political left or the right? Support your answer with evidence from the play.
Do you believe that Bluntschli and Raina are a good match? Are they suited to one another temperamentally? Explain.
Discuss Nicola’s motivations in the work. What motivates him? How do these motivations differ from those of Louka?
What are some of the possible other connotations of Bluntschli’s love of candy? Why did Shaw pick this food, as opposed to any other?
Why is it that Bluntschli’s friend, who tells Petkoff and Sergius about Bluntschli’s story (without using his name), is given so small a role in the play? What is to be made of his violent death, reported quickly and never discussed thereafter? Explain.
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