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Arms and the Man

George Bernard Shaw


Themes, Motifs & Symbols

Themes, Motifs & Symbols

Themes, Motifs & Symbols

Themes, Motifs & Symbols


Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Disillusionment with war

The play discusses how war is made, how it is fought, and how parties sue for peace at the close of it. Indeed, the play’s title is a direct quote from Virgil’s Aeneid, the Roman epic that glorifies war. Shaw used this quote ironically, drawing attention to how war should not be seen as romantic.

The Serbo-Bulgarian War is not addressed directly in the text, although that is the historical template on which Shaw bases his production. Bluntschli is a Swiss mercenary who has hired himself to the Serb cause, along with soldiers from other nations. Sergius is supposed to representing the “heart” of the Bulgarian enterprise, with his gutsy charge at the start of the work demonstrating just how powerfully he wishes to defend his nation’s honor. What becomes clear as the play progresses, however, is that war is simply a job for soldiers, and nothing more. Sergius is not the hero he is initially thought to be. He romanticizes war to such an extent that he leads a foolish charge against the enemy, and only does so in order to climb the ranks for recognition. Bluntschli also destroys Raina’s romantic idea of war and heroism when he proves that the best soldiers are often not identified as such on the outside.

For Shaw, war is simply a way for men to occupy themselves, perhaps in redrawing small parts of the national borders, while others on the domestic front, who are predominantly women, shape many more aspects of life. Though Catherine and Raina are ostensibly dependent upon the outcome of the war, in dealing with Bluntshli they are also active participants in some of its intrigues. In harboring an enemy and ultimately marrying him, they add to the argument that war and its divisiveness can be meaningless.

The complexity of romantic love

The interactions of characters are primarily driven by romantic love, or lack of it. Social conventions of love during Shaw’s time period included public and formal courting, parental approval, and consideration of social status and wealth of each partner. However, the characters in this play defy the norms and each end up with a person that is best suited to them.

Characters slowly disabuse themselves of the features of romantic love they have most cherished all their lives, and realize that it is far more complex. For example, Raina does appear to love Sergius in the beginning of the play, but when she falls in love with Blunstshcli, she realizes her love for Sergius was superficial. Perhaps Raina only felt this way because Sergius was lauded as a hero and because Catherine and Petkoff supported the union to maintain the family’s social status.

By contrast, Louka, though engaged to her fellow servant Nicola, does not appear to have ever been in love with him, and demonstrates that she is willing to work hard to marry into a higher rank. Romantic love does not seem to be a factor in her decisions. The beginnings of Louka’s relationship with Sergius are illicit, and defy social norms of courtship. Bluntschli’s introduction to Raina is also unconventional, as they meet secretly in her bedroom. And when they finally become engaged, Bluntschli, the pragmatic and calculating soldier, surprises everyone by revealing himself to be a lifelong romantic.

The arbitrary nature of social status

The social station of the characters in the play is one of the dynamics that becomes most pronounced by its end. Louka wants to be more than a servant, whereas Nicola seems content to remain one. Bluntschli appears to be middle class, but reveals later that he is far, far wealthier than the noble Petkoffs. Petkoff and Catherine want Raina to reinforce the family’s position however she can, either by marrying the ostensibly bravest man in Bulgaria, Sergius, or by adding greatly to the family’s coffers by joining with Bluntschli.

As in any marriage narrative of the nineteenth century, romantic love might be a part of the marriage calculation, as it certainly didn’t hurt to love one’s partner. But that is far from the point of marriage in this time period. Characters want to unite noble families and improve financial situations. What romantic love tends to do in these situations, then, is cut across and destabilize what might be the otherwise orderly transfer of money between families.


Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
Ill-timed entry

Characters in Arms and the Man seem to always come onto stage at inopportune moments for the other characters involved. Bluntschli climbs into Raina’s room, avoiding the Bulgarian army, and then hides from Catherine, Louka, and an officer with Raina’s help. Petkoff arrives in the second act, only to be followed by Sergius, whom Petkoff views as a disappointment following the glory of the charge. Bluntschli, whom Catherine and Raina hope to keep from Petkoff and Sergius, enters directly after. But the women do not succeed in doing this, and Bluntschli is the catalyst for many of the events leading to the play’s resolution. The very coincidence of these characters’ presences on the stage makes the comedic machinery of the work apparent. Characters have to be allowed to collide to the point of ridiculousness for the drama of the play to unfold.

Romantic affairs

There are two simultaneous affairs in the play, Raina and Bluntschli’s, and Sergius and Louka’s. Both Raina and Bluntschli are responsible for their courtship. Raina leaves a picture of herself in her father’s coat for Bluntschli to find, and Bluntschli makes clear at the end of the play that he has been interested in Raina from the outset. Sergius is the chief instigator in his relationship with Louka, although Louka quickly realizes, despite Sergius’s quick temper toward her, that she might be able to use him to help remove herself from a position of servitude. Thus characters who claim to be noble and pure, and never lie—especially Raina and Sergius—are precisely the characters whose infidelities will advance the plot of the play, and reveal their and others’ hypocrisies of conduct.

The soul of a servant

Initially, Louka criticizes Nicola for having the “soul of a servant” because he unconditionally caters to the Petkoffs. Nicola retaliates by criticizing Louka for not being willing to do whatever she can to help the Petkoffs, as that is her job. However, Sergius later tells Louka that she has the soul of a servant for using the family’s gossip against them. What gives someone the “soul of a servant” is never clearly defined in the play, but in any case, Louka defies Sergius’s criticism by doing all in her power to make sure she has the upper hand within the lord-servant relationship in the Petkoff home. For example, she knows about Raina’s protection of Bluntschli earlier in the play, and uses this information to provoke Sergius into challenging Bluntschli to a duel. This, in turn, is the way Louka navigates herself into a public relationship with Sergius, and into the social rank of a lady.


Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
Petkoff’s coat

Catherine and Raina lend Bluntschli Major Petkoff’s coat to escape the estate in the fall, under cover of darkness. The coat is a symbol of the various instances of deception around which the novel unfolds. Bluntschli brings the coat back to the Petkoffs without realizing that Raina has left an inscribed picture of herself in its pocket, thus indicating to anyone who might see it that she loves Bluntschli despite being engaged to Sergius. The coat literally hides Raina’s love for Bluntschli, and this love is only revealed once Raina’s photograph is removed from the coat. Petkoff cannot find the coat in his closet until Nicola, on Catherine’s urging, places the coat there after Bluntschli’s return in an attempt to cover up the story. Major Petkoff is as sure the coat is not in his closet as he is that nothing is the matter between Raina, Bluntschli, and Sergius in that moment. When Nicola produces the coat, the turmoil between the characters is revealed, and Major Petkoff is just as shocked at both revelations.

Chocolate creams

Raina keeps candies, including chocolate creams, in her bedroom. She appears not to like chocolate creams, as they’re the only candies left in the box. But Bluntschli loves them especially, and famished as he is after the battle, he eats them greedily when Raina offers. From then on, she calls him “the chocolate cream soldier.” Chocolate creams are a symbol of delicacy and high society, as well as a symbol of youthfulness. However, Bluntschli’s willingness to stuff them in his pockets in place of ammunition indicates that they are also a symbol of maturity and knowledge. Bluntschli knows how difficult war is. He is a veteran, not a rookie. Thus the creams are over-determined in the play, meaning there is no single significance that can be placed on them. This is similar to how Raina and Bluntschli are neither paragons of total good nor total evil, but complex humans who behave practically as best they can.

The library

For the Petkoffs, the library is a sign of cultivation and status in the family, which they perceive as rare among Bulgarians. The Petkoffs worry that the Bulgarians are not as refined as their Russain enemies, and Raina is quick to point out to Bluntschli that their library is perhaps the only one in the area. But as the Third Act’s stage notes point out, the library is far from lavish. In fact, it’s only a small room with dusty old volumes scattered on the shelves. The library symbolizes both the Petkoffs’ preoccupation with what they see as fine taste, and the reality of the family that falls far short of this ideal.

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by MariaDPettiford, November 02, 2017

Arms and the Man is a comedy by George Bernard Shaw, whose title comes from the opening words of Virgil's Aeneid, in Latin: Arma virumque cano.

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Arms and the Man