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Note: Nicola’s conversation with Louka to end of play
Nicola notes that Louka’s sleeve is down, but she does not admit that the sleeve is covering the bruise on her wrist that Sergius gave her. Nicola brags that Sergius has given him money for no other reason than to demonstrate Sergius’ wealth. Bluntschli, too, has given Nicola money for “supporting the lies” told to protect Bluntschli’s truth from Sergius and Petkoff. Nicola tells Louka that, if she were more willing to behave obediently for men like Sergius, she might one day marry a noble. He says this not knowing that Louka and Sergius are already flirting. Before Nicola leaves, and as Sergius arrives, Nicola states that although Nicola and Louka are engaged, Nicola would help her to become a lady if she could arrange it. He is so devoted as a servant that he would put her interests above his own.
Sergius, alone with Louka, talks about how his confidence initially faltered in battle, but he quickly gained an overmastering courage. Louka says that if she were Empress of Russia, she would marry the man whom she loves without a care for public image. Sergius pledges that Louka will be his and that he has a hold on her. Louka, testing his influence, reiterates that another man loves Raina, and that Raina is open to this man’s affections. When Sergius presses her, she tells him that the man is Bluntschli. Upon this knowledge, Sergius states that Louka is still the object of Sergius’ affection, but that he will challenge Bluntschli to a duel. He says that Bluntschli has disrespected Sergius’s honor by setting his sights on Raina.
Sergius quickly finds Bluntschli and challenges him to the duel. Bluntschli says he does not take the charge lightly and says he will fight if he has to. Raina enters. As she is on the verge of admitting to Sergius that she loves Bluntschli, Bluntschli argues that Raina only took him in because he threatened her with a gun. He also notes that the friend to whom he told the story of being helped by Raina and Catherine was brutally killed by the Bulgarians. Sergius and Raina find this knowledge horrible, and Sergius compares it to the “horror” of love. At this, Raina snaps that she has seen Sergius with Louka together, and Sergius seems tacitly to admit that he has been courting Louka. He has not been aware, until Raina tells him, that Louka is engaged to Nicola. Sergius is greatly agitated to hear this news. When Bluntschli coolly tells him to calm down, Sergius becomes doubly angry, figuring that Bluntschli thinks he is a “cultivated” Swiss telling a “barbarian” Bulgarian to be reasonable.
Sergius asks Bluntschli to render judgment on Louka, who Sergius believes knows everything about the family and has been eavesdropping so as to gain information on the Petkoffs and use it for blackmail. But Bluntschli says he can judge no one for this because he’s also eavesdropped in his military days. He says that people will do what they will do to survive and gain an advantage over others. Petkoff enters, telling Raina and the rest assembled that he thinks someone has been wearing his coat and has stretched it out. Raina removes her picture from the coat pocket secretly. Petkoff reaches for the picture of Raina the he had just discovered in his coat just before. When he finds it missing, he inquires about it to Raina and Sergius. Bluntschli finally admits that the picture was meant for him. Raina’s earlier lie about the nature of the chocolate creams, which she blamed on Nicola, is also revealed. Bluntschli tells Petkoff that Bluntschli is the man in the story about the soldier being helped by the Bulgarian women that Sergius and Petkoff heard during the war. Nicola enters and reveals that he no longer wishes to be engaged to Louka, and that she deserves to be married to a wealthier nobleman.
Catherine enters as the scene is in progress. After Nicola releases Louka, Sergius apologizes to her, acknowledging their flirtation. Bluntschli says he will take on Nicola as the head of some of the hotels he has recently inherited, again hinting at his wealth. Louka says that Sergius’s touch makes them formally engaged, and Sergius, pleased, accepts this. Catherine and Petkoff are confused and dismayed, and Bluntschli reveals that he has long harbored a crush on Raina and that he has a hopelessly romantic temperament. But Bluntschli says he cannot make a formal offer of marriage to Raina because he is middle-aged and she is too young at only seventeen. At this, Raina cries that she is really twenty-three, and Bluntschli immediately proposes marriage to her. Petkoff and Catherine, judging the reversals that have taken place to be in their favor, agree, on the condition that Bluntschli can supply the kind of life to which Raina is accustomed. But when Petkoff and Catherine realize that Bluntschli has much more money than they do, including more horses and more property, they agree gaily to the marriage. As the play ends, Bluntschli leaves to handle his father’s estate, and promises to return to marry Raina. He also asks Sergius to wait to marry Louka until his return so they can all celebrate together. Sergius has the last words of the play, exclaiming, “What a man! What a man!”
Here, the plot of the drama unravels fully, leaving characters to account not only for what they’ve done throughout the play, but the lies they’ve told in order to justify their actions. Catherine, Raina, and Bluntschli must admit that they’ve lied about Bluntschli’s previous presence in the house, and that Bluntschli, too, misled Petkoff and Sergius earlier in not admitting to his prior acquaintance with the family. Raina must come clean as to her prior friendship with Bluntschli, and even more so with the romantic portion of that relationship. And, of course, Catherine must admit that she has lied to her husband about an intruder in their very own house, and an enemy of the Bulgarian people at that.
These revelations are, in some sense far, far less than what Sergius and Louka have to admit. Namely, that they have been carrying on a secret flirty relationship, and Sergius’ clear instigation of this while he was engaged to Raina. This, and not Raina’s love for Bluntschli, is the primary infidelity of the play. Sergius’s flirtation with Louka is direct and indiscreet, whereas Raina’s love for Bluntschli has only manifested in a picture that Bluntschli does not even know about. Louka has made plain, from the beginning of the play, that she has long desired to end up with a man above her own social rank. For Louka, Nicola is a pawn rather than a fiancé, and Sergius, though in many ways loathsome, represents a path out of poverty and servitude for her.
Notable in this part of Act Three is the speed with which these revelations unfold, and the manner by which characters deal with the information. Petkoff and Catherine are very quick to understand that Bluntschli is a decent man. But it is only when he reveals that he is also extraordinarily wealthy, even more so than the noble Bulgarian Petkoffs, that they acknowledge he is a good match for. This reveals the true values of the Petkoff family, and of nobility more broadly, which was quick to sacrifice its high social standing whenever a large amount of money was involved. This all points to one of the underlying conclusions of the play: that people’s moral codes are not so much fixed as situational, that people must make their decisions based on the information available to them, and whatever comes from those decisions is therefore optimal under the circumstances.
The idea that everyone must behave according to the hand of cards he or she is dealt is the advice Bluntschli gives to Raina at the beginning of the play. It is certainly “bad” of him to threaten Raina at gunpoint if she calls out and reveals him, and it is “good” of him to be nice to her, and to sleep peacefully on her bed. But Bluntschli is really neither “good” nor “bad” in that scene, or in the rest of the play. He is someone who takes in information and does what he can with it to stay alive. If this is self-preservation, it is of a courteous and transparent kind. It might not always inspire devotion, but it does eventually in Raina, who is accustomed to various performances of pride and self-importance, mostly by Sergius, that she realizes are without merit.
Bluntschli, perhaps unintentionally, teaches the Petkoffs and those around them to behave with a degree of moderation, restraint, and shifting ethics that might be combined into a philosophy called “pragmatism” or “rationalism.” What that really means, for Bluntschli, is that the world presents a set of decisions to be made, and that the man best suited to come out on top in such a world is the man who acknowledges that many of those decisions will have bad and worse, rather than good and bad, outcomes. One cannot rant and rail against such a world. One can only do well to accept it, and to move forward without regretting decisions when they come.
This all makes Sergius’s exclamation at the end of the play so poignant, and a fitting summary of the events that passed. Bluntschli is an estimable man precisely because he is the man that, in the beginning of the play, no one seemed very eager to imitate. He was not invested in projecting confidence, heroism, or pride. But it was a sense of collectedness that allowed Bluntschli to survive his first night with Raina, to escape, to return to the Petkoff house ostensibly to return his coat, and finally to win over Raina, for whom he expresses love only after realizing that she very well can be won, and wed, after all.