Idealism and Realism in Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbara
Submerged in their own ideas about idealism and realism, Barbara and her father Undershaft are at odds with one another in Major Barbara. In this Bernard Shaw play, minor characters are important in exemplifying these conflicting values. The moral perplexities of capitalism and charity are explored through the words and actions of Undershaft’s family, his future sons-in-law, and the common folks at the Shelter.
Thriving in the British upper class, Undershaft’s wife and son are well aware of Undershaft’s grip on Europe’s economy and government. Lady Britomart separates from her husband because he refuses to break the Undershaft tradition of training a foundling to succeed him in his arms business. Stephen does not comprehend this, and Lady Britomart attempts to explain her husband’s ways to her son: “Andrew did it on principle, just as he did every perverse and wicked thing on principle” (58). She also confides that she cannot tolerate her husband “preaching immorality while he practised morality” (59). After all, it is Undershaft who supports his family financially; however, it is also Undershaft who unashamedly laughs when others question him about his views on “right” and “wrong”. With high hopes for Barbara, Lady Britomart is disappointed that her daughter decides to join the Salvation Army: “Ever since they made her a major in the Salvation Army [Barbara] has developed a propensity to have her own way and order people about which quite cows me sometimes. It’s not ladylike” (61). Lady Britomart also comments on Barbara wanting to marry “a professor of Greek whom she has picked up in the street, and who pretends to be a Salvationist” (54), for Barbara has a weak spot for those people whom she feels she can convert to see the love of God.
Stephen Undershaft, “kowtowed to everywhere” because his father is making millions by selling cannons (55), coldly questions his father’s morality and religion. This does not faze Undershaft, who expounds his philosophy to his son: “There is only one true morality for every man; but every man has not the same true morality” (71). Persisting in the belief that knowing right from wrong is the most important life skill (122), Stephen reluctantly accepts that Undershaft is above the law and that he is the government of the country, for politicians do what pays them (124). Stephen’s outspoken views on his father being a “scoundrel” prompts Barbara to show her idealism and naivety. She defends her father, insisting that there is salvation for him (71) – she does not believe that Undershaft does not care for spiritual salvation. She is confident that she can convert her father, and she boasts that everyone in Canning Town knows where her workplace – West Ham shelter – is. Enthralled by the factory village during his visit, Stephen in the end agrees that the money earned from the sales of weapons does sustain and bolster...