Throughout Arms and the Man by George Bernard Shaw, slight variances are used in the speech of the characters to indicate class distinctions. It is clear that Shaw, a noted socialist, has a great deal of concern about class issues and instead of making the reader keenly aware of these notions throughout Arms and the Man via any direct mention, Shaw uses their dialogue as well as cues within the setting to reveal these elements. “Despite the prominence of debate and speechmaking in his plays, one sometimes forgets that before Shaw-the-playwright came Shaw-the-debater and public speaker. All were platform spellbinders" (Dukore 385).
Part of the reason it is so easy to forget that there a number of encoded social messages within Arms and the Man by George Bernard Shaw, is because is remarkably deft at conveying injustices and problems through characterization and language. Shaw’s writing style is thus very critical of the Victorian-era societyyet instead of doing this overtly, he relies on gestures, dialogue, and setting to set the stage for the debate. His “public speaking" would, in this sense be limited to the voices of his characters who come from variable class backgrounds and have a system of language that is suitable for their class. Only through this mode can George Bernard Shaw open a platform for class debates.
At the very beginning of Arms and the Man, the reader is already cued into the class differences that will plague the text until the end. For instance, the introduction of Raina is not one that values her inner life, but those of outer appearances, something that is of great importance to her and her family. Without dialogue, she is introduced, “On the balcony, a young lady, intensely conscious of the romantic beauty of the night, and of the fact that her own youth and beauty is a part of it, is on the balcony, gazing at the snowy Balkans. She is covered by a long mantle of furs, worth, on a moderate estimate, about three times the furniture of the room" (Shaw 4). Here, it is not important who she is or what she thinks about her class position, but rather it is made clear that she is within an upper class and strives to maintain the outward appearances through her luxurious clothing while the representative items of her “inner life" (in this case her bedroom) are shoddy and unremarkable.
Without being told the first thing about this character’s thoughts, it is clear that reader should be immediately attentive to class distinctions through outward appearances. It should also be noted that this setting is beautiful, but we are not expected to focus on the beauty in a traditional way, but rather to pay attention to the social statement—that there is a woman who obviously pays more for her clothes than the upkeep of her living quarters. In the mind of one critic, “The world, as he [George Bernard Shaw] looks out upon it, is a painful spectacle to his eyes. Pity and indignation move him. He is not sentimental, as some writers are, but the facts grind his soul… in a word, art has an end beyond itself; and the object of Shaw’s art in particular is to make men think, to make them uncomfortable, to convict them of sin" (Salter 446). As this essay makes clear, his is an especially succinct observation in this scene since there is opportunity for sentimentality and romanticism (since she is framed by a lovely setting) but this is not enough for George Bernard Shaw; he must shift the object of the reader’s gaze away from physical beauty to the darker world of class and character.
Descriptions go beyond setting as well in Arms and the Man. The class of characters is not only revealed and critiqued by the setting itself, but by the narrated actions and stage directions for particular characters. For instance, consider the graceful language and the almost fairy-tale nature of the “dance" of Raina and her fiancée as they simply sit down for dinner. The narrator states, “Sergius leads Raina forward with splendid gallantry, as if she were a queen. When they come to the table, she turns to him with a bend of the head; he bows; and thus they separate, he coming to his place, and she going behind her father’s chair" (25). This is a very detailed and complex routine these characters in Arms and the Man act out and is representative of the codified ideals of chivalric behavior typically associated with the elite. This stands in sharp constant to the plodding nature of the exchanges between Nicola and Louka, whose settings and stage directions are not filled with the same dreamy interludes. While Sergius and Raina literally appear to dance in the aforementioned scene, the lower class scenes of the two servants are much less stunning, the narrator only stating where they are in physical space and their language being stunted and free from the dramatic connotations and Byron-like feel of the upper class characters.
This same shift in possibilities, from the potential sentimentality to the social critique, is apparent in terms of language as well as setting descriptions. According to one scholar, “Characters whose impulses are conventional or traditional will use language reflecting their mechanical responses and will be satirized accordingly, while characters who posses a Shavian vitality will express that spontaneity through a freedom not only from moral and ethical formulas but from verbal convention as well" (Weintraub 215). This is apparent when contrasting two particular classes represented in Arms and the Man . First of all, it should be noted that those of the lower class, especially the solider who enters Raina’s room and the servant girl Nicola are all exciting and interesting characters. They posses the “Shavian vitality" and their language is free from the ornament and needless over-romanticized talk of the upper classes. Consider, as a comparison, the meaning that is compressed, while remaining vital when Louka scolds her servant friend, saying with “searching scorn" no less, “You have the soul of a servant, Nicola" (31). Some of the most powerful emotion in Arms and the Man is present in these short but potent statements. Another example of this would be when the solider tells Raina, “I’ve no ammunition. What use are cartridges in battle? I always carry chocolate instead; and I finished the last cake of that yesterday" (14). In many ways, it seems as though these characters with clipped but highly powerful statements are much like Shaw.
These characters in Arms and the Man are making massive overarching statements about their world without seeming to do it, as if any implied social critique might have been incidental. These short bursts of meaning for much farther to reveal genuine sentiment than Raina’s long winded proclamations of love when she confesses, breathlessly and dramatically, Well, it came into my head just as he was holding me in his arms and looking into my eyes, that perhaps we only had our heroic idea because we are so find of reading Byron and Pushkin, and because we were so delighted with the opera that season at Bucharest. Real life is so seldom like that—indeed never, as far as I knew it then" (Shaw 10). While at the end she makes a powerful statement, she is too caught up in the class-driven notions of how a lady should speak to be able to make a direct and succinct statement that has the gravity of the aforementioned quotes from the lower class characters in Arms and the Man by George Bernard Shaw
In sum, as the thesis statement for this essay (and the essays of other scholars) and important quotes in“Arms and the Man” Shaw is not overt in his social critiques in this play. The style of George Bernard Shaw requires that the reader interpret not only the varied language of his characters, but of the deeper meanings behind the settings and speech. While a particular scene’s description might seem, on first glance, to offer a beautiful setting or something simple, underneath these images are deeper layers of meaning that are geared towards society. In terms of dialogue, George Bernard Shaw writes his characters as complete individuals whose class and deep thoughts lay masked behind relatively simple-sounding speeches. The ultimate effect of this writing style is that the reader becomes implicated in class debates (as well as other equally prominent debates about the nature of war as well) and is left with a moving story as well as something more to consider.
Dukore. “Agitations: Letters to the Press 1875-1950.” Theatre Journal 38.3 (1986): 385
Salter. “Mr. Bernard Shaw as a Social Critic.” International Journal of Ethics 18.4 (1908): 446
Shaw, George Bernard. Arms and the Man. New York; Dover: (1994).
Weintraub. “Language and Laughter: Comic Diction in the Plays of Bernard Shaw.” Modern Philology68.2 (193)