Romantic Idealism Versus Realism in Shaw's "Arms and th

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Romantic Idealism Versus Realism in Shaw's "Arms and the Man"

Love and war are two concerns which are often regarded as societal ideals. George Bernard Shaw’s Arms and the Man is a pleasant and humorous attack on both. Shaw uses humor as “a vehicle of thought” thus tending to “obscure his subtle satire on war and the genteel classes and his exploration of the romantic-realist spectrum in human disposition” (Davis 274). These romantic ideals make up the essence of the play’s satirical instances and develop the theme of realism. Shaw satirizes romanticism within Arms and the Man by contrasting romantic idealism and realism.

Throughout the play an underlying conflict is seen between romanticism and realism within the characters. The two men that come into Raina’s life are representations of this conflict. Sergius depicts the passionate, impulsive, romantic war hero, while Bluntschli characterizes the practical, strong-minded professional soldier. Shaw’s portrayal of his characters is a very important aspect of his writing. “He is not interested in man’s eternal nature but in his changeability. His characters are full of contradiction imposed on them by the environment” (Davis 459). Change is seen in Arms and the Man with practically every character. The only static character is Bluntschli as he represents what the rest of the characters will attain by the end of the play: realism.

Several instances in the play establish the character’s ideals. One example exists in the first act as Raina confesses to her mother. “It came into my head just as he [Sergius] was holding me in his arms and looking into my eyes, that perhaps we only had our heroic ideas because we are so fond of reading Byron and Pushkin, and because we were so delighted with the opera that season at Bucharest” (Shaw 7). This “ironic speech ... prepares the audience for her later self-discoveries in the play” (Gibbs 76-77). Likewise, at the end of the play as Sergius and Raina’s love is faltering we see Sergius’ lack of comprehending a life without romanticism in his confession to Raina (Gibbs 76), “Raina: our romance is shattered. Life’s a farce” (Shaw 67).

Sergius represents the romantic ideal that the society of the time agreed with. He is an officer in the Bulgarian army and on the victorious side of the battle. Since Bluntschli is a soldier in the enemy regiment, he represents the opposing idea of realism. Raina struggles with her inappropriate fascination with realistic Bluntschli when the “sensible” choice is obviously Sergius. As her experiences within the play lead her away from naiveté, she chooses Bluntschli against the Bulgarian society. The established plot of Arms and the Man thus becomes a contrast between romantic idealism and realism. “Instead of the romance of conventional fiction, it offers the romance of reality, of the discovery of true feeling ... their romantic intimacy increasing as her romantic attitudes are progressively discarded” (Gibbs 73). Since Raina has never experienced a man such as Bluntschli she is amazed at his behavior toward her:

Raina: Do you know, you are the first man who did not take me seriously?

Bluntschli: You mean, don’t you, that I am the first man that has ever taken you quite seriously?

Raina: Yes: I suppose I do mean that. How strange it is to be talked to in such a way! (Shaw 55).

In contrast to what most audiences see in Arms and the Man, Shaw does not simply negate romance. He presents “A rejuvenation of a typical romance structure, by attaching to well-tried dramatic situations an unconventional set of values and affirmations” (Gibbs 73). The attraction between Bluntschli and Raina therefore exists as a romance built upon Bluntschli’s common sense and matter-of-fact manner, as opposed to Sergius’ dashing heroic behaviors and impulses. In the setting of late 1800's Bulgarian society, Raina is the epitome of the hypocritical romantic figure, “Oh, to think that it was all true! that the world is really a glorious world for women who can see its glory and men who can act its romance! What happiness! What unspeakable fulfillment” (Shaw 8)! The romanticism she believes in is not real; indeed, it is an appealing facade. “Romance in Shaw’s plays depends on reality for its basis” (Deaton 30).

What develops between Raina and Bluntschli is a romance based on realism, not idealism. Raina loses her facade in the third act while talking to Bluntschli:

Raina: You know, I’ve always gone on like that.

Bluntschli: You mean the-?

Raina: I mean the noble attitude and the thrilling voice. [They laugh together]. I did it when I was a tiny child to my nurse. She believed in it. I do it before my parents. They believe in it. I do it before Sergius. He believes in it ... I suppose, now you’ve found me out, you despise me.

Bluntschli: No my dear young lady ... I’m your infatuated admirer (Shaw 55-56).

While Raina becomes a realist when her romantic illusions deteriorate, Sergius “blames human nature for failing to live up to his unrealistic ideals, which he uses to screen himself from reality” (Davis 20). His idealism within the play is oblivious to realistic instincts, which accounts for his disenchantment toward Raina when she tries to approach their relationship more realistically (Davis 144). The ending of the play resolves these elements through marriage. Sergius confesses his love for Louka, who is in fact a realist with “romantic ambitions” (Davis 274). Louka thus serves as a foil character for Raina who is a romantic idealist turned realist.

In several of Shaw’s plays there is a reversal of expectations, where the upsetting of a conventional idea leads to a more realistic idea (Popkin 353). This is shown in Arms and the Man as the overthrowing of romantic idealism leads to realism. Shaw’s anti-romanticism is seen in the reversal of roles with Bluntschli and Sergius. Raina chooses the professional soldier over the ideal lover and Sergius chooses the servant girl over his affianced lover (Popkin 353). However, Shaw’s plays do not lack passion though they mock romanticism. On the contrary, “Shaw’s passionate involvement with ideas made his plays passionate and even poetic” (Popkin 353). Therefore the satire used in the play is simply a device for explaining the philosophy of realism. Most of the humor in the play is from the deflation of romantic ideals of love and war (Gibbs 69).

The conception of love in Arms and the Man is free from illusion and strictly based on reality. Thus the play becomes a humorous yet accurate account of a love story. Reality serves as the underlying theme in the play. “Reality, as he [Shaw] truly says, being the one thing which the majority of playgoers wish to escape from” (Deaton 30). Shaw suffices a philosopher’s urge to get to realities. In the process of dismissing romanticism, the play does not become empty. Instead, it shows “the possibilities of deeper and more meaningful forms of intimacy” (Gibbs 74). The idealization of love is destroyed in Arms and the Man and raised in its place is the philosophy of realism.

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