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Investigating G.B. Shaw's Arms and the Man from a Socialist Standpoint

 


Investigating G.B. Shaw's Arms and the Man from a Socialist Standpoint

Naimuddin Ansary

State Aided College Teacher (Category-I)

Department of English

Department of English

Raghunathpur College

West Bengal, India

Abstract:

This paper attempts at investigating Shaw's iconoclastic play Arms and the Man from a socialist point of view. G.B. Shaw, a socialist at heart and an active member of the then Fabian Society of the 19th century in London, had put immense efforts to convey the message that the contemporary English society failed to embrace the light of civilization wholeheartedly. Even though people of the society claimed themselves to be civilized, educated and progressive, they couldn't completely extricate themselves from the shackles of caste, creed and gender discrimination. Inequality on the basis of rank, class and gender had still been prevailing in the English society which was finely brought forth by Shaw in his Arms and the Man by presenting deliberately certain episodes such as the Louka-Sergius episode along with other certain events or instances with his masterly craftsmanship as a part of his duty for being a committed socialist. The present study will subtly explore Shaw's socialistic concerns or views which include the idea of reduction of the gap of class distinction as well as his dream of prioritising the individual potentialities or abilities which are keys to the social change as exemplified in Arms and the Man. Even though Arms and the Man is often categorized as an anti romantic comedy  in three acts as its subtitle is ,this particular drama with its plethora of ideas doesn't fail to attract the readers, critics and audience who often  find themselves being hypnotized in the maze of the romantic, realistic and above all socialistic aspects incorporated in the drama. Shaw's role as a socialist as well as a reformist in Arms and the Man is explicitly evident as he uses some of his characters to act as his mouthpiece to get his intended ideas expressed through them.

Keywords: socialist; socialism; class; equality; abilities

Introduction:

G.B. Shaw, a revolutionary playwright in the field of 19th century English drama, had used stage as a platform for discussion of different contemporary social issues and ideas. He presented problems on the stage with a view to find a solution through discussion rather than mere conversation for the same. Being a member of the well known socialist organization of London, Fabian Society, Shaw aimed at reforming, just like any other playwright, society through the act of exposing societal incongruities on various grounds and people's follies and foibles in his plays like Arms and the Man which even today keep attracting the attention of the eminent scholars, critics and readers who extend their analysis of it from different perspectives. Before analysing Arms and the Man from the lens of Socialism, it's really important for anyone to have certain knowledge regarding Socialism, Fabian Society and Shaw's commitment to it. According to the Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary, Socialism is "a set of political and economic theories based on the belief that everyone has an equal right to a share of a country's wealth and that the government should own and control the main industries." Shaw wrote a three page pamphlet addressing issues of private property, labour, poverty, education, and the dominance of the rich, upper classes in government. Shaw writes: "Poverty and riches together mean the perversion of our capital and industry to the production of frippery and luxury whilst the nation is rotting for want of good food, thorough instruction, and wholesome clothes and dwellings for the masses."

He is also of the opinion that Socialism means equal rights and opportunities for all, and advocates the Fabian vision for nationalisation of ‘land and machinery’ which means property, including housing and industry, such as the railways. The Fabian Society founded in 1884 is a British socialist organisation. The members of which believe in the socialist concept of ushering a change in the society in a gradual instead of revolutionary manner with effort and endeavour. Its members realized that the society was unequal, unjust and flawed due to the prevailing system of Capitalism. Therefore they envisioned their mission with a vision to bring a gradual change in Britain with the help of local government and trade unions. They didn't harbour the idea of revolutionary upsurge of Capitalism. Shaw remained a committed socialist throughout his life. Many of his plays such as Mrs. Warren's Profession, Pygmalion and Arms and the Man, abound in socialist politics and beliefs, addressing issues such as women’s rights, poverty and capitalism.

Analysis:

Arms and the Man is one of the acclaimed masterpieces of Shaw addressing a number of issues of Socialism. It is quite evident in Arms and the Man that he is putting forward ideas through his characters from a socialist standpoint. Some of the major episodes, dramatic incidents and situations of Arms and the Man are taken for consideration and validation of the fact that it can obviously be categorized as a socialist text.

Shaw as a socialist in this particular play exposed class snobbery and class differences existed between the wealthy landed gentry at the top and the peasants at the bottom of the social hierarchy in the contemporary English society through his adroit presentation of the social structure of Bulgaria with the intention of eradicating or reducing class distinction and create a society based on the principles of equality of opportunities for all of Socialism. Characters like Major Petkoff, Raina Petkoff, Catherine Petkoff and Sergius Saranoff of the play represent wealthy landed gentry class and such characters as Louka and Nicola stand for people of peasant class of English society of Shaw's time. Shaw intended to satirize the hypocrisy of the so called aristocratic people and class distinction prevailing in the contemporary England. He depicts that people of gentry class are boastful of their material possessions and culture. In Arms and the Man, Raina tells Bluntschli that they are in the habit of often frequenting Bucharest and Vienna, the centre of art and fashion of that time, for the Opera show being performed there. She relates the events of the Opera of Ernani she watched  to Bluntschli only to present themselves as culturally civilized and educated folk which is nothing but on her part a mere show of pretence and vanity. Raina says "Have you ever seen the opera of Ernani? I thought you might have remembered the great scene where Ernani, flying from his foes just as you are tonight, takes refuge in the castle of his bitterest enemy, an old Castilian noble. The noble refuses to give him up. His guest is sacred to him."She doesn't stop to take pleasure in boasting of themselves and their possessions as well as culture. She continues and tells Bluntschli that their family is "the richest and best known in our country." She also adds that they are the only people in their country who are acquainted with the idea of a Library and they possess one. She says in reply to the question of Bluntschli "Yes, we have one, the only one in Bulgaria." Raina thinks herself to be the member of the privileged class of the country but fails to sense that she has actually been denouncing the reputation of her country where according to her only one library exists in the whole country. The library of the Petkoffs is in real sense is not much of a library in which there can be found a few "paper covered novels, broken backed, coffee stained, torn and thumbed, and a couple of hanging shelves with a few gift books on them: the rest of the wall space being occupied by trophies of war and the chase." It is not only Raina who takes immense pride on having the library but her parent too is boastful of the same. Major Petkoff is proud of their library and tells Catherine, mother of Raina, that he "took care to let them (highly efficient Russian Officers who supported Bulgarian soldiers in the Serbo-Bulgarian War) know that we have a library."Catherine is no exception in this matter of boasting of their possessions. She is also found to implore to Major Petkoff that he should have told the Russian Officers about the news of their installing an electric bell which is used to call or command the servants of the house. Catherine thinks that the "Civilized people never shout for their servants." She also believes that the civilized people wash themselves every once in a while. She is also proud of their historical lineage which can be traced back for "twenty years". She is obsessed with the latest fashion of the time and tries to appear as a lady with keen awareness on the latest fashion of the time. She is in the habit of wearing a tea gown on all occasions as she comes to realize it to be the dress of a fashionable lady of the upper strata of the society. In reality Shaw disdains for mindless imitation and exposes this habit of the so called civilized folk of England of his time. A. C. Ward says "The silliness of their pretensions reveals the irrationality of class snobbery." He exposes the mindless imitation and vanities of the Petkoffs describing the articles and furnitures of the interior of the bedroom of Raina as "half rich Bulgarian, half cheap Viennese.”

As a proponent of Socialism, Shaw directed his intention of making people of the contemporary time of England understand through his depiction of class snobbery of the Petkoffs that one's social superiority and status are not defined by his or her material possessions or hereditary identity rather it is the potentialities or abilities or inherent virtues of humans which play a significant role in determining one's identity in the society after all as a human being. It is evident in the play Arms and the Man that characters like Louka and Bluntschli climb in social ladder, not for their rank or mundane possessions, but for their own skill, efficiency and potentialities. Bluntschli, a practical, realistic and professional soldier, is free from the web of illusion of war and love. He is guided by rationalistic principles of life. He believes in his strength and abilities and moves ahead to face the hurdles and obstacles of life. It is his inherent potentialities which help him emerge as an efficient soldier in the field of battle of war as well as of life. He instinctively and immediately finds a solution to the problem faced by Sergius and Major Petkoff in the matter of sending three regiments to Philippopolis. When finishes his task, he instructs Major to "Pack them (soldiers) off at once; and shew them that I’ve marked on the orders the time they should hand them in by. Tell them that if they stop to drink or tell stories-if they’re five minutes late, they all have the skin taken off their backs." Bluntschli is the mouthpiece of socialist Shaw. Shaw expresses his views of the reduction of class differences in the society and social equality through the character of Bluntschli. It has been noticed throughout the play Arms and the Man that the characters representing the people of the upper strata of the society are contemptible towards the characters representing the lower class people of the society. But, Bluntschli's character is unique. He doesn't harbour hatred or spleen in the heart for the characters representing the people of the downtrodden section of the society rather he appears to have extended his unconditional love for them. He has a keen sense of appreciation for what is right. He is the first person to praise and point out Louka to be a practical girl in her love affair as she being a mere maid servant of the Petkoff household succeeds out of her shrewdness in securing  a man like Sergius of the upper class society as her husband. A.C. Ward remarks "Shaw has been setting up Bluntschli as a model of balance and good sense." Ward's view is further exemplified by the reply of Bluntschli in response to the question being asked to him about his social standing-"My rank is the highest known in Switzerland. I am a free citizen. Shaw's socialist agenda comes to the fore here. The rational middle class republican, a product of a free and democratic society, is the true hero of Shaw's play.

Principal concept of class system is intimately associated with Socialism. Shaw advocates his socialist concepts deliberately in Arms and the Man. He presents two types of servants- one accepting the class system blindly thinking it to have been ordained on them since a long time as their unalterable lot by the dominant class of the society therefore they subjugate themselves, lose human dignity for the sake of a comfortable living. Nicola is such a kind of servant who thinks he "shall always be dependent on the good will of the family" of the Petkoffs and one the other hand, another type of servant always seeks to get rid of the clutches of their masters and mistresses by making themselves free from the shackles of class system through the act of channelizing their vital energy which is key to bring a gradual change or social equality in the society as propounded by the think tank of Socialism. Louka in the play serves as a spokesperson of such kind of people of servant class who cherish a desire to rise in social position through own abilities and merit.

Under socialism, the position of the working man in society has been fundamentally changed. In contrast to capitalism, where man’s status is determined by his social origin and wealth, man’s status in socialist society is determined by his work and personal abilities alone.

Freedom from exploitation in labour is one of the fundamental issues in socialist politics. With the passage of time, the exploiting system leaves among working people a mark of disinclination to work. It appears to be a shameful burden to the working class people. Socialism transforms labour into a matter of honour and heroism. In socialist society the working man, if he works sincerely and diligently is often credited with honour and glory. In Arms and the Man, Sergius exclaims in half credulous praise of the abilities and the labouring endeavour of Bluntschli –“What a man! is he a man!.”At the same time, Shaw takes the initiative to reveal the fact that even today class disparity exists in the society where people of the servant class are dominated and not honoured by people of the upper class of the society rather they are treated slightingly as Louka is looked down upon by Sergius even though she performs manual labour for him in Arms and the Man. Equality must prevail in the society. She says "Look at me! how much am I allowed to have my own will? I have to get your room ready for you — to sweep and dust, to fetch and carry. How could that degrade me if it did not degrade you to have it done for you?." Shaw as a socialist emphasises on the importance of merit, labour and abilities of humans instead of social rank or position in Arms and the Man in which Louka reminds Sergius that both of them are made of flesh and blood despite having differences between them in terms of sex, gender or class system. She tells Sergius," But don't care, now I have found out that whatever clay I'm made of, you’re made of the same." Shaw incorporates socialist principle of social equality in the play through the character of Louka who asserts that she could have dared to take the decision of marrying her inferior.

On the other hand, Major Petkoff enjoys his military position only because of his social standing and rank in terms of class system instead of his abilities. He utterly fails to prove himself as a valiant, chivalrous and courageous military man in the military matters. He is found to ask his wife to extend her helping hands in order to enforce military law and order on the soldiers when Bluntschli asks him to instruct the soldiers heading towards Philippopolis to settle a military matter. He tells Catherine "You may as well come too. They’ll be far more frightened of you than of me." It shows how incapable Major Petkoff is as a soldier. His inability to deal with the exchange of prisoners properly with Bluntschli is another instance of his being buffoon in handling military affairs.

Conclusion:

The present study of the drama Arms and the Man reveals the fact that Shaw as a true and committed Socialist has steeped his drama with the principal principles of Socialism. He instructed his readers as well as audience through this drama to discard the outmoded sloppy and sentimental notions of class superiority, class distinction and think about bringing a gradual change in the society with a view to make the path smooth for building a classless society. He also implicitly imparts a lesson to the readers and audience to admire merit, dignity and excellence of human beings.

Works Cited

Ward, A. C. Arms and the Man. (Ed.) Orient Blackswan pvt, Chennai, 2020.

A  Concise  Companion  to Contemporary  British  and  Irish  Drama,  edited  by  Nadine Holdsworth and  Mary Luckhurst, Blackwell  Pub.,2008.

Chesterton, G. K. George Bernard Shaw. John Lane, 1909, pp. 118-20.

Sen, S. Arms and the Man: A Critical Evaluation.(Ed.)Unique Publishers, New Delhi,2020.

Sinha, M. Arms and the Man. (Ed.) Kolkata 700006, 2015.

Chesterton, G.K. George Bernard Shaw, Folcroft  Library  Editions,  1978.

https://www.marxists.org/subject/economy/authors/pe/pe-ch31.htm

https://www.oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com/definition/english/socialism