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THEMES - THEME ANALYSIS
The main theme of Major Barbara is centered on conflicting social and moral ethics, one realistic and the other idealistic. On the one hand, there is Mr. Undershaft, who looks at life realistically and believes that poverty is a crime. He accepts that man must have money to take care of his basic human needs, and until those needs are met, man cannot have any intellectual or spiritual pursuits. In contrast are the moralists and idealists, like Major Barbara, who seem to glorify poverty and suffering. They feel that if the poor are treated kindly and given charity, they can turn them into good people, saving their souls. Undershaft believes that such views are hypocritical, for he has lived a life of poverty and knows its pain. As a result, he makes certain that the workers in his factory are given a good life and rise above poverty. He knows that a hungry man cannot think of lofty ideas or worry about his soul. At the beginning of the play, Major Barbara feels that she can save the souls of the hungry and needy who come to the Salvation Army; she idealistically accepts all of their teachings and tenets. During the course of the play, her father, Andrew Undershaft, makes her realize that her idealism must be tempered with reality.
Undershaft is also a stark contrast to Peter Shirley, who would rather starve than accept charity or earn money through dishonest means. In contrast, Andrew Undershaft genuinely believes that it is okay to make a fortune from making and selling guns and cannons, as long as the common worker is respected. He also believes it is better to be a thief than die as a pauper. In the final act of the play, Undershaft states the importance of courage and conviction to any cause; it takes honest, committed, and courageous people to make positive change in the world.
Major Barbara openly criticizes the Salvation Army; by inference, Shaw is also criticizing other twentieth century religious and charitable organizations. He believes that such groups turn the attention away from the real problems faced by the common people. Instead of making them into productive workers who can earn a living and gain self-respect, these organizations are more interested in saving their souls. By preaching forgiveness above everything, these organizations help to prevent any kind of organized struggle by the workers for their basic rights. As a result, the rich industrialists are very interested in helping to fund organizations such as the Salvation Army, for they reap profit from their existence. Although the Salvation Army has many sincere and committed members who want to alleviate the misery of the poor, like Major Barbara, Shaw believes that ultimately it benefits the rich.
Another theme developed in the play is the sad truth about politics. Shaw shatters the middle class myths that the voting public really influences the government or that the learned ministers in the Parliament make decisions for the country. In the play, Undershaft speaks the truth when he says that it is people like him (wealthy industrialists) that influence the government to make crucial decisions for the nation. He further states that when people vote, they change the names of the people in the Cabinet, but they do not change the government. Undershaft believes that only guns and cannons have the power to change governments by totally destroying the old order and setting up a new one
He tells Barbara that moralizing and preaching to half-starved people will never change the world. To truly change society for the better, honest, committed people, like Barbara herself, will have to wield weapons and defeat the corrupt and unjust people occupying the seats of power.