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The protagonist of the play is idealism, as symbolized by Major Barbara. She is a young lady born into wealth, who idealistically devotes herself to the cause of the Salvation Army; by trying to save the souls of the poor and starving people who come to the shelter where she works, she thinks she can help change the world.
The antagonist of the play is realism, as symbolized by Mr. Andrew Undershaft, a successful businessman who owns a munitions factory. He is a realist and a strong, intelligent person who has "a watchful, deliberate, waiting, listening face, and formidable reserves of power, both bodily and mental." His youth was spent in poverty at the Salvation Army and, therefore, he believes that being poor is a crime. He would rather be a thief than a pauper, believing that it is far braver and morally right to be a robber than to die in poverty. As a brilliant orator, he is often the mouthpiece of Shaw, expressing the dramatist's views on war, poverty, and government. By the end of the play, he forces his daughter, Barbara, to temper her idealism with reality.
The climax of the play occurs at the end of the second Act when idealism must deal with reality. All the ideas that Major Barbara held sacred, especially her seemingly unshakable faith in the work of the Salvation Army, are shattered when she realizes that the Salvation Army hypocritically works only by means of the financial help of people which the organization denounces as evil.
The play ends as a comedy. Idealism is tempered by reality, but does not vanish. Barbara leaves the Salvation Army as a sad but wiser woman. She still plans to marry Cusins and settle down in the beautiful countryside near her father's munitions factory. When her husband goes to work in the factory, she will spread the word of God among the well-fed, comfortable workers, who are also in need of salvation. She accepts the fact that poor and starving people are unable to concentrate on spiritual matters; she also accepts the fact that her husband becomes Undershaft's successor and heir to the factory.
SHORT PLOT SUMMARY (Synopsis)
As the play opens, Lady Britomart, a British woman in her fifties, is discussing with her son some permanent source of income for her grown daughters, Sarah and Barbara, who are engaged to Charles Lomax and Adolphous Cusins respectively. Lady Britomart comes to the conclusion that the only solution to the present problem is to take monetary help from her estranged husband, Andrew Undershaft. He is a very successful businessman who owns a munitions factory that manufactures the world famous Undershaft Guns, submarines, and torpedoes. When their children were young, the couple separated due to questions about Undershaft's wealth and how it would be distributed. Lady Britomart has managed to raise the children by herself.
Because Lady Britomart has decided to seek help from her estranged husband, Sarah, Barbara, and Stephen are reintroduced to their father. In the course of their reunion, Undershaft learns that his daughter Barbara is a Major at the Salvation Army shelter. Impressed by her, Undershaft pay her a visit at the shelter in order to see her at work. As he watches her handling various people with patience, firmness, and sincerity, he is impressed with her abilities. Undershaft decides that if anyone in his family is capable of managing his business, it is his idealistic and committed daughter, Barbara.
Undershaft brings his daughter back to reality by revealing the darker side of the Salvation Army to her. Disillusioned, Barbara leaves the shelter in tears to go with her father to his ammunition factory. Adolphous follows her. He is soon made heir to the Undershaft factory, because he is a foundling. According to the Undershaft tradition, the heir to the Undershaft fortune must be an orphan who can be groomed to run the factory. After all, Undershaft himself had been a poor young man, staying at the Salvation Army shelter; he improved his lot by working hard, and he wants to give some other young gentleman the same kind of opportunities. Major Barbara soon marries Adolphous, and they live in the countryside near the factory. Barbara, whose idealism has been tempered with reality, brings her words of salvation to the workers in the factory.