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Free Study Guide for Major Barbara by George Bernard Shaw-MonkeyNotes
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Major Barbara

Major Barbara is the central character for whom the play is named and the symbol and voice of idealism. She is the daughter of Lady Britomart and her estranged husband, Andrew Undershaft, a rich industrialist and owner of a munitions factory. In the beginning of the play, Barbara has had little contact with her father and totally disapproves of the source of his wealth. Young and idealistic, Barbara works with the Salvation Army, whose causes she totally supports. She believes her purpose in life is to save the souls of the poverty-stricken individuals who come to the Salvation Army shelter where she is employed. Both kind and patient, she is a hard worker and has risen to the rank of Major. Barbara is engaged to Cusins, another employee of the Salvation Army, and they plan to marry soon.

Barbara is shocked when Mrs. Bains, the commissioner of the shelter where she works in West Ham, accepts donations from a liquor baron and from her own father, a munitions manufacturer; her ideals about the Salvation Army are shattered by the reality of its funding by rich industrialists who have questionable means of earning money. Barbara is so disillusioned that she decides to permanently leave the Salvation Army; however, when she visits her father's factory, she realizes that she can continue her work of saving souls among the workers in the factory; her mission will be easier since she will not have to 'bribe' them with bread and milk, as she used to at the shelter in West Ham.

Throughout the play, Barbara comes across as a sincere, strong, and committed Christian who truly believes her mission in life is to save souls. She goes about her work at the Salvation Army with a missionary zeal that is both inspiring and moving. When her father, Mr. Undershaft, observes her at work, he knows that she is the only one of his children that would be capable of someday running his factory. He, however, is disturbed by her misplaced idealism, for he believes that people in poverty cannot truly be saved; they are too concerned about providing food and clothing for themselves to think about higher spiritual things. He makes Barbara realize that she needs to temper her idealism with reality. In the end, he convinces her that she will have much greater success saving souls at his factory than at the Salvation Army.

By depicting Barbara's conflict between idealism and realism, Shaw seems to be addressing many young people like her, who are striving to reform their society in idealistic ways. He clearly shows that idealism, without any basis on reality, cannot provide a solution to the problems of society. The challenge is to come to terms with the real world, like Undershaft, and find real solutions that can work, like Major Barbara has done in the play.

Mr. Undershaft

Andrew Undershaft is the symbol and voice of realism in the play. He is a successful millionaire who has accumulated his wealth by selling guns and canons. Like most of Shaw's key characters, he is extremely intelligent, imaginative, outspoken, and eloquent. Because of his radically different views, he is misunderstood by his relatives, including his own wife (Lady Britomart), his son (Stephen), and his daughter (Barbara). In not giving Undershaft a fair chance, they expose their own hypocrisy, for they believe he must be all bad because of what he manufactures. When they finally go to see his factory, they are shocked to find how well it is organized, how clean it is, and how happy the workers seem to be. Even the idealistic Barbara states that things are much better than she had imagined and agrees to live in the factory town when she marries Cusins.

Mr. Undershaft stands out in a society where a person is respected for his money and where everything is hidden under a false set of values, which no one follows. Unlike most wealthy people, he is realistic about who and what he is and honest about his intentions. He frankly says that for him poverty is the world's greatest crime, and wealth is his religion. He is obviously more honest than Lady Britomart and Cusins, who are motivated by money, but preach morality to others. The manner in which Lady Britomart invites her estranged husband home when she wants to arrange a fixed income for her daughters, reveals that though her husband's profession (making weapons) goes against her moral values (she considers it to be a sinful profession), she does not think twice about Undershaft's source of income when she needs money for her daughters or when she insists that their son should be made the heir to the huge Undershaft empire. In a like manner, Cusins easily leaves the Salvation Army behind to accept the challenge of learning the ammunition factory so that he can eventually run and own it.

Throughout the play, Shaw uses Undershaft as a vehicle to convey his views and criticize conventional beliefs about charitable organizations and politics. In his persuasive and imaginative arguments, he comments upon, criticizes, and ridicules the hypocrisy of the moralists, the intelligentsia, and the politicians of British society, who glorify poverty and preach a set of lofty values, which they themselves never practice. Undershaft is honest and rational enough to admit that he would rather be a thief than live in poverty. His power of reasoning, unmatched wit, and genuine concern for his employees and their living and working conditions influence and change the other characters to a more realistic and rational view of life.

Lady Britomart

Lady Britomart is the daughter of the Earl of Stevenage, a well- read, sharp-tongued woman of fifty. Because of her wealthy, aristocratic background, she has set herself apart, totally alienated from the rest of society. Even her own children find her to be an unkind and scolding woman. Totally concerned over money, Lady Britomart breaks up her marriage to Andrew Undershaft over the issue of inheritance. When Undershaft tells Britomart (or 'biddy,' as he calls her) that his business empire will not go to their son, Stephen, but to a capable 'foundling' who can be properly trained to run the business, Lady Britomart is horrified. However, when her daughters are engaged to be married, Lady Britomart does not hesitate to ask her estranged husband to provide them with an income, even if it does come from money raised by selling weapons. She is obviously a manipulative and hypocritical woman, who preaches one set of morals and lives another.

Adolphous Cusins

Cusins, previously a professor, is depicted to be a total hypocrite. He joins the Salvation Army only because he is in love with Major Barbara. Although he expresses a high moral view, he does not really put it into practice. He never has a commitment to the Salvation Army, but pretends that he does. Unlike Barbara who is distressed over her decision to leave the Army behind, Cusins does not give a second thought to his decision to quit in order to run the munitions factory. In the second act, Cusins is vociferous in condemning Undershaft's business, calling it 'the factory of death and destruction'. However, in the very next act, Cusins put all his lofty morals aside to prove that he is indeed eligible to inherit the Undershaft business empire. He accepts Undershaft's offer, even though he believes it will mean that there is no future for Barbara and him. Then the 'sophisticated' professor haggles with Andrew Undershaft about his share of profits in the company. The only redeeming aspect of Cusins is that Barbara loves him; therefore, there must be some worth in his character.

Peter Shirley

Peter Shirley is an honest and hard working man, who appears older than his age because of his gray hair. He comes to the Salvation Army because he has lost his job, for his employer thought that he was too old. Almost as idealistic as Barbara, he believes that it is better to die in poverty than accept charity and his self-respect is injured when Jenny Hill gives him some food at the shelter. His main purpose in the play is to stand in contrast to Andrew Undershaft, the wealthy and realistic industrialist. Peter Shirley, on the other hand, is an idealistic, poverty-stricken man. He genuinely believes that they only reason that the wealthy are successful is because the poor people work for and are exploited by them.

Price Bronterre

Price Bronterre is an intelligent young man who is the antithesis of Peter Shirley. Called 'Snobby' by his friends, he leaves his job because he feels that he is not being paid for what his skills are worth. He comes to the Salvation Army with no shame, wanting his material needs to be fulfilled. Unlike Peter, he is not affected by the fact that he is living on charity or does not have a job. Since he is a big talker, Snobby quickly reveals that he really has no scruples about anything. The manner in which he slyly walks away with Bill Walker's money reveals his true nature. Shaw, however, seems tolerant of Snobby's weaknesses, for he believes that honesty and other high moral values can only be held by people who are materially well off (the middle class and the rich). Snobby, since he is poor, cannot stick to any principle for long, for he, like others living in poverty, must be concerned about meeting his basic material needs.

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