The Women’s Question in Major Barbara

What would make a person with a rigid set of principles suddenly change? The presence of Andrew Undershaft, apparently. The women in George Bernard Shaw’s play, Major Barbara are first introduced as strong women who are a force to be reckoned with. However, Shaw makes the women less powerful as the play goes on. We see this in the beginning of the play with the character Lady Britomart; she is described as an outspoken, scolding mother who is indifferent to the opinions of others and has a clear set of what is right and wrong. Even when her son approaches her, Shaw describes Stephen’s walk as submissive. In contrast, her husband Andrew Undershaft, of which she is separated from, acts immorally and is responsible for the sudden snap of Lady Britomart’s character. Similarly, the play’s main character Major Barbara begins to question the morality of her work in the Salvation Army once her father appears. In the beginning of the play, Barbara’s principles are black and white, but it fades when she visits her father’s place of work and eventually succumbs to his and her fiancé Cusins’s ways. In Major Barbara, Shaw shows that women who are strong-willed, headstrong figures can eventually be tamed through the presence of a man.

The first act begins by showing Lady Britomart as the head of the house treating her son Stephen, who is in his early twenties, as if he were still a child. She tells him not to fiddle with his tie and interrupts him multiple times, but Stephen remains obedient and respectful to his mother despite her assertiveness. Stephen’s demeanor changes, however, when Lady Britomart’s husband Andrew Undershaft arrives. At first, Undershaft rubs the other characters the wrong way. This is shown especially when he had trouble remembering who his children are so Lady Britomart verbally attacks him for this, and he responds submissively. Once Undershaft proves himself to be a sincere gentleman, he begins to discuss the Army with the others. Lady Britomart is unhappy with Undershaft leading the conversation and proposes a family prayer, which is dismissed by her family. As a result, Lady Britomart, “with a sudden flounce, gives way to a little gust of tears.” After just one conversation with her estranged husband, Shaw makes Lady Britomart change from the sharp-tongued woman, who was the head of the household, into a frustrated, crying one who feels abandoned by her children. Shaw seems to depict women, like Lady Britomart, as weak and easy to give in to the situation. More specifically, the change of Lady Britomart is brought on by a man, her estranged husband, making her submissive. The character change in Lady Britomart suggests Shaw believes no matter how powerful a woman may think she is, a man can change that with a flip of a switch. Even though she confides in her son Stephen on the “injustice of a woman’s lot,” Lady Britomart still dejectedly retreats to the drawing-room once the conversation ends.

In the second act, we get a glimpse into Barbara’s passion for her work with the Salvation Army while her father observes her. Barbara is shown as an efficient, self-assured woman who takes her job seriously. Undershaft recognizes and admires his daughter’s work-ethic, so he vows to her fiancé Cusins to convert Barbara to his point-of-view for his own benefit. Cusins responds by saying Barbara cannot be bought, so subsequently, Undershaft proves that the Salvation Army can be bought, with his donation. At first, Undershaft donates only two pence to the Salvation Army because that is what they were short of to get to their goal of five shillings. When Barbara learns these two pence were earned through the sale of cannons, torpedoes, and submarines, she refuses her father’s money. Even when Undershaft offers more money, Barbara stands by her morals at first, saying, “Two million millions would not be enough. There is bad blood on your hands; and nothing but good blood can cleanse them. Money is no use. Take it away.” However, this makes Barbara reflect and lament the fact that she spends more time collecting money than saving people’s souls: “I want to convert people, not to be always begging for the Army in a way I’d die sooner than beg for myself.” Shortly after, we see the change Shaw creates in Barbara’s character when Salvation Army commissioner Mrs. Baines meets Undershaft and shares that the chief manufacturer of gin, beef, and whisky will give the Army five thousand pounds if another donor can match his contribution. To the dismay of Barbara, Undershaft writes a check of five thousand pounds without skipping a beat. These two contributions are “tainted,” according to Barbara, but are nonetheless accepted by the Salvationists, despite the donation coming from profits of alcohol consumption and weapons of war. Although it seems as if Barbara is sticking to her principles by refusing to accept the tainted donation, she still quits the Salvation Army, a large factor of her identity, because of Undershaft’s influence. Even more than some of her central principles, Barbara also loses her name which is significant because it is the title of the play, Major Barbara, after waving her white flag.

Despite this, Barbara has not quite completely abandoned her morals yet after leaving the Salvation Army until it reaches a boiling point in act three. In this act, Barbara’s ideal of what is right and wrong turns grayer when she learns her fiancé spent the night drinking with her father and that Cusins would not have joined the Army in the first place if it weren’t for her. Also in act three, Undershaft continues to demean and speak down to Lady Britomart shown when he calls her Biddy, a nickname she has asked him not to use. Shaw creates the final snap in these two women when they visit the community Undershaft has created, Perivale St. Andrews, and realize Undershaft is kinder than he seems. In a discussion about the pleasant features of Undershaft’s munitions village, he asks Barbara if he has made her unhappy. Barbara responds, “Do you think I can be happy in this vulgar silly dress? I! who have worn the uniform. Do you understand what you have done to me?” Seeing her war-obsessed father profit from destruction while also taking good care of his employees has made Barbara further question her identity. Through Barbara’s exclamation aimed at her father, Shaw shows that Barbara being stripped of her title and uniform has simultaneously stripped her of character as well, as a result of her father’s presence. Shaw even writes Undershaft as being responsible for saving Barbara’s soul because of his wealth attained through profits of war, which does not align with Barbara’s original ethics. When asked how he saved Barbara’s soul, Undershaft responds, “I fed you and clothed you and housed you. I took care that you should have money enough to live handsomely … That saved your soul from the seven deadly sins.” Not only does Barbara come to accept profits of war for it can help her save souls, but she also turns into a child as a result of this revelation. Because of her father’s aura, Shaw changes Barbara from a woman with the title “Major” with a strong set of morals into a little girl: “[She runs to the shed, and calls, childlike] Mamma! Mamma! …  I want Mamma.” Although Lady Britomart has seemingly kept her attitude in this act, she has been in the shed for the last part of this act out of embarrassment because of a misunderstanding she had with the munitions foundry foreman.

Shaw’s characters Barbara and Lady Britomart both begin as iron-willed, resilient women, but end up abandoning aspects of those traits by the end of Major Barbara due to the influence of Undershaft. These two women begin as those who could command a room, but they lose that quality by the end of the play because of a man’s actions; Undershaft causes Lady Britomart to crumble through his words, and Barbara too by proving war can be beneficial. The declination of Lady Britomart and Barbara’s characters show Shaw is displaying that strong women can eventually be tamed through the presence of a man in Major Barabara.


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