Arms & the Man: Summary, Characters & Themes

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  • 0:01 Brief Synopsis
  • 2:43 Characters
  • 4:28 Themes
  • 6:13 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Joshua Wimmer

Joshua holds a master's degree in Latin and has taught a variety of Classical literature and language courses.

You might think there's nothing more romantic than a triumphant hero returning to his beloved, but some of the characters in Shaw's 'Arms and the Man' would disagree. Find out more about this play, including its characters and themes, and read a brief synopsis.

Brief Synopsis of 'Arms and the Man'

Produced in 1894, the three-act play Arms and the Man, by George Bernard Shaw, begins at the height of the Serbo-Bulgarian War, with the scene set in Raina Petkoff's chambers. Raina, an immature young lady with delusions of grandeur and romantic conquest, is settling into bed when a war fugitive slips in through her window. The shadowy intruder half-heartedly threatens Raina's dignity if she gives him up when a search party comes around, and she consents. She feeds the starving man some chocolates, and upon discovering the exhausted soldier passed out on the bed, Raina and her mother Catherine agree to help get him out of the house to safety.

By the time the second act has begun, the war is over and a peace treaty signed. The servants, Louka and Nicola, are half-heartedly discussing their own impending marriage when Major Paul Petkoff, Raina's father, returns home. After a reunion and some chitchat with his family, he welcomes his daughter's fiancé, Sergius, a young Bulgarian soldier whom Catherine and Raina hold as the perfect hero. When Raina comes out to greet her betrothed, the couples split off, and the younger pair decides to take a walk.

As Raina readies herself, Sergius finds Louka clearing the table. He makes several advances at her, which she rejects after toying with him and mocking the relationship he and Raina have. He then becomes physical with her, bruising her arm with his grip in his frustration.

Meanwhile, Raina and Catherine discuss the girl's growing distaste for Sergius and are confronted with the surprising presence of the soldier they helped escape, who has come back to return a coat they loaned him. Eventually, we learn the man's name is Bluntschli and that Paul and Sergius met him during troop exchanges. The men beg Bluntschli to stay, and the women follow suit to avoid suspicion.

In the final act, Bluntschli is helping the men move regiments. With Sergius and the rest off to see to the orders he's drawn up, the soldier and Raina have some time to talk. Bluntschli finally confronts Raina about her affected heroic superiority, forcing her to face her own hypocrisy.

Things seem as though they're about to escalate out of control when Major Petkoff discovers the relationship between his daughter and Bluntschli, and Sergius' pursuit of Louka. However, Nicola quickly lies and says his engagement to Louka is for show and convenience, and Bluntschli has suddenly become even more popular with the Petkoffs given his newfound inheritance. This, combined with his witty charm and Nicola's selfless denial of any claim of betrothal to Louka, smoothes the whole situation over, leaving both couples to live happily ever after.

Characters in 'Arms and the Man'

Raina Petkoff is the play's comedic heroine. She has a tendency to think too highly of herself; for instance, proudly pointing out the family's 'library,' which consists of a single shelf of battered books. Her world comes crashing down when Bluntshcli makes her see that she's been living a lie.

Bluntschli is the play's hero and a Swiss mercenary who fought for the Serbs. He's neither disillusioned with war nor does he romanticize it, but he is definitely a realist and considers himself a 'professional' soldier. Bluntschli tells Raina, 'You can always tell an old soldier by the inside of his holsters and cartridge boxes. The young ones carry pistols and cartridges; the old ones, grub.'

Sergius Saranoff is a Bulgarian soldier engaged to Raina. Everyone in Bulgaria (including himself) holds Sergius up as a national hero for his 'brave' cavalry charge that sent the Serbs running. Bluntschli later reveals, though, that the Serbian regiment Sergius was charging had the wrong ammo - otherwise, his whole squad would've died.

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