Major Barbara

By George Bernard Shaw


Welcome to the wonderful world of Major Barbara! 📚✨ Penned by the illustrious George Bernard Shaw, this play dives deep into themes of morality, social inequality, and the complexities of human nature. Shaw, a playwright known for his wit, satire, and keen social commentary, brings us a story that challenges our perceptions of right and wrong.

Set in the early 20th century, Major Barbara falls into the genre of drama, with a special focus on societal critiques that were incredibly poignant during Shaw’s time—and remain relevant today. The play is a fascinating exploration of the conflict between idealism and realism, providing audiences with much to ponder about the world around them.

George Bernard Shaw, an Irish playwright and a co-founder of the London School of Economics, was known for his sharp criticism of social injustices and his advocacy for a fairer society. Through Major Barbara, Shaw invites us to question the conventional wisdom of his day, especially concerning poverty, wealth, and the role of charity in society. So, let’s dive into this intriguing play and uncover the layers of meaning Shaw has woven into its fabric! 🎭💼🕊️

Plot Summary

Major Barbara unfolds in three acts, weaving a compelling narrative that examines moral dilemmas, the efficacy of charity, and the complexities of human nature.

Exposition — The story introduces us to the Undershaft family, particularly focusing on Barbara, a major in the Salvation Army, who is passionate about her mission to save souls and alleviate poverty. The Undershaft family is estranged from their patriarch, Andrew Undershaft, a wealthy munitions manufacturer whose business practices starkly contrast with his daughter’s moral and ethical beliefs.

Rising Action — The tension escalates when Andrew visits his family after many years and strikes a deal with his daughter. He agrees to visit the Salvation Army shelter if Barbara and her fiancé, Adolphus Cusins, visit his munitions factory. This visit sets the stage for a clash of ideologies between Barbara’s idealistic pursuits and her father’s pragmatic approach to dealing with poverty and war.

Climax — The climactic moment occurs at the munitions factory, where Barbara is confronted with the reality that her charity work is indirectly funded by the profits of her father’s arms business. This revelation forces her to question the purity of her motives and the true impact of her efforts to help the poor.

Falling Action — Following this revelation, Barbara resigns from the Salvation Army, feeling disillusioned with the limitations of charity work. However, she begins to see her father’s perspective that providing stable employment might be a more effective way to combat poverty than mere charity.

Resolution — In the end, Barbara and Cusins decide to embrace Andrew’s viewpoint to some extent, agreeing to take over the family business under the condition that they will use its wealth and power to effect real change in society. The play concludes with the family reconciling their differences, united by a new understanding of how to address the social issues they are all passionate about.

This summary captures the essence of Major Barbara, a narrative that challenges its characters and audience alike to ponder the complexities of social reform, ethics, and the true meaning of salvation.

Character Analysis

In Major Barbara, George Bernard Shaw crafts a cast of characters that are not only memorable but also serve as vehicles for his exploration of social, ethical, and philosophical questions. Here’s a closer look at the main characters:

  • Barbara Undershaft — A major in the Salvation Army, Barbara is the embodiment of idealism and moral rigor. She is deeply committed to her cause of saving souls and helping the poor, driven by a strong sense of duty and compassion. However, her encounter with her father’s world forces her to confront the practical limitations of her ideals, leading to significant personal growth and a shift in her worldview.
  • Andrew Undershaft — Barbara’s father, a successful and wealthy munitions manufacturer, represents pragmatism and cynicism. He believes in power and money as the greatest forces for change in society, a belief that starkly contrasts with his daughter’s ideals. Andrew’s character challenges the moral high ground of charity and questions the effectiveness of traditional approaches to social reform.
  • Adolphus Cusins — Barbara’s fiancĂ©, a scholar of Greek and a professor, who is initially depicted as somewhat idealistic but is also pragmatic. His engagement with Barbara and her family leads him on a journey of ethical exploration, where he grapples with the morality of wealth, power, and societal contribution. His character arc culminates in a decision to join the Undershaft family business, but on his terms.
  • Lady Britomart — The matriarch of the Undershaft family, Lady Britomart provides a dose of realism and practicality to the narrative. Her primary concern is the financial well-being and future of her children, leading her to seek reconciliation with Andrew. She is a strong-willed character who navigates the complex dynamics of her family with a blend of authority and concern.

Here’s a summary table of their character development:

BarbaraIdealistic, compassionate, moralTo save souls and alleviate poverty through charityRealizes the complexities of social reform; shifts towards a pragmatic approach
AndrewPragmatic, cynical, powerfulTo demonstrate the power of wealth and challenge moral superiorityInfluences his family’s views on wealth and power
CusinsIdealistic, intellectual, pragmaticTo reconcile his moral beliefs with the realities of power and wealthDecides to engage with the world pragmatically, within the munitions industry
Lady BritomartRealistic, authoritative, concernedTo ensure her family’s financial security and reconciliationGuides her family through their ideological conflicts, aiming for stability

This analysis highlights the depth of Shaw’s characters, each embodying different facets of the play’s thematic concerns, and illustrates their journeys from conviction through conflict to a nuanced understanding of their beliefs and the realities of the world around them.

Themes and Symbols

Major Barbara by George Bernard Shaw is rich with themes and symbols that delve into the complexity of morality, the nature of salvation, and the intricacies of social change. Here’s a breakdown of the major themes and symbols in the play:

  • Wealth and Poverty — This theme is central to the narrative, exploring the paradoxical relationship between the affluent and the destitute. Shaw questions the effectiveness of charity as a means of addressing poverty, suggesting that systemic change and economic independence might offer more sustainable solutions. The contrast between the Salvation Army’s mission and Undershaft’s munitions factory serves as a battleground for this debate.
  • Morality and Power — Shaw challenges conventional notions of morality, suggesting that power and money, rather than moral superiority, are the true catalysts for social change. The character of Andrew Undershaft embodies this theme, as he argues that his munitions factory, a symbol of destruction, paradoxically brings stability and prosperity, thereby contributing to society.
  • Idealism versus Realism — The play pits Barbara’s idealistic convictions against the pragmatic worldview of her father, Andrew. This tension highlights the dilemmas faced by those who wish to reform society, questioning whether ideals can survive in the face of harsh realities.
  • Salvation and Redemption — The concept of salvation is explored not just in religious or spiritual terms but also in the context of social redemption. Shaw uses the Salvation Army as a symbol for the traditional approach to saving souls, which he contrasts with Undershaft’s belief in the salvation of providing employment and purpose through his factory.
  • The Family Dynamic — Through the Undershaft family, Shaw explores themes of inheritance, duty, and the quest for identity. The family’s reunion and the debate over who will inherit the munitions factory underscore the conflict between personal desires and societal expectations.


  • The Munitions Factory — Represents the complexity of moral judgments regarding wealth, power, and the role of industry in society. It symbolizes the potential for material wealth to bring about positive change, challenging the notion that wealth is inherently corrupt.
  • The Salvation Army Shelter — Symbolizes the traditional moral approach to dealing with poverty and sin. It stands in contrast to Undershaft’s factory, highlighting the debate between spiritual salvation and material prosperity as means of societal improvement.
  • Money — Serves as a recurring symbol throughout the play, representing power, influence, and the practical means to achieve change. Shaw critiques the societal dependence on money while also acknowledging its potential to effect transformation.

These themes and symbols are interwoven throughout Major Barbara, inviting the audience to reflect on the complexities of ethical action and the means by which society can be reformed. Shaw’s play remains a thought-provoking commentary on the enduring questions of morality, power, and social responsibility.

Style and Tone

Major Barbara showcases George Bernard Shaw’s distinctive writing style and tone, marked by witty dialogue, sharp social commentary, and a deep exploration of philosophical and ethical dilemmas. Shaw’s approach to the narrative and his characters reflects a blend of irony, humor, and serious critique, making his plays engaging and thought-provoking. Here are some key aspects of his writing style and tone in Major Barbara:

  • Satirical Tone — Shaw employs satire to critique societal norms, particularly those surrounding wealth, poverty, and philanthropy. His tone often oscillates between the humorous and the grave, allowing him to underscore the absurdities of the social conventions of his time.
  • Intellectual Dialogue — The play is known for its intellectual debates and dialogues, which serve as the primary vehicle for exploring its themes. Shaw’s characters are articulate and engage in witty banter, through which he delves into complex discussions about morality, capitalism, and social reform.
  • Character-Driven Narratives — Shaw’s focus on character development is evident in Major Barbara. Through the dynamic interactions and evolving perspectives of characters like Barbara, Andrew, and Cusins, Shaw explores the multifaceted nature of human beliefs and motivations. This character-driven approach adds depth to the thematic exploration, making the play resonate on a personal level with the audience.
  • Use of Irony — Irony is a significant element of Shaw’s style, used to highlight the contradictions within society and within his characters’ own beliefs. For example, the irony of a munitions manufacturer arguing for the moral good of his enterprise challenges the audience to reconsider their preconceptions about ethics and morality.
  • Optimistic Cynicism — Shaw’s writing in Major Barbara reflects a unique blend of optimism and cynicism. While he critiques the inefficacy of traditional approaches to social problems, he also suggests the potential for individuals to effect change, albeit through unconventional and pragmatic means.
  • Engagement with Social Issues — Shaw’s work is deeply rooted in social issues, and Major Barbara is no exception. The play engages with the concerns of Shaw’s era—such as the distribution of wealth, the ethics of industry, and the role of charity—in a way that remains relevant today. His ability to weave these issues into compelling drama is a testament to his skill as a playwright.

Through Major Barbara, Shaw invites the audience to reflect critically on the nature of social change and the ethical complexities of modern life. His writing style—marked by a blend of wit, intellectual rigor, and social critique—ensures that the play remains engaging and thought-provoking, challenging audiences to reconsider their views on morality, power, and society.

Literary Devices used in Major Barbara

George Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbara is a masterclass in the use of literary devices that enrich the narrative, underscore its themes, and deepen the character development. Here are the top 10 literary devices Shaw employs, each contributing uniquely to the play’s impact:

  1. Irony — Shaw uses irony to highlight the contradictions between the characters’ beliefs and the reality of their actions or situations. This device is particularly evident in the juxtaposition of the Salvation Army’s charitable work with the source of the Undershaft fortune, challenging the audience to question the morality of both.
  2. Satire — Through satire, Shaw critiques societal norms and institutions, such as the military-industrial complex and philanthropy. He uses the characters’ dialogues and situations to expose the hypocrisy and absurdity of social attitudes towards wealth, power, and morality.
  3. Symbolism — Symbols like the munitions factory and the Salvation Army shelter are crucial to understanding the play’s deeper meanings. Shaw uses these symbols to represent broader themes such as the dichotomy of war and peace, and the complex relationship between morality and capitalism.
  4. Paradox — The play is replete with paradoxes, such as the idea that the munitions factory, which produces weapons of destruction, is seen as a force for stability and prosperity. Shaw employs paradox to challenge conventional wisdom and provoke thought about the true nature of societal progress.
  5. Hyperbole — Shaw occasionally uses exaggeration for comedic effect and to emphasize the absurdity of certain situations or characters’ viewpoints. Hyperbole helps to highlight the extreme positions held by characters, making their eventual evolution or realization more impactful.
  6. Foreshadowing — Elements of foreshadowing are subtly woven into the dialogue and plot, hinting at future developments and thematic resolutions. This device keeps the audience engaged, building anticipation for how the characters’ dilemmas will be resolved.
  7. Metaphor — Shaw employs metaphors to draw comparisons between seemingly unrelated concepts, such as equating money with salvation. These metaphors enrich the text by revealing deeper layers of meaning and adding nuance to the characters’ philosophies.
  8. Allegory — While not an allegory in the strictest sense, Major Barbara uses its characters and plot as allegorical elements to explore larger societal and philosophical questions, such as the nature of good and evil, and the possibility of moral absolutism in a complex world.
  9. Dialogue — The sharp, witty dialogue is not just a vehicle for character interaction but a literary device in itself. Through their conversations, characters articulate and challenge each other’s beliefs, allowing Shaw to explore and critique various social and philosophical ideologies.
  10. Contrast — Shaw uses contrast effectively, particularly between characters like Barbara and her father, to highlight the diverse perspectives on morality, wealth, and social responsibility. This device underscores the complexity of the play’s themes and the characters’ relationships with each other.

Each of these literary devices plays a crucial role in deepening the audience’s understanding of the play’s themes and characters, showcasing Shaw’s skill as a playwright and his ability to engage with complex social and moral questions through drama.

Literary Devices Examples

For each of the top 10 literary devices identified in Major Barbara by George Bernard Shaw, here are tables providing 3 examples and explanations:


Andrew Undershaft’s munitions factory, which produces weapons of war, is portrayed as a source of social stability.This presents an ironic situation where an instrument of destruction contributes to peace and economic prosperity, challenging conventional moral judgments.
Barbara, a major in the Salvation Army, finds her efforts funded by the profits of her father’s arms trade.The irony lies in Barbara’s moral and ethical stance against violence and poverty being indirectly supported by the very industry she morally opposes.
The Salvation Army accepting donations from questionable sources to fund their charitable work.It’s ironic that an organization committed to moral and spiritual salvation relies on morally dubious funds, highlighting the complexity of ethics and charity.


Shaw’s depiction of the Salvation Army’s operations and their willingness to accept donations from any source.Satirizes the compromises made by charitable organizations, questioning the purity of their motives and the effectiveness of their actions.
The character of Andrew Undershaft, who proudly proclaims his business in weapons as beneficial to society.Through Undershaft, Shaw satirizes the justifications used by those who profit from societal ills, critiquing the moral dissonance in capitalism.
Lady Britomart’s pragmatic approach to securing her children’s future, irrespective of moral considerations.This character’s practicality in the face of moral dilemmas satirizes the societal acceptance of wealth and power as ultimate goals, regardless of their source.


The munitions factory symbolizes the paradox of destruction bringing about economic stability and growth.It represents the complex interplay between ethics and prosperity, challenging the audience to reconsider the sources and impacts of wealth.
The Salvation Army shelter stands as a symbol of traditional moral efforts to combat poverty and sin.It embodies the limitations and challenges of addressing deep-rooted social issues through charity alone, suggesting the need for more systemic solutions.
Money, frequently discussed and exchanged, symbolizes power, influence, and the pragmatism of social change.It highlights the pragmatic and often uncomfortable realities of effecting social change, questioning the efficacy of moral purity without financial backing.


Barbara’s struggle with the source of her Salvation Army’s funding.Her moral crusade is paradoxically supported by the profits of war, illustrating the conflict between idealism and the pragmatic aspects of social reform.
Andrew Undershaft’s belief in the moral good of his munitions factory.The paradox of a weapon manufacturer considering his work as a contribution to society challenges conventional moral perspectives.
The notion that peace is maintained through the threat of violence from Undershaft’s weapons.This presents a paradox where peace is dependent on the potential for destruction, critiquing simplistic notions of good and evil.


Andrew’s description of his factory as the foundation of society’s stability.His exaggerated claim underscores the critical role of industry and capitalism in societal structure, highlighting the hyperbolic nature of attributing societal health solely to economic prosperity.
Barbara’s initial rejection of her father’s world as entirely evil.Her hyperbolic dismissal serves to emphasize the moral absolutism often found in idealistic pursuits, which is challenged by the complexity of real-world issues.
Lady Britomart’s dramatic pronouncements about the future of her children.Her exaggerated concerns reflect the hyperbolic tendencies of societal expectations regarding wealth, inheritance, and duty, critiquing the upper class’s values.

Continuing with the examples and explanations for the remaining literary devices used in Major Barbara:


Early discussions about the Salvation Army’s need for funds hint at the moral dilemmas to come regarding the source of those funds.This sets up the later reveal of the Army’s willingness to accept donations from morally questionable sources, including the munitions industry.
Andrew Undershaft’s interest in his children, especially Barbara, hints at his desire to find a successor in his munitions empire.This foreshadows the play’s exploration of inheritance and the potential for ideological shifts within characters.
The initial mention of Cusins’ study of Greek and interest in moral philosophy foreshadows his deep engagement with the ethical dilemmas presented by Undershaft.It hints at his eventual acceptance of a role in the munitions business, representing the compromise between idealism and pragmatism.


The munitions factory is often used as a metaphor for the destructive yet stabilizing force of capitalism.It exemplifies the dual nature of industrialization, which can both harm and benefit society, challenging simplistic moral judgments.
Barbara’s work in the Salvation Army is metaphorically depicted as a battle for souls, paralleling her father’s production of weapons.This comparison highlights the moral complexities of both endeavors, suggesting that the line between good and evil is not always clear.
Money is metaphorically described as the blood of the capitalist system, essential for its operation and survival.This metaphor underscores the importance of financial resources in effecting social change, critiquing idealistic approaches that neglect the pragmatic aspects of reform.


The entire play can be seen as an allegory for the debate between idealism and pragmatism in addressing social issues.Characters and situations represent broader philosophical and societal questions, inviting the audience to reflect on the best approaches to social reform.
Andrew Undershaft’s munitions factory as an allegory for the paradoxes within capitalism.It represents the idea that systems and institutions often deemed morally reprehensible can also be sources of stability and progress.
The transformation of Barbara and Cusins’ views over the course of the play serves as an allegory for the journey from innocence to knowledge.Their evolution reflects the process of confronting and reconciling with the complexities of the world, illustrating the loss of naiveté and the gain of a more nuanced understanding.


The exchanges between Barbara and her father, especially regarding the morality of wealth and power.These dialogues serve as a medium for exploring the ethical dimensions of capitalism and philanthropy, showcasing Shaw’s ability to weave complex debates into natural conversations.
The discussions between Cusins and Undershaft about the latter’s philosophy of power.Through their dialogue, Shaw delves into the philosophical underpinnings of power, morality, and societal change, enriching the play’s thematic exploration.
Lady Britomart’s conversations with her children about their futures and the family’s financial situation.These dialogues highlight the social expectations and pressures of inheritance, providing insight into the characters’ motivations and the societal context of their actions.


The stark contrast between Barbara’s initial idealism and her eventual pragmatic approach to social change.This highlights the character’s growth and the play’s critique of simplistic solutions to complex social problems.
The differing philosophies of Andrew Undershaft and the Salvation Army regarding the best way to effect social reform.This contrast serves to question and critique the effectiveness and morality of various approaches to dealing with poverty and injustice.
The juxtaposition of the Undershaft’s lavish lifestyle with the poverty addressed by the Salvation Army.This contrast underscores the economic disparities and social injustices that are central to the play’s themes, inviting reflection on the sources and solutions of such inequalities.

These examples illustrate how Shaw uses literary devices to enrich Major Barbara‘s narrative, making it not only a piece of entertainment but also a profound exploration of moral and philosophical issues.

Major Barbara – FAQs

Q: Who is Major Barbara?
A: Major Barbara is a character in George Bernard Shaw’s play of the same name. She is a major in the Salvation Army, dedicated to her work of saving souls and helping the poor. Throughout the play, she grapples with moral and ethical dilemmas, particularly in relation to her father’s munitions business.

Q: What is the main conflict in Major Barbara?
A: The main conflict in Major Barbara revolves around the clash of ideals between Barbara, who represents moral purity and philanthropy through her work with the Salvation Army, and her father, Andrew Undershaft, a munitions manufacturer who believes in the power of wealth and industry to effect social change. This conflict is both personal and philosophical, exploring themes of morality, capitalism, and social reform.

Q: How does George Bernard Shaw use irony in Major Barbara?
A: Shaw uses irony throughout Major Barbara to challenge the audience’s preconceptions about morality, wealth, and social progress. For example, the play presents the ironic situation of a Salvation Army major, dedicated to peace and charity, who is the heir to a fortune made in the arms trade. This and other instances of irony in the play highlight the complexities and contradictions of attempting to live morally within a capitalist society.

Q: Can Major Barbara be considered a feminist play?
A: While Major Barbara primarily explores themes of morality, capitalism, and social justice, it can also be considered feminist in its portrayal of strong, independent female characters who challenge societal norms. Barbara, in particular, is a compelling character who navigates complex moral landscapes and makes independent decisions about her life and work, reflecting Shaw’s progressive views on women and society.

Q: What is the significance of the munitions factory in the play?
A: The munitions factory, owned by Andrew Undershaft, symbolizes the paradoxical relationship between industry, war, and social stability. It serves as a focal point for the play’s exploration of morality and capitalism, challenging the notion that economic prosperity and social progress can only be achieved through morally pure means. The factory also represents the idea that instruments of destruction can paradoxically create conditions for peace and prosperity.

Q: How does Major Barbara end?
A: Major Barbara ends with Barbara and her fiancĂ©, Adolphus Cusins, deciding to take over Andrew Undershaft’s munitions factory, but with the intention of using its wealth and influence to effect positive social change. This resolution suggests a reconciliation of sorts between the ideals of charity and the pragmatic realities of power and wealth, reflecting Shaw’s belief in the potential for individuals to navigate moral complexities and effect change within a flawed system.


QuestionABCDCorrect Answer
What is the main source of conflict between Barbara and her father, Andrew Undershaft?Barbara’s work in the Salvation ArmyAndrew’s refusal to support Barbara financiallyAndrew’s profession as a munitions manufacturerBarbara’s decision to leave the Salvation ArmyC
Why does Barbara resign from the Salvation Army?She loses faith in religionShe disagrees with the Salvation Army’s policiesShe is disillusioned by the discovery that her efforts are funded by her father’s munitions factoryShe decides to join her father’s businessC
What does Andrew Undershaft believe is necessary to bring about social change?Moral conviction and religious faithWealth and powerEducation and enlightenmentPolitical actionB
How does the play Major Barbara end?With Barbara rejoining the Salvation ArmyWith Barbara and Cusins taking over the munitions factory with plans to use it for social goodWith a breakdown in the relationship between Barbara and AndrewWith the destruction of the munitions factoryB
What theme is NOT explored in Major Barbara?The morality of wealth and povertyThe effectiveness of charity vs. industry in addressing social issuesThe romantic relationships between the charactersThe role of women in early 20th-century societyC
Who is Adolphus Cusins in relation to Barbara?Her brotherHer fiancéA colleague in the Salvation ArmyA rival munitions manufacturerB
What symbolizes the moral and ethical dilemmas faced by the characters in Major Barbara?The Salvation Army uniformThe munitions factoryMoneyAll of the aboveD
What literary device is used to highlight the contradictions within society and among the characters in Major Barbara?MetaphorIronyAllegorySatireB
Which character represents pragmatic realism in the play?Lady BritomartAndrew UndershaftBarbaraAdolphus CusinsB
What does Lady Britomart primarily concern herself with in the play?Reforming the Salvation ArmyThe moral education of her childrenThe financial and future security of her familyConvincing Andrew to leave his munitions businessC

This quiz is designed to test comprehension of key plot points, themes, characters, and literary devices in Major Barbara. It covers the breadth of the play, ensuring a holistic understanding of its elements.


Identify the literary devices used in the following paragraph from Major Barbara. After reading the excerpt, list the devices present and explain how they are used.

“In the end, we all stand before the judgment of reality, and it is there we learn that the true power lies not in the might of our arms but in the strength of our convictions. Yet, irony would have it that those convictions are often funded by the very things we claim to oppose. Such is the paradox of our existence.”

Literary DeviceExplanation


Literary DeviceExplanation
Metaphor“Stand before the judgment of reality” is a metaphor for facing the consequences of one’s actions and beliefs in the real world. It’s used to convey the idea that reality ultimately tests the validity and resilience of our ideals.
IronyThe statement about convictions being funded by what is claimed to be opposed illustrates irony. It highlights the contradiction between the characters’ ideals and the sources of their support, underscoring the complex nature of morality and ethics.
ParadoxDescribing the funding of convictions by opposed things as a “paradox of our existence” employs the device of paradox. It points to the complex and often contradictory nature of human principles and actions, emphasizing the inherent conflicts in striving for moral consistency.

This exercise aims to sharpen your ability to spot and understand literary devices in text, enhancing your appreciation for the nuanced ways authors like Shaw convey themes and character dilemmas.