Major Barbara By George Bernard Shaw Summary and Analysis Act II (The return of Major Barbara, accompanied by Shirley, Snobby Price, and Jenny Hill)

Summary

Major Barbara returns with Shirley, Snobby, and Jenny in an exhilarated mood; the meeting has been a great success. After they count the money, however, they are two pence short of their goal of five shillings. Barbara feels that much of the success of the meeting was due to Snobby Price's narration of how he used to beat up his mother before he was reformed: Barbara even says that "if you had given your poor mother just one more kick, we should have got the whole five shillings!" Barbara's father then offers to give the two pence so as to round out the amount, but after Barbara inquires about the manner by which his two pence were earned, and Undershaft responds that he earned the pence by selling cannons, torpedoes, and submarines, Barbara refuses the money and says that he will have to work out his own salvation — he can't buy it with his ill-earned pence. When he offers still more money, Barbara adamantly refuses that offer also, maintaining that "two million millions would not be enough. There is bad blood on your hands; and nothing but good blood can cleanse them."

At the same time, however, Major Barbara bemoans the fact that she must spend so much of her time collecting money, for she does not have enough time, she feels, to strive for people's souls. Her ideal aim is to convert people, not to always be "begging for the Army in a way I'd die sooner than beg for myself." But she also recognizes that she can't talk religion to a man with bodily hunger. Major Barbara, however, is confident that money will come because a Mrs. Baines, a high-ranking member of the Army, prayed for money last night, and her prayers are always answered, and, furthermore, Major Barbara announces that Mrs. Baines wants to meet Mr. Undershaft.

At this point, Bill Walker enters and tells how he had his encounter with Todger Fairmile, who refused to fight with him (even when Bill Walker spit on him); instead, Todger pinned Walker to the ground, and he and Mog prayed for Bill's hard heart to be softened. Now he wants to give some money to Jenny Hill to make up for having treated her so brutally, but Major Barbara refuses to accept the money; once again she asserts that "the Army is not to be bought." She says, "We want your soul, Bill; and we'll take nothing less." Undershaft then offers another of his temptations: If Major Barbara will accept Bill Walker's one pound note, he will match it with the other ninety-nine pounds to make the sum a round one hundred pounds. Again, Major Barbara refuses: The Salvation Army is not to be bought — even for "thirty pieces of silver," the traditional going price to pay for anyone who is for sale. Bill Walker then throws his sovereign on the drum, saying, "Take it or leave it."

Analysis

This scene is filled with ironies and paradoxes, most of which are unknown to Major Barbara. Yet surely the audience would find it comic when Barbara maintains that if Snobby Price had given his mother just one more kick and then narrated the entire sequence of events to the crowd, the Army would have gotten even more money. Again, since we, the audience, know that Snobby is only pretending so as to please the crowd, the hypocrisy is apparent to everyone except Major Barbara. Thus, for the audience, the integrity of the Salvation Army's willingness to take money from such sources as Snobby's false, hypocritical confessions leads us to the idea of whether or not the Army can take a contribution from a munitions manufacturer. Where does hypocrisy lie — if one is willing to accept one man's contributions (Snobby's hypocritical contributions) and refusing others (Bill Walker's sovereign and Undershaft's offer of, first, two pence, and then later, his offer of ninety-nine pounds)?

Major Barbara's assertion to her father that "you can't buy your salvation here for two pence" becomes doubly ironic in the next scene when he is able to buy it for five thousand pounds, thus showing us that any organization has a price that it can be bought for. At the same time, Shaw presents a paradox concerning the need for keeping the shelter open during the winter. If the shelter is closed, then many starving people will be without food or shelter and "the starvation this winter is beating us; everybody is unemployed." Consequently, the problem that faces any such organization is this: Can such an organization do its charitable work if the only way that it can do so is to accept "tainted" money? If the Army does not accept Undershaft's money, then the shelter will have to close down and can serve no function; furthermore, this will then allow untold numbers of people to suffer and perhaps die. While Major Barbara bemoans the fact that she has to think more of collecting money than collecting souls and that she "can't talk religion to a man with bodily hunger in his eyes," we are then prepared for the last act of the play, where Barbara will be presented to the citizens of Perivale St. Andrews, who are well fed and happy; to these people, she can then present her religious views without worrying about her audience's bodily needs.

Another irony is the introduction of Mrs. Baines, the commissioner for the Army, who prayed for money, then arranged for a meeting with such wealthy people as Bodger, the brewer, and with the munitions maker, Undershaft. We must remember that her prayers for money have always been answered, and if she is to meet with Undershaft, we can predict that her prayers will again be answered — to the tune of a large check from Undershaft.

At the end of this scene, Bill Walker returns to describe his encounter with Todger Fairmile. Again the bully whom we dislike is now seen as a man truly troubled in his conscience, and he doesn't know how to soothe it. He offers to pay Jenny Hill for the physical damage he has done, and when this is rejected, he tries to make a contribution to the Army to salve his conscience. Again, Major Barbara refuses to let him buy forgiveness with a small financial contribution. As noted above, Major Barbara firmly believes, as does Shaw, that one cannot buy forgiveness because that would allow one to go out and sin again. Instead, there must be an inward change of attitude: Major Barbara says, "We want your soul, Bill; and we'll take nothing less." Again, her father is seen as the tempter as he suggests that if she accepts Bill's one pound note, then he will round it out to one hundred pounds by giving the other ninety-nine pounds.

Using the appropriate religious imagery, she tells Undershaft that they cannot be bought for thirty pieces of silver (alluding, of course, to the thirty pieces of silver that Judas received for betraying Christ). But while Major Barbara is in the business of converting souls and in the business of collecting money, she is making so many arbitrary decisions about the source of the money that she is offered, that she is now standing on dangerous grounds. First, the temptation was only for two pence — which she refused; then Undershaft upped the price to ninety-nine pounds, which Barbara also refused; the next temptation will be so high that even though Barbara will refuse it, the Salvation Army cannot afford to refuse it.

Finally, the question is this: At what price is salvation to be bought? Bill Walker raises this question. Even though the Army does not accept his small contribution, which he lays on the drum, he is becoming aware of the possible double standard involved — that is, while refusing his small contribution, the Army will accept the larger donation to be made by Undershaft, a fact that will make Bill utter, "Wot prawce selvytion nah?" ("What price salvation now?").

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