One of the central criticisms of Arms and the Man is of the tendency of people to romanticize or idealize complex realities: in particular love and war. Literary romanticism began to decline right around the time Shaw was born, and the play in many ways illustrates how and why romanticism historically failed: it could not accurately describe fundamental human experiences.
Raina is the play’s most obvious romantic. Her relationship with Sergius (whom the stage directions call a “Byronic hero” after the Romantic poet Lord Byron) embodies almost all of the romantic ideals: they are both beautiful, refined, and appear to be infatuated with each other. However this romantic, idealistic vision of love does not stand up when reality sets in. The “genteel” Sergius lusts animalistically—even, sometimes, violently—after the servant Louka and Raina is in love with the anti-romantic Bluntschli. Their ideal romantic love is all an act. In reality, love is much more multifaceted, and complicated, than Raina and Sergius make it seem.
Raina and Sergius’s flawed romanticism also shows through in their conception of war. Raina waxes poetic about how Sergius is an ideal soldier: brave, virile, ruthless but fair. It turns out Sergius’s cavalry charge was ill-advised, and the charge only succeeded because the opposing side didn’t have the correct ammunition. Sergius is not the perfect soldier—he is a farce. And the real soldier, Bluntschli, runs away from battle and carries sweets instead of a gun. He also speaks honestly about the brutality and violence of war—which involves more drunkenness and abuse than it does heroics and gallantry.
Shaw displays an interest in revealing human realities like love and war for what they really are: often ugly, contradictory, and thoroughly complex. He implicitly criticizes romantic art for avoiding these realities, and giving us a sugarcoated version of human life and human history. Conversely, his work puts forth the argument that art should be able to make sense of and account for human experiences.
Romanticism / Idealism vs. Realism ThemeTracker
Romanticism / Idealism vs. Realism Quotes in Arms and the Man
On the balcony a young lady, intensely conscious of the romantic beauty of the night, and of the fact that her own youth and beauty are part of it, is gazing at the snowy Balkans.
I am so happy—so proud! It proves all our ideas were real after all.
The world is really a glorious world for women who can see its glory and men who can act its romance!
I am a Swiss, fighting merely as a professional soldier. I joined Servia because it came first on the road from Switzerland.
There are only two sorts of soldiers: old ones and young ones.
Oh you are a very poor soldier—a chocolate cream soldier! Come, cheer up.
Sergius Saranoff…is a tall, romantically handsome man…the result is precisely what the advent of the nineteenth century thought first produced in England: to wit, Byronism…it is clear that here is Raina’s ideal hero
Dearest, all my deeds have been yours. You inspired me. I have gone through the war like a knight in a tournament with his lady looking down on him!
I think we two have found the higher love. When I think of you, I feel that I could never do a base deed, or think an ignoble thought.
Which of the six of me is the real man? That’s the question that torments me. One of them is a hero, another a buffoon, another a humbug, another perhaps a bit of a blackguard. And one, at least, is a coward—jealous, like all cowards.
I want to be quite perfect with Sergius—no meanness, no smallness, no deceit. My relation to him is the one really beautiful and noble part of my life.
How easy it is to talk! Men never seem to me to grow up: they all have schoolboy’s ideas. You don’t know what true courage is…I would marry the man I loved, which no other queen in Europe has the courage to do...You dare not: you would marry a rich man’s daughter because you would be afraid of what other people would say of you.
The world is not such an innocent place as we used to think.