It is March, 1886. Louka and Nicola, a middle-aged manservant, are in the garden of the Petkoff’s house. Nicola is lecturing Louka about her manners, saying that if she does not improve, Catherine will fire her. Louka, defiant as ever, tells Nicola she doesn’t care what Catherine thinks of her. Nicola argues that he will never be able to marry Louka unless she is on good terms with the family. Louka asks him if he will always side with the family, and Nicola says he is dependent on their good word. Louka tells him he has no spirit, and Nicola dismisses her as simply being too young.
Nicola is the first character in the play who is attached to his servitude the same way Catherine is attached to her wealth and status. Nicola’s job depends on the “good word” of the Petkoffs, but we get the sense that his identity depends on it, too. Louka has already demonstrated her disdain for this kind of thinking; she almost has more vitriol for Nicola, the willing servant, than for the Petkoffs, her upper-class employers. That she is supposed to marry Nicola is a mark of class thinking, a sense from both the family and Nikola that Louka will of course marry within her same class of servants.
Louka agrees she is young, but says she knows secrets about the Petkoffs that could ruin them. Nicola reveals that he knows secrets too, mentioning he knows about something that would end the engagement of Raina and Sergius if it ever got out. Louka is incredulous and asks Nicola how he knows about that—she has never told him. Nicola insists she must be a better servant, and Louka disgustedly tells him he has “the soul of a servant.”
Louka believes her secrets—which the readers must assume involve her knowledge of the night Raina rescued the Servian soldier—give her a weapon against the Petkoffs. Nicola mysteriously knows about this night too. But Louka’s surprise at his knowledge is overshadowed by her disgust at his unflinching, unquestioning loyalty.
A loud knocking on the gate announces that Major Paul Petkoff, Raina’s father, is back from the war. Nicola quickly tells Louka to fetch coffee, and Louka mutters to herself that Nicola will never put the soul of a servant into her. Major Petkoff enters, a cheerful but rather undignified man of about 50. Louka goes to fetch Catherine, who kisses Paul and is delighted to hear that the war has ended.
When Louka says she will never have the “soul of a servant” she means she will never let servitude or her birth into the working class define her entire existence, as Nicola has done. Major Petkoff’s appearance breaks down the significance of class divisions even further—he is described as bumbling and undignified.
Catherine and Paul catch up, bickering amicably about changes to the house, including a bell that rings for the servant and Catherine’s habit of hanging laundry out where everyone can see it. Soon Sergius knocks at the door, and Nicola goes to let him in. Major Petkoff mentions to Catherine that Sergius will never be promoted until they are sure that Bulgaria will not be fighting in a war any time soon.
Catherine and Paul’s conversation is about public appearances and the question of how to appropriately call for their servants; they worry about how best to assert themselves as upper-class society members. Petkoff’s comment about Sergius not being promoted until there certainly won’t be another war is another reference to Sergius’s combined heroic stuate and ineptitude—nobody in the army wants him commanding anything during an actual war, but if there’s not going to be a war he can make a great figurehead.
Sergius enters, a tall and “romantically handsome” man. He is, according to the stage directions, the picture of Byronism—idealistic, handsome, brooding. He is Raina’s “ideal hero.” Catherine is delighted to see him. Major Petkoff, less so.
Sergius announces he has submitted his resignation to the army, because he has won the war for Bulgaria and still been unfairly denied a promotion. He then asks to see Raina, who appears suddenly around the side of the house. Petkoff remarks aside to Catherine that Raina appears always at the right moment. Catherine impatiently tells him that Raina “listens for it,” calling it “an abominable habit.”
Sergius’s uppity declaration of his resignation is rendered ironic and comedic by the fact that the audience has already learned of his ineptitude—we already know that he does not deserve a promotion. That Raina always appears at the right moment also provides crucial insight into Raina’s character: she carefully constructs her image and controls how people see her.
Sergius greets Raina with “splendid gallantry” as if she were a queen. Raina greets her father, and listens as Sergius explains why he does not wish to be a soldier anymore—it is, he realizes, a “base,” ignoble profession. Then he and Petkoff recall a story they heard about a Swiss soldier fighting for the Servians who was taken in by some Bulgarian women who helped him sneak away in the morning, giving him the coat of the master of the house, who was away at the war.
Sergius rationalizes his decision to resign by construing soldiering and war as though it is beneath him. It might seem obvious to the audience that war is “base”, but for an idealistic (and rather foolish) man like Sergius, the baseness and depravity of war is an unexpected and bitter disappointment. War, it turns out, is no place for a Byronic hero (which of course raises the further question of what is the place for such a hero).
Raina and Catherine act horribly offended by this story, and Raina wishes Sergius had refrained from telling her about such horrible women. Sergius launches into an elaborate speech of apology which is cut off by Major Petkoff, who tells him his daughter is being too sensitive. Petkoff asks Sergius inside but Catherine intervenes, saying that they should give Sergius and Raina time alone. Catherine and Major Petkoff depart.
Raina and Catherine are excellent liars. Though we know that the women in the story are Raina and Catherine, the mother and daughter duo effortlessly act offended at the mere existence of such women—women who would deign to help a Servian soldier. That they lie so easily tells us that they lie often. They lie to maintain their image.
Sergius and Raina exchange romantic words. Sergius tells Raina all his heroic deeds have been for her, and Raina blissfully tells him that together they have found a “higher love” which has made even thinking of “base deeds” impossible. They embrace, and pull apart when they hear Louka coming. Raina says she will go inside to get her hat and then they can go for a walk together.
There is a humorous irony in Sergius’s remark that all his “heroic deeds” have been for Raina: Sergius’s “heroic” deeds were in fact laughably foolish and reckless. Raina’s remark that thinking of “base deeds” is impossible is a kind of ominous foreshadowing, for what follows will show that this “higher love” is a façade: reality is far less dignified.
Louka comes outside, and Sergius’s demeanor changes instantly—he becomes mischievous and twirls his mustache. He asks Louka if she knows what a “higher love” is—she is shocked and tells him no. He tells her it is a “very fatiguing thing” and Louka offers him some coffee. Sergius grabs her hand, and Louka puts up an act of resisting. Sergius comes to her and grabs her shoulders, asking her what she thinks of the “half a dozen Sergiuses” who keep manifesting themselves in his handsome figure. Louka begs him to let go and he refuses, so she suggests that they at least go somewhere they cannot be seen, as Raina is probably watching them from the window.
Quite suddenly, Sergius’s entire act is thrown aside. He becomes almost a caricature of a villain, twirling his mustache and speaking scandalously with Louka. He reveals that his higher love is “a very fatiguing thing”—he is putting on airs and laboring over his perfect romantic image as much as Raina is. At the heart of Sergius’s comment is an identity crisis. He feels as though he is several different people at once, and doesn’t seem to be able to locate his “true self.”
Sergius agrees. He tries to kiss Louka, and Louka tells him she doesn’t want his affection—he is making love behind Raina’s back just as she is doing behind his. Sergius recoils and demands her to explain herself. He calls Louka “devil” and she surmises that one of the six of him is very much like her. He paces and wonders which of the six is the “real” him—the hero, the buffoon, the blackguard, the coward? He asks Louka to tell him who his rival is.
Sergius’s unceremonious and animalistic lusting after Louka is the exact opposite of his hyper-respectful and utterly dignified love of Raina. Though Sergius knows he is more complicated and more depraved than he appears to be, he is shocked to hear that Raina is similarly complicated. His idealistic, romantic vision of her will not allow for this.
She says she doesn’t know, for she only heard his voice through Raina’s bedroom door. She says she is sure that if the man ever returns, Raina will marry him. Louka claims she knows the “difference between the sort of manner you and she put on before one another and the real manner.” This hurts Sergius, and he grabs her again. She tells him he is hurting her, and he tells her he doesn’t care. He tells her she has the soul of a servant, and lets her go. Louka’s arms are bruised.
Louka, perhaps the most perceptive character in this play, says that she saw true love between Raina and the soldier. This is not the ideal love, the romantic Byronic love, but true human love, which doesn’t arise from a desire to keep up appearances or fit a certain script. Sergius lashes out at her for saying so, insulting her in the way he knows will hurt her most. He draws attention to her lower class status in order to demean her. He equates her very soul with her servitude, and asserts his manhood through physical power.
Louka defiantly responds that she and Sergius are made of the same “clay” and that she is worth six of Raina, who is “a liar and a cheat.” Sergius apologizes for hurting her, and Louka asks him to prove he is sorry by kissing her bruises. He proudly refuses, and walks away from her. Raina comes out, and Louka proudly passes her on the way into the house. Raina playfully asks Sergius if he has been flirting with Louka, and he criticizes her for thinking such a thing. Just as they are about to leave for their walk, Catherine enters and tells Sergius that Major Petkoff needs him for something. When he leaves, Raina visibly relaxes.
Louka will not be put down by Sergius though. Her remark shows her egalitarian (and ultimately socialist) philosophy. All people are made of the “same clay” and class divisions and birthrights are meaningless. She asks Sergius to kiss her bruises, but Sergius will not, because he cannot stand the thought of doing something so submissive and plaintive for a servant girl. Sergius then shows off his ability to lie to Raina. Raina’s demeanor after Sergius leaves suggests that she finds their “love” as fatiguing as he does.
Now in private with Raina, Catherine calls the Swiss man a beast for spreading the story of their hospitality around, and tells Raina that if the story ever gets out, her engagement to Sergius will be over. Raina offhandedly suggests that her mother marry Sergius instead of her—for she seems to care for him more. Raina, almost to herself, expresses her desire to do something shocking in front him, to shake him out of his propriety. She flippantly says she does not care if he finds out about the chocolate cream soldier. She goes back inside.
Raina, it seems, has grown tired of keeping up her act in front of her mother, and scandalously suggests her mother would prefer to marry Sergius in her place. She seems fed up with her romantic act—the audience learns definitively that the Raina they saw in the first act isn’t the “real” Raina. She has been keeping up appearances for a long time, and it appears she has finally become fed up.
Louka comes into the garden to tell her a Servian officer has arrived and is asking for her. It takes Catherine a moment to remember they are at peace with the Servians. Louka tells her the officer is asking to see the lady of the house. His name is Captain Bluntschli, and he is Swiss. Catherine is startled and tells Louka to bring him to the garden without letting Major Petkoff or Sergius see him.
We finally learn the name of the strange soldier who climbed into Raina’s room that night. Catherine responds by doing everything in her power to conceal him from her husband and future son-in-law. She once again devotes a great deal of energy to maintaining her image.
Captain Bluntschli greets Catherine warmly, and she tells him he was foolish to come, as the Bulgarians still hate the Servians and she might get in trouble. He apologizes, though he seems disappointed, and explains he has only come to return the coat she lent him. Catherine tells him she will grab it from his bag, and send the rest of the bag back to him, if he leaves his address. She then ushers him out the back door of the garden.
Though Bluntschli’s reason for visiting is kind and thoughtful, Catherine (using yet another false excuse) tells him he cannot stay, and tries to sneak him out the back door. Recall that Raina told Bluntschli in the first act that their family treated guests honorably. Apparently they only do so if their guests are the right sort of guests.
Just then Major Petkoff arrives, warmly greeting Bluntschli by name and shaking his hand. He does not notice how nervous Catherine is. Sergius joins them and Petkoff apologizes that the servants have brought him to the garden instead of the library. He explains that he and Sergius have been working on how to bring troops home from certain remote areas, (now that the fighting is done) and Bluntschli says he believes he could help. Sergius happily tells him to come inside. Just then, Raina arrives, and exclaims in shock, “the chocolate cream soldier!”
It turns out Petkoff already knows Bluntschli, and apparently is fond of him. That they are asking a man who recently fought for the Servians to help them demonstrates that their patriotism is not a fervent as it seems, especially when they need help. This yet again underscores a kind of incompetence on the parts of Sergius and Major Petkoff, who, despite being upper echelon and well respected, cannot complete their work on their own.
Raina collects herself and explains that she had made a chocolate cream soldier that Nicola had accidentally smashed. She apologizes to Bluntschli, adding that she hopes he did not think she was referring to him with such a name. He tells her it is a relief to hear that she was not. Petkoff is fed up with his servants, and brings Nicola outside to scold him for his mistakes (though we know Nicola is innocent.) Nicola accepts the criticism, and Bluntschli is finally taken inside, as Catherine makes a gesture of despair.
Raina makes up for her mistake by blaming Nicola, who has done nothing wrong. This cruel treatment of her servant indicates that Raina believes she is better than Nicola. She thinks of herself as kind and gentle, but she (and the rest of her family) display complete disregard for the thoughts and feelings of Nicola. Nicola, on the other hand, accepts this treatment as though he also believes he deserves it.