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  • Shaw’s Xenophilous New Woman: Raina Petkoff as Mistress of Her Domain
  • Katharyn Stober (bio)

When Shaw’s Arms and the Man appeared in 1894, the older generation made up of genteel Victorian society was acutely conscious of the infiltration of a foreign menace on two fronts: overt geographic xenophobia (brought about in part by the popularity of Orientalism throughout the nineteenth-century) and a more subtle intellectual infiltration of Modernistic discourse. To Victorians, this new breed of Moderns, in essence, had become an internal “other” within English culture—spurred on by the rise of the New Woman. In Arms and the Man, Raina Petkoff supports both sides of this foreign infiltration by acting as a xenophilous New Woman: she permits the physical infiltration of Captain Bluntschli as a geographically foreign “other” and the conceptual, cultural infiltration of the New Woman as an ideological “other.” I suggest here that Shaw characterizes Raina not only as a New Woman but also as possessing an “Eve” complex, both of which recall the play’s contemporary issues of xenophobia. In addition to allowing entry to a mysterious stranger, Raina mirrors Eve in her impulsiveness, her falseness, and the fact that this stranger ultimately subdues her and assumes control. I am not suggesting that Shaw meant to villainize Raina—far from it. However, this “Eve-ness” creates an ideological divide within the audience: inviting praise from progressive feminists and Modernists and suspicious wariness from more conservative Victorians. I believe that not only did Shaw bring about this division intentionally, but that it was this latter sector of his audience—the “stuffy” xenophobes—that he wished to make uneasy through Raina’s Eve-like qualities.

I will examine Raina’s role in Arms and the Man in three ways: her allowing the infiltration of an “other” in Bluntschli, her “Eve” complex, [End Page 89] and her identity as a pre-New Woman. In particular, I will look at how each of these three aspects perform as a social commentary by Shaw on Victorian domestic (British) male attitudes of fear toward foreign influences—whether nationalistic “others” (Bluntschli) or ideological ones (Raina herself). I maintain that Shaw knowingly subverted this fear on both counts: by allowing Bluntschli to penetrate Raina’s domestic space, and by using an outspoken, independent female character as the catalyst for that penetration. Shaw’s characterization of Raina is neither accidental nor incidental. Shaw’s feministic attitudes toward women in his own life allow us to interpret his representation of Raina as purposeful and self-aware. Many biographers take special note of Shaw’s relationships with women: “the women in Shaw’s family . . . were much stronger than the men” and thus “Shaw was attracted to strong women.” 1 So, if a female character readily submits to a man in a play by any other author, it may be interpreted as submission for the sake of fulfilling social roles; however, when such gendered submission occurs in a “typical Shaw play” such as Arms and the Man, 2 the heroine may more readily be believed to submit willfully and consciously in order to achieve a deeper purpose—in this case, Raina shifts the cultural “gatekeeper” role from men to women. By admitting and sheltering Bluntschli in the Petkoff home, Raina moves the admission of an “other” from the male-intellectual to the female-household sphere.

Even before allowing Bluntschli to enter her bedroom—thereby subverting Petkoff’s (her father’s) extant domestic dominance as paternal protector—Raina sets a tone of cultural doubt and reveals cracks in her nationalistic ideals: “Our patriotism. Our heroic ideals. I sometimes used to doubt whether they were anything but dreams. Oh, what faithless little creatures girls are! . . . And yet—and yet—. . . perhaps we only had our heroic ideals because of Byron and Pushkin . . . Real life is so seldom like that!” (7) and even unpatriotic disgust in a conversation with her mother: 3


I wish our people were not so cruel. What glory is there in killing wretched fugitives?


Cruel! Do you suppose they would hesitate to kill you—or worse?


[ to Louka ] Leave the shutters so that I can just close them if I hear any...


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pp. 89-101
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