Character of Nicola in Arms and the Man
In Shaw’s artistic design the character of Nicola is necessary in order to neutralise the excess of false ideas and illusions of some of the characters. In one sense, he contributes to consolidating Bluntschli’s pragmatic ideas and acts. But through his character Shaw also presents a member of the some of his socialist ideas. In Nicola he presents a cold-blooded calculating man of the practical world who does not care for the false ideals and ideas and lives his life in accordance with the demand of the situation he is in.
In the beginning of Act III Shaw describes Nicola quite clearly in terms of his personality and physique, all of which go together to produce an impression of a man with keen practical intelligence and servile outlook.:
“He is a middle aged man of cool temperament and low but clear and keen intelligence with the complacency of the servant who values himself on his rank in servitude, and the imperturbability of the accurate calculator who has no illusions.”
He has undertaken to warn Louka because he has detected in her defiant manners and hostile attitudes, which, if not checked, will damage his prospect too in future. He threatens her plainly with the consequence of deserting her:
“If you quarrel with the family, I never can marry you.”
It is quite clear that he is more attached to the Petcoffs for material benefits than to Louka for emotional reasons. In support of his arguments, he cites plain practical reason:
“When I leave their service and start a shop in Sophia, their custom will be half my capital: their bad word would ruin me.”
As Louka does not like his arguments and boasts of her secrets of the family, through which she intends to blackmail them, he plainly informs her that he too has got some of the secrets. But whereas Louka wants to use those secrets in order to defend her defiance and haughty manners, he wants to utilise those for advancing his material prospects. For, he knows the consequences any fall-out with the family will bring about. He says this because he is painfully conscious of the power of the upper-class in the society:
“Child: you don’t know the power such high people have over the like of you and me when we try to rise out of our poverty against them.”
In spite of all these admonitions and threats, he fails to convince her and ‘complacently’ admits her charge of having the “soul of a servant”, and justifies this as the “secret of success in service”.
In Act III Nicola is found to be in amorous mood, but his advance is checked by Louka’s unusual fashion of wearing her sleeve. Here once again he is forced to warn her in the same threatening tone. But it must be said here that his arguments are based on the false proposition that Louka can be purchased cheaply because of her vulnerable position. In fact, in this bargain he loses, because, even after cashing on many secrets of the family, he fails to sniff out or he may not consider the degree of seriousness of the growing amorous relationship between Sergius and Louka. Instead, in the face of her sarcastic volleys he falls back on to a kind of fanciful cynicism generated from a profit-making motive:
“Ive often thought that if Raina were out of the way, and you just less of a fool and Sergius just a little more of one, you might come to be one of my grandest customers, instead of only being my wife and costing me money.”
This will turn out to be a dramatic irony for him after a little while. But this also shows that he was not completely in the dark about their relationship: he just did not seriously consider the possibility. That is why he goes on threatening her on his supposed superiority as a male servant using the upper-class rhetoric of threat and sympathy.
But as soon as Nicola finds the remote possibility, amounting to impossibility, turning out real, he releases her immediately in cold-blooded acceptance of his position from the celebrated engagement:
“...it was only to give Louka protection. She had a soul above her station, and I have been no more than her confidential servant.”This is not stoicism, but cynical pragmatic manoeuvring of a middle-aged man, whose only ambition is to reap profit out of the fertile ground of feudalistic manners and tastes. We cannot be sure of such a man’s motive behind giving Louka ‘protection’. As he goes out giving up all his claims on Louka, Sergius calls his act “either finest heroism or the most crawling baseness”. Bluntschli, on the other hand, judges him on practical and personal grounds and declares him “the ablest man in Bulgeria”, meaning that he is the ablest of the Bulgarians in the play.