Study Guide

Joan in Saint Joan

By George Bernard Shaw


Joan is the original teenage rebel. This rebel, however, has a cause. She believes down to the marrow of her bones that God has given her a mission. She must make Charles the King of a united France. Unfortunately, her tenacious dedication in pursuing her holy quest aggravates just about every powerful person around.

Joan makes the English mad for the obvious reason that she whips them in battle. Her Nationalism makes enemies of feudal lords in England, France, and everywhere else. Her Protestantism infuriates the Church. (Check out "Symbols, Imagery, Allegory" for a discussion of Nationalism and Protestantism.) She also manages to turn her own allies against her. In Scene Five she complains to them, "I know well that none of you will be sorry to see me go." (5.39) Why though? Why after all her victories would her allies not support her? The Archbishop tells her straight up, "You have stained yourself with the sin of pride" (5.61).

Is this true, though? The play is a tragedy, so the heroine is supposed to have some kind of hamartia, which most folks call a tragic flaw. The Archbishop even goes so far as to say to Joan, "The old Greek tragedy is rising among us. It is the chastisement of hubris." (5.61)

Her allies think she's being arrogant by going against their advice and riding off to liberate Paris, despite the fact that she'll be outnumbered. At her trial, they accuse her of being proud in just about every other sentence. Joan even admits to some pride by saying, "Have I not been punished for my vanity? If I had not worn my cloth of gold surcoat in battle like a fool, that Burgundian soldier would never have pulled me backwards off my horse" (6.128).

In the end the Cauchon and the Inquisitor condemn her to death for what they see as pride that's gotten so out of control it's turned into heresy. Joan absolutely refuses to agree with them that her voices are demonic. She says, "If you command me to declare that all that I have done and said, and all the visions and revelations I have had, were not from God, then that is impossible" (6.136).

Here's where a hole opens up in the argument that Joan is guilty of hubris (excessive pride). She always credits her success to God. When she decides to go against her allies' advice, she seems to do so because she thinks it's God's will. She says, "His friendship will not fail me, nor His counsel, nor His love. In His strength I will dare, and dare, and dare, until I die" (5.112). This is what it always seems to come down to with Joan. What others see as pride, she sees as faith. At her trial she says, "I believe that God is wiser than I; and it is His commands that I will do" (6.141). Does that sound like an arrogant person speaking? We're not saying faith is a bad thing, but you could see it is as the cause of Joan's downfall.

Call it faith or pride, but her refusal to betray her voices (after a brief moment of doubt) is what ends up sending her off to the flames. We don't pretend to know the answer to this debate. At Joan's trial, the Inquisitor warns the court, "You will see a diabolical pride and a natural humility seated side by side in the selfsame soul." Maybe he's right. Maybe Joan has a little bit of both.

Note: If you want to read one of the best analyses ever written of Joan's character, check out Shaw's preface. We can't even begin to step to it. Go read it right now. Really. You can find the full text here.