Pygmalion, by George Bernard Shaw, 1916.
Setting, Time Period, Atmosphere:
The setting begins in Covent Garden, London. It is then confined to Higgin’s laboratory, Mrs. Higgin’s living room, and a fancy high society party. The time period is anywhere in the early twentieth century. The atmosphere is social, light-hearted, and ironically sophisticated.
Henry Higgins and Colonel Pickering meet on a rainy night in Covent Garden. Both are expert linguists, and immediately develop a friendship. They are confronted by Eliza, a lower class young flower girl with a detestable accent. In jest, Higgins bets Pickering that he could transform this flower girl into a well spoken woman, one that could be passed off as a duchess. The next morning, Eliza surprises Higgins and Pickering by showing up in Higgins laboratory. She offers a shilling for speech lessons, but is not turned down by the two men. Pickering tells Higgins that he will cover the cost of the speech lessons if Higgins can in fact transform Eliza into a likeness of a duchess, and pass her off as so at a high society party. Higgins accepts, and asks Eliza to bathe. While Eliza is bathing, her father appears, asking for money in exchange for his daughter. Higgins obliges, and Mr. Doolittle leaves. Lessons begin, and Eliza shows a keenness for language. She quickly improves, and is placed in situations in which she can test her new learning. When the party arrives, Eliza is ready, and performs perfectly. Higgins has won his bet, but shows no appreciation for Eliza after the party. In frustration, Eliza throws a pair of slippers at Henry, confronts him about his lack of heart, and leaves the house. The next morning, Pickering and Higgins visit Mrs. Higgins apartment, in a frantic search for Eliza. She is in the apartment, and thanks Pickering for always treating her like a lady, but threatens Higgins that she will go work with his rival phonetician, Nepommuck. This enrages Higgins, but he cannot help but to respect her. Eliza announces her plans to marry Freddy, and by doing so, finalized her independence from Higgins.
— Continue for Character Analysis
Henry Higgins: A professor of phonetics. He is an impatient man who is dismissive of the traditions of high society. In essence, Higgins is a harmless bully with numerous poor habits, yet has proven himself a man of superior intellect. For this reason, he is accepted in sophisticated society. Higgins plays the role of Pygmalion.
Colonel Pickering: An intellectual match for Higgins, and an equal to Higgins in a passion for language. Pickering is considered a genuine gentleman and the civilized foil to Higgins Boorish attitude.
Eliza Doolittle: A sassy, lower class girl transformed into a higher class woman. Considered the heroine of the play, Eliza discovers self respect, not through a transformation of class and wealth, but through self discovery. Eliza plays the role of Galatea, although not entirely accurately.
Mrs. Higgins: A lady in her sixties, Mrs. Higgins sees her son’s experiment with Eliza as immature and idiotic. A woman of obvious wisdom, she is the only person in the play to specify any fault with Higgin’s and Pickering’s behavior towards Eliza.
Mr. Doolittle: A man transformed from a lowly dustman to an example of middle class morality. Unembarrassed about his advocation of drink and pleasure, He is recommended to a wealthy American as one worthy of such wealth. This transformation causes him to become miserable, as he is unable to successfully adapt to his new lifestyle.
Mrs. Pearce: Professor Higgins caretaker, Mrs. Pearce is a voice of quiet wisdom and intelligence in the play. She is the first one to announce the play’s primary conflict.
Freddy Eynsford Hill: A lower class “Fool” lacking any true life skills, Freddy falls hopelessly in love with Eliza, and eventually marries her. Unfortunately, Eliza is unable to care for Freddy, and must depend on Colonel Pickering for support.
— Continue for Important Themes
The structure of Pygmalion is undeniably as clever as it is unique. The conflict is hidden under a pretense of societal flaws and class limitations. While Pygmalion may at first glance appear to be a story about a young woman who overcomes the limitations placed on her by her upbringing, it is in reality a story about a young woman’s search for self revelation. Always the poor flower girl, Eliza had seen herself as inferior, a being worthy of the gutter. It was not until she realized the truth about those she had first seen as superior, that she understood the power she actually held. She came to understand that women in high society were forced to sell themselves for reputation, and the idea thoroughly disgusted her.
Three Important Themes:
• Class: In Pygmalion, Shaw draws parallels between members in each of England’s social classes. It was an unwritten rule of the period that one should not tamper with the class structure, that the lines of society were rigid and unbendable. It is for this reason that Eliza’s quick advancement into high society is so shocking.
• Manners: Good manners are often associated with high society. This makes Higgins behavior Ironic, as he is accepted in the upper class, yet treats everyone like trash. Pickering, on the other hand, treats everyone with the utmost respect. It is to Pickering whom Eliza contributes her self-revelation.
• Language: In England society, Language is tied closely to class. Higgins threatens this system by teaching Eliza the finer points of the English language, and as a result, catapulting her into the upper class. This is turn creates conflict, as Eliza is not suited for high society.
The tone is didactically witty. The characters welcome the reader with amusing, clever comments, while they openly share personal revelation and belief.
Structure and Point of View:
The story is told in chronological order, jumping from one important event to another. These jumps vary from a single day to many months. Shaw avoids adding filler to the story, reserving dialogue for essential information.
The story is told from a third person objective point of view.
• Taxies: Eliza travels in a taxi to show off her new found wealth.
• Clothes: Eliza’s old clothes are burned, and she is given a new pair of clothes. This symbolizes an end of Eliza’s old lifestyle, and the beginning of one entirely different. When she runs away, she asks only if she can keep her clothing.
• Chocolate: A symbol of trust. Eliza would only eat her half after Higgins finished his.
Motifs, Images, Allusions:
Motifs: Upper class morality, language, class restrictions
Images: Eliza in her filthy home (Pg 26-27,) Eliza at the party (Pg 89.)
Allusions: Pygmalion and Galatea, Shaw depicts Higgins as Pygmalion and Eliza as Galatea. Higgins, who believes no woman could ever live up to his mother, transforms Eliza from flower girl to duchess. Narcissus, Mrs. Pearce covers the mirror in an attempt to protect Eliza from vanity.
“You find me cold, unfeeling, selfish, don’t you? Very well: be off with you to the sort of people you like. Marry some sentimental hog or other with lots of money, and a thick pair of lips to kiss you with and a thick pair of boots to kick you with.” Act 5, pg. 130
Here, Henry proves his insensitivity for the human condition. Eliza expresses her fear and distress, her inability to make a proper living without selling herself, and the conflict it creates for her. Selfishly, Higgins can only think of his own agenda, and how Eliza leaving would make his life slightly more difficult.
“You have no idea how frightfully interesting it is to take a human being and change her into a quite different human being by creating a new speech for her. It’s filling up the deepest gulf that separates class from class and soul from soul.” Act 3, pg. 82
Here, Henry expresses his belief that language decides ones class, not wealth or manners.
“Oh! If I only could go back to my flower-basket! I should be independent of both you and father and all the world! Why did you take my independence from me? Why did I give it up? I’m a slave now, for all my fine clothes.” Liza, Act V
Eliza expresses her abhorrence towards the position she finds herself in. She can no longer respectably work for a living, and begins to understand that she must sell herself in marriage for financial support. She blames Pickering and Higgins for their oversight, and is angry over their carelessness.
“Remember that you are a human being with a soul and the divine gift of articulate speech: that your native language is the language of Shakespeare and Milton and The Bible; and don’t sit there crooning like a bilious pigeon.” Higgins Act I
Again Higgins professes his theory on language. He believes a poor accent to be an insult upon the great literary minds of the English language. He finds Eliza’s accent unbearable.