Introduction to Pygmalion

The play, Pygmalion, was first premiered in 1913 in England. It was written by George Bernard Shaw, a masterpiece based on the Grecian myth of the same name, derived from the myth popular during the Victorian period. George beautifully presents his social assumption of having a status based on the manners and sophistication of accent instead of the hereditary ownership and ethnic nobility. The play was inspired in making various adaptations both on-stage as well as in movies. It was first filmed in 1938 and then as a musical film version released in 1964 under the name My Fair Lady. Both films won applause from the audiences.   

Summary of Pygmalion

The play shows Professor Higgins meeting Colonel Pickering in the Covent Garden during a rainy night. Both are interested in linguistic; the first as a phonetician and the second as an expert of an Indian, especially Sanskrit dialects and language. Both have argument over the issue of the claim of Professor Higgins that he can transform anyone, even a simple flower girl, Eliza Doolittle, into a duchess through her phonetic training. Eliza was just a stranger taken by the men’s argument and becomes a subject of their bet and learning. He takes her with him to Wimpole Street to train her. She also takes some interest, seeing phonetic training to better her career prospects.

Eliza even offers him a small fee but he refuses her due to his idea that he would work on her to transform her personality by changing her accent. Pickering also bets on her that if Higgins succeeds by passing Eliza as a duchess, he would pay him the entire cost of the tuition and upkeep. For Higgins this is all an experiment and never seem to take Eliza’s feelings or emotions into consideration and how much it could hurt her if she found out. Higgins, taking up the challenge, first asks Eliza to change her personality, pruning herself when her father, Alfred, appears and asks Higgins to return his daughter. However, he pays him five-pound to leave his daughter to whom he could not identify in her new clothes and clean personality. Although Higgins was surprised how a father can sell his own daughter for money.

After a few months and a lot of hard work by Eliza, Higgins succeeds in making her speak fluently in the accent spoken by the nobility of England. To evaluate her progress, she is first set in the home of Higgins’ mother to talk to a family of the Eynsford. He wanted to check if Eliza can behave ladylike in the gathering by doing a small talk about the weather. However, Eliza slips into talking about her dead aunt in a suspicious manner and her father’s drinking problem. Everyone was taken aback by these manners of Eliza. When she meets the Eynsford family, Freddy, the son of the family, is impressed with her speaking style and takes her cockney moment as a slip of tongue only.

Although Mrs. Higgins warns her son that this experiment may cause problems to them and he shouldn’t treat her like a ‘live doll’, Higgins and Pickering do not listen to her seriously. In the second test, she is brought to a party where she performs brilliantly. Higgins states that he is relieved that the experiment has come to an end and won the challenge. However, seeing tedium befalling on the duo, Eliza indeed feels hurt ‘at heart’. She, feeling furious at this neglect, throws her slipper at Higgins as he asks her to marry somebody high class, a remark which hurts her the most after which she returns his jewelry. Higgins considers this as an ungrateful gesture.

The next morning when Professor Higgins gets up, he sees Eliza absent. On inquiry, he finds that she has fled. Panicked, he reaches his mother, asking about her whereabouts. Although she was with her and tell her not to come downstairs. Mrs. Higgins speaks to Higgins and Pickering and tells them that she had the right to leave the house and not want to live with him because of the way he has treated her and taunts for playing with the emotions of the girl. Pickering informs them that he had already talked to the police.

Meanwhile, Mr.Doolittle comes to their door, as he chasing Higgins after becoming rich through an inherited property, and that too, on the recommendation of Professor Higgins after he has declared him the most ‘original moralist’ and asks Higgins to teach him to speak proper English since he has to behave a certain way due to the wealth he has acquired. Meanwhile, Elizabeth appears on the scene, thanking Colonel Pickering but rebuking Professor Higgins and she learns that her father has become a rich man and is marrying her stepmother and was invited to the wedding along with others on the scene.

Also, she threatens that she would work with Higgins’s rival, Nepommuck. Also, she tells him that he could’ve been a little more compassionate towards her. He responds to her stating that he is cold to everyone in spite of their class and treats everyone the same regardless of their good or bad manners. Eliza says that if she can’t get kindness from him then at least she needs her freedom. Alongside, she will start teaching phonetics, stealing all his methods. The professor starts showering praise on her for the woman she has become and she is not that silly Flowergirl anymore. The play ends when Eliza leaves the room saying that she will not do his chores anymore and ask him to do himself and Higgins alone in the room, thinking she’ll do as he has asked her.

Major Themes in Pygmalion

  1. Social Class: As a socialist, Bernard Shah presents the thematic strand of social class and social mobility through the character of Elizabeth Littlewood after Professor Higgins boastfully attempts to teach her phonetics and teach her to speak like a proper lady. He bets with Colonel Pickering that by training her accent, he can move her to another class and pass her as a duchess. This social mobility from the lower class to the upper class shows the role of language as the sophisticated language is associated with the elite class, while the cockney accent is associated with the lower class. Around the time Eliza improves her accent, her father changes his social class, courtesy of the recommendation by Professor Higgins. It shows the class consciousness in that Eliza becomes highly arrogant when she leaves the question of herself open to interpretation.
  2. Gentility and Manners: Cultured manners is another major theme of the play in that it is considered the major feature of the nobility of Britain of that time. Professor Higgins, as a phonetician, believes that by changing accent and manners, a person moves up in his social circles. However, Colonel Pickering thinks quite differently, the reason that he bets on Eliza, the flower girl, that both of them can experiment on her, who in turn, taunts Higgins for deceiving her at the end, thinking that she might have stayed ignorant of his pride and his arrogance.
  3. Marriage: Although Bernard Shaw has not touched upon marriage in Pygmalion as the central thematic idea, he has let Liza and Higgins develop a relation to a point where it seems possible that the duo is going to marry. However, its unresolved ending shows that both of them have deeper feelings about each other. Specifically, Eliza is quite hurt at the frivolous attitude of the Professor about her training without having any empathy or sympathy. However, her final departure and spurning of Higgins show that she rather has sound reason not to marry him, a logic held strongly by the middle class of that time against the upper class.
  4. Language: The play shows Bernard Shaw’s views about the gentry of those times. The play shows that anybody, even a flower girl like Eliza, could join the gentry without much effort. She only requires improving her accent and language. The experiment of Professor Higgins succeeds and Eliza joins the elite class but not without causing shock to Professor himself that she rejects him. It also transpires to the professor that even this mobility with language is not without hiccups as she, sometimes, resorts to her cockney accent.
  5. Professionalism: Although the play does not stress women’s professionalism, the reversion of Eliza to open a flower shop of her own shows that Bernard Shaw is not averse to the idea of women’s independence, even if they belong to the lower class. That is the very reason that Pickering almost sarcastically comments on her role in the party and the garden that she has done it.
  6. Gender Solidarity: The play shows the theme of gender solidarity through the mother of Professor Higgins in that, though, her son has brought a flower girl, yet she quickly turns sympathetic to Eliza when she sees that both her son and his friend, Pickering, have made her an object of their experiment. However, the opposite gender is painted as hostile to each other when Higgins first brings her to his mother. Later when she comes to know about her being their subject, she turns against them, showing solidarity with a woman.
  7. Dreams: The play shows the theme of dreams through Elizabeth in that she dreams of joining the elite class but ends up making a plan for her own shop. She realizes that her dream is not realistic, the reason that she wants to become independent now.
  8. Identity: The play shows the theme of fixed or flexible identity through Elizabeth. The social identity she has had is fixed in her mind. Although she tries to change it, she soon realizes that she cannot shed off her original identity of being the flower girl. Higgins, too, thinks that identity cannot be changed but by the end of the play it seems that he might have been wrong.

Major Characters in Pygmalion

  1. Eliza: Known as Eliza, Elizabeth Doolittle appears in the first act of the play and goes off stage in the end. It is Eliza through whom Bernard Shaw has highlighted his philosophy of socialism in that a person can move in his social class on the basis of education, language, accent, and behavior. That is why when Professor Higgins, the phonetician, expresses his interest in training this flower girl and helping her in her social mobility, it seems a tangible idea. Although it is pure chance that her father inherits property on the recommendation of Professor Higgins, it becomes clear that it is possible to move up in the social class despite having some issues, though, Eliza wants to be independent through her flower shop as she envisages it by the end. However, she stands against the deception as she rejects Higgins’s further insults, leaving him in dismay by the point the play ends.
  2. Henry Higgins: A genius and strategic linguist, Higgins knows that accent changes a person’s life, and phonetics plays a significant role in this social mobility. His views contested by his friend, Colonel Pickering, show their application on the flower girl, Elizabeth Doolittle, and prove true to some extent. However, when she spurns him by the end, his notions about equality and social mobility almost get confounded in this ambivalence that Liza shows toward him. Yet, he has done enough to make it possible for Liza to move up in the social hierarchy.
  3. Colonel Pickering: As an academic and linguist himself, Colonel Pickering, has traveled across the world, shows his intellectualism through his opposition to the notion of Professor Higgins. In fact, he knows that merely linguistic outreach or excellence cannot let the person join the nobility, for it needs social, financial, and family connections. Although he loses his bet to some extent, he also wins when Elizabeth does not consent to the unspoken demand of Professor Higgins. However, he has the courage of his conviction and feels sorry before Eliza for subjecting her to the experiment which is quite contrary to his friend, who does not feel sympathy for her.
  4. Mrs. Higgins: As the mother of Higgins, she is bound to follow her son about his experiment, the reason that she becomes the host to the Eynsford family when it comes to testing Elizabeth. She, however, becomes almost estranged with her son for subjecting Eliza to experiment in this way. Also, she treats Eliza with love and sympathetically instead of being hostile toward her.
  5. Alfred Doolittle: Eliza’s father, Alfred Doolittle is engaged in minting money. He Is poor, greedy, and an absent father to Eliza. He even might be abusive and alcoholic. So, Eliza does not trust her father, knowing that he does not care much about her training. He becomes wealthy on the recommendation of Higgins when he calls him an original moralist, which was actually a joke played by the professor.
  6. Mrs. Pearce: Representing conventional Victorian matriarchy, Mrs. Pearce is the voice of the low strata of the life of that time. Her role becomes critical when she pinpoints the mannerisms of Higgins and also rebukes him for making a person subject to his experiment. She teaches Higgins table manners but also grooms Eliza to guard herself against Higgins.
  7. Freddy: The son of the Eynsford Hill family, Freddy is a young man with whom Eliza is infatuated in the first act when she adopts a new manner of speaking. He seems a puppet of the matriarchy in his family, the reason that his mother and sister are guiding him.
  8. Clara: Clara in Pygmalion demonstrates modernity to leave a good impression on others. She also agrees with Higgins and Pickering’s proposition that manners are cultivated and that they do not have anything to do with a moral framework.
  9. Mrs. Eynsford Hill: Mrs. Eynsford Hill takes part in the experiment taking her son, Freddy, and her daughter, Clara to Mrs. Higgins to test Elizabeth Doolittle whether she has become a duchess after changing her accent. She is a controlling woman and belongs to the upper-class society.

Writing Style of Pygmalion

When it comes to the writing of the plot of Pygmalion, George Bernard Shaw constructed a tightly knit plot, showing all characters appearing at the exact time and place and speaking in their natural style. He has shown through his character, Professor Henry Higgins, that accent and language could change one’s manners and hence class in society. For his characters, the playwright has chosen carefully crafted sentences that are neither too small, nor too short, but suit the occasions. In terms of diction, it is quite informal at times but becomes formal when characters turn to formality. For literary impacts, the author has relied heavily on irony, sarcasm, and metaphors.

Analysis of the Literary Devices in Pygmalion

  1. Action: The main action of the play comprises the training and experimenting of Eliza Doolittle. The rising action occurs when Eliza goes through a test at the house of Mrs. Higgins and then at a party. The falling action occurs when she rebukes Higgins for bullying.
  2. Anaphora: The play shows examples of anaphora such as,
    i. You can spot an Irishman or a Yorkshireman by his brogue. I can place any man within six miles. I can place him within two miles in London. Sometimes within two streets. (Act-I)
    ii. A woman who utters such depressing and disgusting sounds has no right to be anywhere–no right to live. (Act-I)
    iii. I shall always be a flower girl to Professor Higgins, because he always treats me as a flower girl, and always will; but I know I can be a lady to you, because you always treat me as a lady, and always will. (Act-III)
    These examples show the repetitious use of “I can place”, “no right” and “always treats me”, creating impacts on the readers.
  3. Alliteration: Pygmalion shows the use of alliteration in several places. A few examples are given below,
    i. The double doors are in the middle of the back hall; and persons entering find in the corner to their right two tall file cabinets at right angles to one another against the walls. (Act-1)
    ii. If you’re naughty and idle you will sleep in the back kitchen among the black beetles, and be walloped by Mrs. Pearce with a broomstick. (Act-III)
    iii. At the other side of the room, further forward, is an Elizabethan chair roughly carved in the taste of Inigo Jones. (Act-III)
    These examples from the play show the use of consonant sounds such as the sound of /d/, /b/, and /f/ occurring successively.
  4. Allusion: The play shows excellent use of different allusions such as,
    i. A woman who utters such depressing and disgusting sounds has no right to be anywhere–no right to live. 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 Shakespear and Milton and The Bible; and don’t sit there crooning like a bilious pigeon. (Act-I)
    ii. Not like Science and Literature and Classical Music and Philosophy and Art. You find me cold, unfeeling, selfish, don’t you? (Act-III)
    iii. It shook her so violently, that when Mr. H. G. Wells lifted her on the point of his puissant pen, and placed her at the angle of view from which the life she was leading and the society to which she clung appeared in its true relation to real human needs and worthy social structure, he effected a conversion and a conviction of sin comparable to the most sensational feats of General Booth or Gypsy Smith. (Act-III)
    The first example shows the reference to classical authors Milton and Shakespeare and then to Bible, and the second refers to classical subjects and the last one refers to people.
  5. Antagonist: There is no main antagonist in the play. Although it seems that Henry Higgins, the professor of phonetics, is the antagonist because he subjects Eliza to his experiment. The early 19th society is the main antagonist as it does not treat people equally or permit them to enjoy social mobility.
  6. Conflict: The play shows the conflict between Eliza and the society, then between Henry Higgins and Eliza and between Eliza’s father and Higgins.
  7. Characters: The play, Pygmalion, shows both static as well as dynamic characters. The young girl, Eliza Doolittle, is a dynamic character as she shows a considerable transformation in her behavior and conduct by the end of the play. However, all other characters are static as they do not show or witness any transformation such as Professor Henry Higgins, Colonel Pickering, and Clara.
  8. Climax: The climax in the play occurs when Eliza Doolittle passes the tests and becomes an important candidate to join the nobility.
  9. Foreshadowing: The novel shows many instances of foreshadows such as,
    i. MRS. PEARCE. But what’s to become of her? Is she to be paid anything? Do be sensible, sir. (Act-II)
    ii. MRS. PEARCE. Will you please keep to the point, Mr. Higgins. I want to know on what terms the girl is to be here. Is she to have any wages? And what is to become of her when you’ve finished your teaching? You must look ahead a little. (Act-II)
    The use of “what is to become of her” shows the use of foreshadowing about Elizabeth’s future after the queen’s ball.
  10. Hyperbole: The play shows various examples of hyperboles such as,
    i. She’s to keep to two subjects: the weather and everybody’s health–Fine day and How do you do, you know–and not to let herself go on things in general. (Act-II)
    ii. Henry: you are the life and soul of the Royal Society’s soirees; but really you’re rather trying on more commonplace occasions. (Act-II)
    Both of these examples exaggerate things as both weather and the Royal Society could not be stretched too far.
  11. Imagery: Pygmalion shows the use of imagery as given in the examples below,
    i. There! As the girl very properly says, Garn! Married indeed! Don’t you know that a woman of that class looks a worn out drudge of fifty a year after she’s married.. (Act-I)
    ii. Oh, have I been rude? I didn’t mean to be. He goes to the central window, through which, with his back to the company, he contemplates the river and the flowers in Battersea Park on the opposite bank as if they were a frozen dessert. (Chapter-III)
    These two examples show images of feelings and sight.
  12. Irony: It means to use words having intended meanings different from the actual meanings such as,
    i. If you are not found out, you shall have a present of seven-and sixpence to start life with as a lady in a shop. If you refuse this offer you will be a most ungrateful and wicked girl; and the angels will weep for you. (Act-II)
    ii. Oh! don’t they? Small talk indeed! What about your large talk? Really, dear,
    you mustn’t stay. (Act-III)
    Both of these examples show the use of words in opposite meanings than the actual ones such as weeping of angels and the large talk of Higgins.
  13. Metaphor: Pygmalion shows good use of various metaphors such as,
    i. There! As the girl very properly says, Garn! Married indeed! Don’t you know that a woman of that class looks a worn out drudge of fifty a year after she’s married. (Act-I)
    ii. I tell you I have created this thing out of the squashed cabbage leaves of Covent Garden; and now she pretends to play the fine lady with me. (Act-III)
    iii. She will relapse into the gutter in three weeks without me at her elbow. (Act-IV)
    These examples show that several things have been compared directly in the play such as the first shows the comparison between a woman and a drudge, the second shows the girl compared to cabbage and the third shows the same girl again compared to a whore or something dirty.
  14. Mood: The play, Pygmalion, shows various moods; it starts with a highly humorous and witty mood and ends in an ambiguous and comic mood.
  15. Monologue: Below is the best example of the monologue given in the play,
    i. DOOLITTLE: Don’t say that, Governor. Don’t look at it that way. What am I, Governors both? I ask you, what am I? I’m one of the undeserving poor: that’s what I am. Think of what that means to a man. It means that he’s up agen middle class morality all the time. If there’s anything going, and I put in for a bit of it, it’s always the same story: ‘You’re undeserving; so you can’t have it.’ But my needs is as great as the most deserving widow’s that ever got money out of six different charities in one week for the death of the same husband. I don’t need less than a deserving man: I need more. I don’t eat less hearty than him; and I drink a lot more. I want a bit of amusement, cause I’m a thinking man. (Act-II)
  16. Motif: Most important motifs of, Pygmalion, are flowers, weather, and language.
  17. Protagonist: Eliza Doolittle is the protagonist of the play. The entire play revolves around her training by Professor Higgins to join the elite social circle.
  18. Setting: The setting of the play, Pygmalion, is London and the homes of the characters.
  19. Simile: The play shows perfect use of various similes such as,
    i. 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 Shakespear and Milton and The Bible; and don’t sit there crooning like a bilious pigeon. (Act-I)
    ii. You’ve got to learn to behave like a duchess. (Act-III)
    iii. Oh, well, if you say so, I suppose I don’t always talk like a bishop. (Act-IV)
    The use of the word “like” shows the comparison between different things such as the person has been compared to a pigeon and then Elizabeth lady to a duchess.