Mythology forms a strong precursor for this masterpiece. As Nicholas Greene wrote in the introduction, “Pygmalion, like Ulysses, uses only its one word title to suggest its source in classical myth. Without these titles, the novel might be read as no more than a day in the life of 1904 Dublin, the play just the bizarre encounter of a flower girl and a phonetics teacher.” Pygmalion was a character in the tenth book of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. A cynical sculptor from Cyprus who scorned women, Pygmalion created a flawless female form out of ivory and then fell in love with the statue. He wooed it as he would a lover, and he prayed to Aphrodite to find him a woman like his statue. Ironically, Aphrodite brought his statue to life. Pygmalion named her Galatea, married her, and had a son named Paphos. Shaw’s Pygmalion is however different from the classic on several crucial point. Henry Higgins does share Pygmalion’s misogyny however that is where the resemblance ends. Higgins never falls in love with his ‘creation’. Similarly, unlike Galatea, Eliza is not in love with Higgins, in fact, as her lessons progress and her mind is ‘refined’, she learns to talk back to Higgins, to resist and to register her protest.
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What is supremely appreciable and laudable is that the author never once loses his plot or his humor. Pygmalion ruthlessly tackles innumerable social idiosyncrasies without overwhelming the reader with a riot act. Sparkling, endearingly peopled with irrecorigible characters, Pygmalion is spectacular because of its genial characterization. The author’s style of writing is fascinating since he does not judge his characters, yet the nature of the circumstances or the conversations in their entirety are in no way lacking in judgment. Henry Higgins is by far my favorite character. Shaw gives away bits of Higgins’ character little by little. The wholly irreverent and unguarded Higgins makes the reader chuckle delightedly at his coinages such as ‘bilious pigeon’, ‘squashed cabbage leaf’, ‘draggletailed guttersnipe’ and the like. These give away to lengthier and more articulate invective such as, “Woman: cease this detestable boohooing instantly; or else seek the shelter of some other place of worship.” In addition to his tendency to break into speech and his utter disregard for convention, other people and an innate irreverence, what is truly disarming about this affable monster is his utter naiveté and oblivion of the enormity of his actions. Nevertheless, Henry Higgins is vibrant, cynical, encouraging, dedicated, devoted, utterly brilliant and law unto himself. He challenges convention, flouts societal rules, but has an innate ability to find humor in situations. What is worrisome is his tendency to play God and his attempts to shape peoples’ lives as can be seen in the case of Eliza where he turns her into a ‘Duchess’ and in the case of Alfred Doolittle whom he pushes into a life of middle class morality. Henry Higgins is the archetypal intellectual in complete control of his academic sensibility who holds most others in contempt because of the awareness and acceptance of the fact that he is better than others. Having called him a monster once and having heard that idea echoes by many, I must also assert that it would be unfair to demonize Henry Higgins. He’s a quirk of the author’s mind, but there are underlining and overwriting evidences abound in this volume that are testimony to the complexity and sensitivity of his character.
Eliza Doolittle is the ‘bilious pigeon’, ‘the squashed cabbage leaf’, ‘draggletailed guttersnipe’ and a lot more. Commonly, Eliza Doolittle is said to have been created by Henry Higgins when he gives her the ability to harbor refined speech with which she would be judged differently. Yet, it must be acknowledged that Eliza was special from the start. She had great latent potential to begin with. This was not merely her ‘fine ear’ as identified by Higgins. This potential lay in her inner drive, her willingness to take a leap and the fact that she dared to dream. In a day and age when women merely construed to make the best of whatever came their way and to merely traverse through life without suffering abuse, Eliza went out on a limb to build a new identity and a new life for herself. The wisdom of this decision is debatable, since it can be seen that her re-invention of herself comes with its own disadvantages, but it heartening to witness a person who is willing to break the mould of feminine servility. Eliza is portrayed as an intelligent person. She may be insecure and a little nervous, but she never truly gives up her intrinsic sensibility, which is crucial since she manages to save herself from becoming a mannequin that only holds the ability to speak beautifully. I find it hilarious that in essentials, both Higgins and Eliza are unfit for prescribed social company. Eliza’s unsuitability stems from her complete lack of artifice and sophistication. In Higgins’ case, it is about his absolute vacuity concerning such matters.
Colonel Pickering and Mrs. Pearce are of great importance to the plot. They are the crème de la crème of the supplementary characters in the play, nevertheless, they are indispensable and irreplaceable. It is through them that Shaw managed to provide a neutral yet reflective view of what transpires between Eliza and Higgins. Both Pickering and Mrs. Pearce are constant fixtures in the background and witnesses to the proceedings of the ‘experiment’. It is crucial to note that their economic and social positions are vastly different, as is that of Higgins and Eliza. This interplay of gender, socio-economic position and perceptions forms an intriguing backdrop. Moving outwards from the focal point, we encounter oft-mentioned characters such as Mrs. Higgins, Alfred Doolittle and the Eynsford Hills. They are the manifestations of certain strata of society and the constraints placed upon them by either their diction or their wealth (or the lack of thereof). Mrs. Higgins is an example of a member of the aristocracy, well born, well bred, well read, well spoken and to say the very least, born with a guarantee of lifelong wellness. Alfred Doolittle on the other hand is a man weighed down by the ‘fates’ as he calls them. He existed in purposeless poverty and yet was reasonably happy until Henry Higgins launched him into respectability and consequently, Doolittle had to resign himself to a life of middle class morality. The Eynsford Hills were the most miserable. They were bound by the confines of gentility, the lack of finances and the utter and complete inability to make a living. Their condition was particularly dreary since they found acceptance neither in high society nor in the working class population. This revelation can be viewed as a preemptory warning to what might become of Eliza when she gets caught up in this confusing situation of shattering loss of identity.
The progression of the plot is systematic and logical, yet thoroughly charming. Act One, besides introducing the major characters of the play, this act introduces socioeconomic class as a central theme of Pygmalion. Shaw being a socialist consistently explores and exposes the chasm and the power play between the poor and the wealthy. By setting the play in London, Shaw seeks to deal with a society that is particularly stratified. British class-consciousness is based not only on economic power, but also on historical class differences. The play highlights British people’s recognition of accents to distinguish among themselves not only geographically but also to distinguish the various social classes. Nevertheless, Higgins’s system of teaching better English serves to undermine the system in which his keen awareness of language so easily has allowed him to participate. The very name of his system of shorthand writing, “Higgins’s Universal Alphabet,” not only indicates that it reproduces all the sounds of language, but also implies that he believes that everyone should have access to elevated language. It goes on to show Higgins is not a classist in the classical sense of the term. He judges people on the basis of what they choose to make of themselves.
The second Act picks up at Wimpole Street. Eliza manages to sparkle even in her drab dress and with her dirty dress. Her goal and courage is splendid, she longs for that which is precisely so difficult in British society: self-improvement, thus pushing the acceptable bounds of social mobility. Shaw also goes out of his way to demonstrate that despite her aim, Eliza is eventually manipulated by an older and more learned man into a scheme that suits his purposes not for humanitarian reasons but for the fun of it. This is also representative of Shaw’s feminist tendencies. The appearance of Eliza’s father and his endeavor to seek financial remuneration for turning her over to the gentlemen also illustrates the perceptions of gendered relations in society. Eliza is from the very onset is seen as a threat to the morality of the household since she comes from the roughest parts of the town. However, later in the play, when Henry Higgins offers to have her married to some ‘rich bloke’ Eliza states, “We were above that at Tottenham Court Road. I sold flowers I didn’t sell myself.” This blasts the artificial moral interface of class and morality, and negates the gently disguised aspersions cast against Eliza for being poor and for housing with two unwed men without a suitable chaperone.
Act Three brings a sobering element into the play. In isolation, the bet between Higgins and Pickering seems innocuous and rewarding in humanitarian and intellectual terms. However, with the surge of Mrs. Higgins we see stronger echoes of the fears expressed by Mrs. Pearce. She also expounds on the imprudence of the experiment and strengthens the element of realism of the third Act. Eliza’s gaffe at Mrs. Higgins’ soirée brings things to a head. She sums up Higgins and Pickering’s blinded notions in one statement, “You certainly are a pretty pair of babies playing with your live doll.” Henry and Pickering’s chorus of rebuttals are pleasing only because they assuage the reader’s fears of their heartlessness. In the same breath they also exhibit that their adoration of Eliza is the love for an object. They take great pleasure in their success of transforming Eliza, but they forget that she is a person with feelings, hopes and aspirations and that this transformation will put an end to her life as she has known in and set her afloat in a world that does not allow for mobility. They truly are devoted to Eliza and their cause if turning her into a true lady who can hold her own place in Court. However, Mrs. Higgins strives to show them their shortsightedness and fails spectacularly. Shaw yet again gives free reign to his feminist notions that surpass class borders when Mrs. Higgins exclaims, “Men, men, men!” In doing so, she rises above the pervasive class-consciousness she has previously displayed and transfers her sympathy and support to Eliza. Intellectually, this Act is monumental for Henry since he realizes that mere diction will not allow Eliza a place in society, she needs to be taught how lead a different life and not just be a different person.
Act 4 is a pivotal act, the relationship between Eliza and Higgins finally explodes. The elusive emotional strings of Eliza and Higgins’ relation become obvious. That there are deeper feelings between Eliza and Higgins is evident, however, I cannot accept the general notion that these feelings were romantic. To change Eliza, Higgins had to know Eliza. And in turn, Eliza too became enmeshed in the life at Wimpole street. It is human nature that some sort of careless affection, dependence and expectation would develop, however not of a romantic nature. This would also negate what Shaw had set out to achieve. When Higgins and Pickering celebrate there victory as merely their own and don’t even offer Eliza a scrap of praise for her part in the triumph, Eliza cracks. Her rage is all the more formidable since she’s not the naÃ¯ve child Higgins had picked up from the road. She’s learnt to identify and articulate her feelings and she finally turned the tables on Higgins by rubbishing his treatment of her as a mere object. She rebels, she avenges her grief, and out of spite, she seeks to wound him. She doesn’t take pleasure from his pain, she revels that she has pushed him far enough to admit that she mattered to him, that she was indispensable to him and that she had left an indelible mark on his life that he wouldn’t be able to remove. Dazzling and powerful, Shaw manages to address almost all dimensions of this power play in a short yet remarkably detailed Act.
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The mythological themes that give this play its name are the strongest in the Fifth Act. It becomes conclusive to the reader that Higgins sees himself as Eliza’s creator as an agent for her being. It is essential to note, that in a play that has popularly been called a romance in five acts, Eliza’s rescuer or in more evocative terms, Eliza’s White Knight is Mrs. Higgins and her new found ability to defend herself cogently because of her refined speech. It’s refreshing to read how a woman can be empowered enough to chart her own destiny and how another woman shuns class barriers, and shows gendered solidarity over familial loyalties. Logically, Higgins had taught Eliza everything that has enabled her to become the ‘consort battleship’ as he describes her. Nevertheless, herein appears the difference between the Pygmalion of the old and the Pygmalion of the new. Eliza was not a statue of ivory that could be shaped and moulded to Henry’s idea of perfection. In his endeavor to make her linguistically invincible in society, he had also chiselled her mind. He had provided her access to rationality and logic and these in turn helped her shape and modify her own character. It disconcerted Higgins when the battleship of his design waved the Jolly Roger at him. He had forgotten in his self-centred glory that the creature whose speech he had corrected, replaced and polished had a mind of her own. In an equation of education, character and consequent result, Henry had unceremoniously dropped character because he thought Eliza incapable of it. As I said before, Eliza came into Wimpole Street with great potential, and not only was this potential enhanced, I see a strange similarity between her and her celebrated mentor. In their final confrontation, Eliza rages at Higgins, but with great wit, sarcasm and insight, something that was characteristic of Higgins in previous Acts. She blows hot and blows cold and conducts herself with the sort of calm and dignity that Henry laid claim on in the Fourth Act. I like to believe that every moment of hysteria is followed by an epiphany. Eliza’s moment of epiphany comes mid-speech when she exclaims aloud in wonder, “Aha! Now I know how to deal with you. What a fool I was to not think of it before! You cannot take away the knowledge you gave me. You said that I had a finer ear than you. And I can be civil and kind to people which is more than you can, Aha!” Following this Henry claims the credit for her newfound confidence by saying, “Five minutes ago you were a milestone around my neck and now you’re tower of strength.” I do not believe Higgins had much to do with Eliza’s realization, but his description is befitting since it is at this moment that Eliza discards her despondence and her worries about alienation from society and her unemployability and embraces her resources. It is at this moment that Henry Higgins sees the woman he had set out to create, but must assimilate that fact that it wasn’t his contribution that had led to the final being. He taught Eliza manners, grace and the rules of gentility, but it was her own actions that helped her traverse the short but crucial path from studied grace to true intrinsic dignity. This act and the second act together sum up Eliza’s relation with her father and by extension with Higgins. Her father never needed her, to him, she was dispensable unless she could be a means to some end. Similarly, Eliza sees that same traits in Higgins that he needed her only to prove his mastery over phonetics but no more whereas she had in some way become dependent on him.
In the final narrative, the author describes the consequent actions of the various agent sin the play. It is diabolic and partly Freudian since it explains the actions and ambitions of the characters on the basis of their pasts. Shaw also seems more kindly towards Higgins since he devotes a hefty amount of time to justify Higgins’ inability to love or be dependent. He provides his mother as the excuse. Refined, well versed in art, culture, literature, she has set such high standards for female perfections in Henry’s mind that he cannot but find younger women insipid. This rationale and marvellous ability to ‘separate passion from beauty’ enables him to feel great passion towards phonetics and he idealizes his mother. Eliza’s refusal to wed him is not a whimsical protest. Shaw fleshes out this argument by saying that Eliza identified Higgins as a man who would never put a woman first in his life and she never wanted to come second to intellectual pursuits. She instead chooses Freddy Eynsford Hill whose only qualifying characteristic is his voluminous love for Eliza. For Eliza, being needed was important and thus she gravitated towards him. Shaw wraps up his tale in a verbose whirlwind wherein his characters undergo a period of previously uncharted toil before they finally settle into a comfortable sort of regularity and interpersonal relations stabilize in a hilarious sort of armed truce. Shaw’s description of the final state of affairs shows an interesting perspective on love. Freddy was infatuated with Eliza and remains so, but it is unclear what her feelings are towards him. She certainly likes him, but she continues to feel the most passionately (mostly in anger) about Higgins.
With great style and panache Shaw tackles several pressing social issues in his play, especially subjects such as professionalism, manners and gentility, marriage and prostitution and gender solidarity or antagonism all of which, using Eliza as a via media present proto feminist ideas to the reader. These primary themes are in turn presented in the context of broader ideas of language and class. The social hierarchy is an unavoidable reality in Britain, and it is interesting to watch it play out in the work of a socialist playwright. Shaw includes members of all social classes from the lowest (Eliza) to the servant class (Mrs. Pearce) to the middle class (Doolittle after his inheritance) to the genteel poor (the Eynsford Hills) to the upper class (Pickering and the Higginses). The general sense is that class structures are rigid and should not be tampered with, so the example of Liza’s class mobility is most shocking. The link between language, class and the individual is essential to understand since language is the outwardly manifestation a person’s acceptability into a certain kind of society. Without this linguistic identity, one risks becoming a stranger to his or her own society as is seen in Eliza’s case. Diction more than anything alters one’s acceptability. This is not merely limited to a poor man speaking a coarse tongue and a rich man spewing refined lines of poetry when he asks someone to pass the salt over. Higgins’s teachings are somewhat radical in that they disrupt this social marker, allowing for greater social mobility.
In the face of such heavy social implications and imprecations it is essential we take time to appreciate the detail paid to the science of speech. In modern times when language has been reduced to a mode of communication, Henry Higgins brings back emphasis to the fascinating science of language and phonetics and how such and esoteric thing can dominate and shape the lives of people when used as a marker.
Oscar Wilde wrote in Lady Windermere’s Fan, “It’s absurd to divide people into good and bad. People are either charming or tedious.” Charmingly peopled and appropriately landscaped, Pygmalion is a modern day classic that to an extent surpasses the original in terms of its honesty about human resolve, desire and consequences.
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