Pygmalion and My Fair Lady are a modern parallel of the story of Pygmalion, legendary sculptor and King of Cyprus, who fell in love with his own statue of Aphrodite. At his prayer, Aphrodite brought the statue to life as Galatea. George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion is the story of Henry Higgins, a master phonetician, and his mischievous plot to pass a common flower girl, Eliza Doolittle, off as a duchess at the Embassy Ball. In order to achieve his goal, Higgins must teach Eliza how to speak properly and how to act in upper-class society. The play looks at middle class morality and upper-class superficiality, and reflects the social ills of nineteenth century England, and attests that all people are worthy of respect and dignity.
Shaw’s Pygmalion is Henry Higgins, professor of phonetics, who, comes upon a homely flower-girl selling flowers in the streets, makes a wager with Colonel Pickering that in three months he can so transform her as to pass her off for a lady. To Higgins, this is but a task that he accomplishes, a wager that he wins; but in Eliza Doolittle, the flower girl, a new personality has been created. With the manners and speech of a lady, she cannot fall back into her old life, and with those ways has come an asserting will, which selects Henry Higgins, her creator, as her mate. To Higgins’ dismay, he finds that his laboratory case has surged into all his life, with emotional entanglements he had not anticipated.
Throughout most of civilization, people have been divided into social classes. In a lot of different especially capitalist cultures there is an upper class rich, powerful and in control. Then there was a middle class, less comfortably off than the upper class, and certainly less powerful, but respected nonetheless. At the bottom there is the lower working class making up the majority of people, rarely having the necessities of life and never considered by other classes no matter how long or hard they worked on improving their situation. In the following essay, I will discuss whether George Bernard Shaw agreed with this distinction and division of society and how he exhibited his views through his renowned play Pygmalion.
Throughout the play, ladies and gentleman are continuously recognized for who they are through different factors such as how they are dressed, their manners, how they speak, morality or their money. It is however noticeable that a combination of all factors is rarely to be found. For instance Henry Higgins although well dressed, well spoken and with money, has manners which could not be characterized as genteel. Alfred Doolittle (after acquiring some money) is well dressed, has some form of manners and could be classified as rich, yet is not well spoken. Nevertheless, when the maid opens the door to him she instantly perceives that he is a gentleman. So what really does make a lady or a gentleman?
Alfred Doolittle arrives at Wimpole St, in the second act, and doesn’t even recognize his own daughter, Eliza, just because she has been washed and elegantly dressed.
Alfred: Beg Pardon, miss.
Eliza: Garn! Don’t you know your own daughter?
Alfred: Bly me! Its Eliza.
This demonstrates that the working class was not used to washing and dressing up, which was customary for the upper class. The dissimilarity in the appearance of the upper class from the working class was so sensational that even someone who was your own flesh and blood could be naturally mistaken. This trend of depicting appearances goes right through to the end of the play, when on arrival at Mrs. Higgins’ house, Doolittle is mistaken for a gentleman by the maid, merely because of the way he is dressed
Higgins: Doolittle! Do you mean a dustman?
Maid: Dustman! Oh no sir, a gentleman.
The appearance of Doolittle is taken into main consideration when it comes to deciding what class he belongs to. The question is raised, what separates the classes really, if clothing can do so much for how someone is perceived. Apart from the way people dress, they are also defined by the way they speak.
In Pygmalion the way people converse is a very important part of the play, not least because the structure of it is based on the fact that Eliza can’t speak properly and Higgins can teach her how. It was obviously considerably important to speak well at that time, which is emphasized by Shaw over and over again. The play even starts with Higgins criticizing the way that Eliza speaks, because it is not only up to standard compared to proper English it will also resultantly keep her in the gutter for the rest of her days. He expresses that he could teach even someone with such dreadful pronunciation within 3 – 6 months, this already means that whether you can speak adequately or not doesn’t actually mean anything, if you can be taught how to in such a short period of time. Noticeably Shaw doesn’t make it a must to speak correctly, this is probably for the reason that a lady or gentleman, although would preferably have to have good English, would not necessarily have perfect English to be accepted into the upper class. I think that language is a very important part of our society, whether it should be or not, is another question. Some people seem to judge one’s first appearance and they don’t look past what they see. Mr. Higgins never saw Eliza as more than a flower girl, even though she had been a lady all along. Language is a powerful thing; it can make you a duchess or a flower girl, a bum or a high society gentleman…or at least appear to be.
Pygmalion also looks at middle class morality through the characterization of Mr. Doolittle, Eliza’s father. Mr. Doolittle is a common dustman, an indolent man who spends his time drinking alcohol at the local pub. He is not too proud to beg for money, even from Eliza. Moreover, he lives with a woman to whom he is not married. When Henry Higgins writes to a politician and refers to him as the best moralist speaker in London, Mr. Doolittle is forced into the middle class, and thus he must adhere to middle-class morality. This means he is expected go to church, marry his live-in girlfriend, give up alcohol, refrain from picking up women, and give money to his impoverished relatives.
There will always be a division between the classes, but the question is what distinguishes ladies and gentlemen from flower girls and dustman. Eliza says: Really and truly, apart from the things anyone can pick (the dressing and the proper way of speaking and so on), the difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves but how she is treated… I learnt really nice manners and that’s what makes one a lady.
Because isn’t the way you are treated more important then what you are treated to? While one may expect a well-educated man, such as Higgins, to be a gentleman, he is far from it. Higgins believes that how you treated someone is not important, as long as you treat everyone equally. The great secret, Eliza, is not having bad manners or good manners or any other particular sort of manners, but having the same manner for all human souls: in short, behaving as if you were in Heaven, where there are no third-class carriages, and one soul is as good as another. Higgins never respects Eliza, and never will in Act V of Pygmalion, Eliza confronts him about his manner towards her. He (Pickering) treats a flower girl as duchess. Higgins, replying to Eliza, And I treat a duchess as a flower girl. In an attempt to justify this Higgins replies The question is not whether I treat you rudely, but whether you ever heard me treat anyone else better. Eliza does not answer this question but the reader knows that Higgins has treated others better than Eliza. These are examples of Higgens expressing his maleness to Higgins Eliza is a female not worthy of his respect, only thing she is worthy of is fetching his slippers.
Pygmalion looks at the superficiality of upper class society, a society in which social status is determined by the language that one speaks, one’s manners, and the clothes one wears. It is astounding that Higgins is able to pass Eliza off as an elite, and Hungarian royalty at that, merely by altering her appearance and speech. The wealthy are so superficial they can not see past Eliza’s appearance.
On a deeper level, Pygmalion addresses the social ills in England at the turn of the century. Victorian England was characterized by extreme class division and limited, to no, social mobility. Language separated the elite from the lower class. In Pygmalion, Eliza’s dialect inhibits her from procuring a job in a flower shop; Pygmalion is about the universal truth that all people are worthy of respect and dignity, from the wealthy nobleman to the beggar on the street corner. The difference between a common flower girl and a duchess, apart from appearance and demeanor, is the way she is treated. Treat the flower girl as if she were a duchess, worthy of respect and decency, and she will become a better person as a result.