Pygmalion | Study Guide

George Bernard Shaw

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Act 2

Professor Bill Yarrow of Joliet Junior College provides an in-depth summary and analysis of Act 2 of George Bernard Shaw's play Pygmalion.

Pygmalion | Act 2 | Summary



The morning after the gathering under the portico of St. Paul's Church, Pickering visits Higgins at his home and laboratory on Wimpole Street. As the professor winds up an exhaustive demonstration of the various devices he uses to study speech, his housekeeper, Mrs. Pearce, announces the arrival of a young woman. She is "quite a common girl," has a dreadful accent, and insists on seeing Higgins. Thinking this may offer an opportunity for further demonstrations, Higgins tells Mrs. Pearce to send the young woman in.

Immediately he recognizes the flower girl from the night before and, having no further use for her, tells her to go away. But the flower girl, whose name is Eliza, stops him with the revelation that she has come for speech lessons, "and to pay for em, too." Eliza aspires to become a lady in a flower shop "stead of selling at the corner of Tottenham Court Road. But they won't take me unless I can talk more genteel." She reminds Higgins of his claim that he could teach her, and offers him a shilling an hour to do so—quite a substantial sum for a person with her income. The challenge intrigues Higgins. Pickering says he'll pay for the lessons if Higgins succeeds, and count him the greatest teacher alive. Higgins accepts the wager, vowing to "make a duchess of this draggletailed guttersnipe" in six months. Then he instructs Mrs. Pearce to find a room for Eliza to stay in and to give her a bath, burn her clothes, and order new garments.

Mrs. Pearce chides Higgins for thinking he can "take a girl up like that as if you were picking up a pebble on the beach." She advises Eliza to go home to her parents, but Eliza says they have turned her out to earn her own living. Mrs. Pearce sternly asks Higgins on what terms Eliza will stay in the house and what will become of her when the experiment is done. Impatient with such details, Higgins leaves them to Mrs. Pearce to settle with Eliza.

While Eliza bathes, "an elderly but vigorous dustman" who claims to be Eliza's father visits Higgins and Pickering. He is Alfred Doolittle, a callous, unprincipled scoundrel who has come to touch Higgins for money in exchange for Eliza. Higgins is struck by Doolittle's natural gift of rhetoric and shocked by the man's lack of morals. But Doolittle unabashedly explains that he is too poor to afford them, and he assures Higgins that the money will be well spent: "There won't be a penny of it left by Monday ... Just one good spree for myself and the missus." As he leaves five pounds richer, he encounters a young "Japanese lady" in a blue kimono. Begging her pardon, he is astonished to discover that it's Eliza. She has cleaned up quite nicely. With a last word of advice to Higgins to take a strap to her if he wants her mind improved, Doolittle departs.

Eliza is darkly pleased to see him go and has no desire to see him again. Moments later, her new clothes arrive, and with a howl of delight she rushes from the room to try them on. Higgins and Pickering can see they have "taken on a stiff job."


Act 2 sets up the experiment that will raise Eliza from low- to upper-class status. It also reveals the personal reasons Eliza, Higgins, and Pickering have for taking on the daring task. Two additional characters are introduced—Mrs. Pearce and Alfred Doolittle—who will play minor, though influential, roles in Eliza's story.

As described, Higgins's laboratory was intended to be a drawing room—a room in a large private house in which guests can be received and entertained. The fact that Higgins has turned it into a laboratory symbolizes his disregard for convention as well as conventional behavior or expectations. In general, the room reflects the character of an intellectual, social nonconformist who has the enthusiasm for his field of study and the required skill to gamble on transforming a flower girl into a lady. There are spots of comfort, like the easy chair near the fire and the dessert dish heaped with fruits and sweets. Otherwise, everything is useful and handy, set up for Higgins's tastes, interests, and pursuits. Even the art on the walls echoes his scientific nature, featuring subdued architectural engravings and portraits in steel or copper. There are no paintings, which reflects his preference for austerity over Victorian art's vibrant colors.

When Eliza presents herself to Higgins, she has attempted to clean herself up and dress for the occasion. There is verbal irony in her exchange with Higgins when he calls her "so deliciously low—so horribly dirty." Knowing no better, Eliza wails in reply, "I ain't dirty: I washed my face and hands afore I come, I did." However, there is nothing to laugh at when Eliza reveals her reason for wanting lessons. She is nothing but a Cockney flower girl yet she dares to tell two gentlemen—one of whom has shown her little respect—that she dreams of being a lady in a flower shop some day. It is a bold, courageous leap that could have cruelly ended in crushed hopes. The willingness to take a risk is one of Eliza's strengths. Other strengths were glimpsed earlier in Act 1, such as her inherent self-respect ("My character is the same to me as any lady's") and a strong sense of propriety ("I'm a good girl, I am").

Higgins takes on the challenge of turning Eliza into a lady without thought to what it will mean to Eliza. The prospect fascinates him, and he considers it one of life's "inspired follies" that should not be missed. Pickering is similarly interested, though from the beginning he views Eliza as a person and treats her kindly. Throughout the play, he will act as a foil for Higgins—his respectful demeanor and consideration for Eliza counterbalancing Higgins's rudeness and insensitivity.

Higgins's housekeeper, Mrs. Pearce, does her part in protecting Eliza from Higgins—at first, pressing him to be reasonable and to send Eliza back to her parents. Discovering that Eliza is on her own, Mrs. Pearce then asks Higgins to consider what's to become of her when he completes his teaching. She knows Higgins is not cruel in his thoughtlessness and is equally reckless about outcomes for himself. "When you get what you call interested in people's accents," she says, "you never think or care what may happen to them or you." She assumes a motherly sternness as she takes Eliza in hand, gets her scrubbed and cleaned, and presents her to Higgins and Pickering. This relationship will continue to strengthen as the play progresses.

The introduction of Eliza's father, Alfred Doolittle, provides insight into Eliza's rough upbringing and her father's perspective on being one of the "undeserving poor." Doolittle has no interest in Eliza's welfare beyond the money he can wheedle out of Higgins. "What's a five pound note to you?" he asks Higgins. "And what's Eliza to me?" While Eliza wants to better herself, Doolittle has no desire to better himself. He explains, "Undeserving poverty is my line. Taking one station in society with another ... it's the only one that has any ginger in it, to my taste." There is little love lost between daughter and father, and Eliza states after Doolittle leaves, "I don't want never to see him again, I don't. He's a disgrace to me."

As in the previous act, Shaw carefully describes clothing and appearances. Doolittle's dustman (garbage man) garb and "professional flavor of dust" leave no doubt as to his social status. Eliza's appearance after her bath represents the first step in her transformation. The dirty flower girl is gone, replaced with "a dainty and exquisitely clean young Japanese lady in a simple blue cotton kimono" that even her father does not recognize—until, of course, she speaks.

Two optional scenes are included in the 1941 version of Act 2. The first is the bath scene, which is only alluded to in the original text. Here, Eliza expresses genuine dread of taking a bath, certain that it will be the death of her. The idea of the bath also offends her sense of decency, as she will have to remove her clothes. When Mrs. Pearce tells her that she will be expected to remove her clothes nightly and wear a proper nightdress, Eliza's fear that she will "lie awake shivering half the night" provides a glimpse into the deprivation that she has dealt with. "But you don't know what the cold is to me," she says, "how I dread it."

The second optional scene, placed at the end of Act 2, presents Eliza's first speech lesson. Though it ends in tears of frustration, Eliza shows that she has a quick ear and the talent to learn.

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