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Pygmalion | Study Guide

George Bernard Shaw

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Act 3

Professor Bill Yarrow of Joliet Junior College provides an in-depth summary and analysis of Act 3 of George Bernard Shaw's play Pygmalion.

Pygmalion | Act 3 | Summary



The story moves to the drawing room at the home of Higgins's mother. Elegantly furnished, it reflects a woman of wealth and refinement. It is Mrs. Higgins's day for receiving visitors, and she is not pleased when her son bursts in without warning. He lacks social graces and tends to insult her guests. Higgins further surprises her with news that he has asked a common flower girl whom he has taught to speak properly to come see her. However, as he explains, while her pronunciation is quite good she still needs to learn what to talk about. He hopes his mother can help. The extent of the problem soon becomes humorously clear.

Mrs. Higgins's other guests arrive, and among them is Mrs. Eynsford Hill, the genteel lady from Act 1 who purchased the flowers spoiled by her son, Freddy. He, too, is present, as are her daughter, Clara, and Pickering—the last to arrive before Eliza makes her entrance. Elegantly dressed, the former flower girl creates an impression of exceptional beauty and sophistication while she perfectly articulates her greetings. As Mrs. Higgins later comments, Eliza is "a triumph of [her son's] art and of her dressmaker's." Nevertheless, in a scene that is both hilarious and nerve-racking, Eliza soon slips into an unsuitable family tale of a "pinched" straw hat, a suspected murder, and some hard gin drinking. With a bit of quick thinking, Higgins passes it all off as "the new small talk," and Eliza tells the tale so charmingly that the Eynsford Hills suspect nothing. Freddy, in fact, is captivated by her loveliness and odd ways. As she leaves, he takes her to the door and inquires if she intends to walk home. Her reply, "Not bloody likely. I am going in a taxi," is shocking but fails to destroy the overall delightful impression she has made.

Once alone with Higgins and Pickering, Mrs. Higgins passes judgment on the whole affair, telling them that Eliza is not presentable and gives herself away "in every sentence she utters." Learning more about the experiment, she chides both men for treating Eliza like a live doll—a thing to be dressed and taught to speak but with no feelings or future. The results of teaching Eliza to look and sound like a fine lady will likely leave her caught between two worlds—one in which she still needs to earn a living, the other in which her new status disqualifies her from doing so. Both men miss the point completely, vaguely assuring Mrs. Higgins that "we'll do what's right." Then they leave with plans to take Eliza to a Shakespeare exhibition. Alone with her frustration over the obtuseness of the two, Mrs. Higgins cries out, "Oh, men! men!! men!!!"

In later editions of the play, an important "optional scene" follows, influenced by the screenplay Shaw wrote for the film adaptation of Pygmalion. The setting is a party one summer evening at an embassy in London, where Higgins puts Eliza's education to the final test. The greatest obstacle to her success is Nepommuck, a Hungarian interpreter and Higgins's former student who may expose her as an aristocratic impostor. Nepommuck does accuse her of being a fraud, but for speaking English too perfectly. He determines she is a Hungarian princess. The experiment proves a success, and Higgins wins the wager with Pickering.


The key developments in Act 3 are the introduction of Mrs. Higgins, Eliza's first appearance in London society, and the outcome of that incident.

Just as Higgins's laboratory expresses his character, Mrs. Higgins's drawing room reflects an educated, free-thinking woman of wealth, sophistication, refined taste, and modern leanings. Her home is situated in Chelsea, an artist's quarter in London. The Morris wallpaper, curtains, and similar decor show her interest in a popular decorative and fine arts movement of the time: the Arts and Crafts Movement. The movement developed from a concern over the effects of industrialization and set standards for home decor that aligned with emerging ideals of beauty. Designer and artist William Morris was a leading figure in this movement. Mrs. Higgins further proclaims her modernity with open spaces and uncluttered surfaces, rejecting the fussy Victorian style that left nothing unadorned. Her taste in artwork is refined, and her portrait is in the romantic style of the Pre-Raphaelite artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti, whose work led to a widespread recognition of the need for beauty in everyday life.

Mrs. Higgins's home is the perfect setting for Eliza. In her clothing and mannerisms, the Flower Girl has made great strides. Even her speech is perfectly articulated. However, her choice of topic hardly matches either her exquisite appearance or language, especially her use of bloody, a word considered obscene in Shaw's time. It should have given her away, yet it does not. In this way, Shaw demonstrates the foolishness of making judgments based on appearances.

In the encounter with the Eynsford Hills, Clara is a foil for Eliza. As a lady of the upper class, Clara has the education and refinement that Eliza desires. She has always been clean and well dressed and is at home in society. Eliza, in contrast, is rising from the ignorance and squalor of poverty. She knows what it is to be dirty, cold, and ill dressed. Clara represents everything to which Eliza aspires and, in the meeting, is the benchmark against which her progress will be measured. However, both women are wearing a mask and putting on a show. Clara is aware of her family's decline in wealth and exhibits "the bravado of genteel poverty." Eliza knows where she comes from and does her best to imitate a lady.

In this act, new relationships form, which will have far-reaching effects as the play continues. The first is one of sympathy between Mrs. Higgins and Eliza. Despite her modern leanings, Mrs. Higgins is a product of the Victorian Era, which confines women to strictly defined roles in society. She conforms to her role and sees the dangers for Eliza. Though some women are demanding increased political and legal rights and greater economic opportunities, Mrs. Higgins recognizes that those opportunities may not be available to Eliza—her son and Pickering are jeopardizing the girl's future. Her sympathy for Eliza is established when Higgins carelessly replies, "There's no good bothering now. The thing's done."

A second relationship forms between Freddy and Eliza. He is smitten with her beauty and unconventional ways. Later, his adoration will be a source of comfort for Eliza and of irritation for Higgins.

The optional scene at the end of Act 3 in the 1941 version of Pygmalion provides a deeper insight into Higgins's character. Curious and clever Nepommuck divines—incorrectly—that Eliza is a Hungarian princess, proving Higgins's premise that acquiring proper speech will breach social barriers. However, Higgins is disappointed that it was so easy to fool his former student and the elites at the party. Instead of reveling in the victory, he says to Eliza and Pickering, "Let us get out of this. I have had enough of chattering to these fools."

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