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Pygmalion | Study Guide

George Bernard Shaw

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Act 4

Professor Bill Yarrow of Joliet Junior College provides an in-depth summary and analysis of Act 4 of George Bernard Shaw's play Pygmalion.

Pygmalion | Act 4 | Summary



It's midnight, and Eliza, Higgins, and Pickering are returning to Wimpole Street after the exhausting but highly successful final test of Eliza's skills. Higgins scornfully remarks, "Oh Lord! What an evening! What a crew! What a silly tomfoolery!" Then, complaining that he cannot find his slippers, he takes no notice when Eliza finds and places them before him and continues to sound off about the party, saying, "Thank God it's over!" Oblivious to Eliza's growing resentment, he labels the whole experiment as a "bore" and "simple purgatory," and then states that he "can go to bed at last without dreading tomorrow." Eliza holds her temper until Higgins and Pickering leave the room, and then bursts into tears of rage.

Moments later, Higgins returns, once more searching for his slippers, and she throws them at him with all her strength. She has won his bet for him, and now he has no more use for her. "What's to become of me?" she demands. Higgins attempts to persuade her that she is simply tired and suffering a case of nerves; a good night's sleep will make things right. After all, she is now free and can do what she likes. Gradually, he understands that she has no idea what she is fit for or what will become of her. Clumsily, he suggests that she could find a rich man to marry who will take care of her—a solution Eliza rejects: "We were above that at the corner of Tottenham Court ... I sold flowers. I didn't sell myself."

Refusing to take the problem seriously, Higgins starts off for bed. He stops when Eliza quietly asks, "Do my clothes belong to me or to Colonel Pickering?" She wants to know what she can take with her and doesn't "want to be accused of stealing." He is shocked, then further angered when she hands him the jewels he rented for her along with a ring that he bought her, telling him she doesn't want it anymore. Dashing the ring into the fireplace, he stalks out and slams the door.

In another important "optional scene" Eliza changes clothes and leaves the house. Outside, she comes upon Freddy gazing up at her window. Love-struck, he spends most of his nights there on the street. Hungry for comfort, Eliza falls into his arms and responds to his passionate kisses—until first one, then another constable tells them to move along. They end up in a taxi with a plan to drive around all night. In the morning, Eliza will visit Mrs. Higgins and ask her advice on what she should do.


In this act, the evening's success is the culmination of all Eliza and Higgins have worked to achieve. Yet, the turning point in the play occurs after the victory. Eliza's contribution to the evening's triumph—her months of tireless study and fine performance—go unacknowledged by Higgins and barely touched upon by Pickering. The professor still sees Eliza as little more than a means to an end, a way of proving his theory about language and his genius as a teacher. In Act 1, Pickering asks, "Does it occur to you, Higgins, that the girl has some feelings?" Higgins replies, "Oh no, I don't think so. Not any feelings that we need bother about." Clearly, nothing has changed for Higgins. Eliza now feels the sting of his words deeply when he acts as if the experiment has been a bore and the outcome somewhat meaningless. When Pickering compliments him, saying, "There's always something professional about doing a thing superlatively well," Higgins answers, "Yes: that's what drives me mad: the silly people don't know their own silly business." In other words, they were easy to fool and no thanks to Eliza.

The crisis comes when Eliza gives vent to her anger and frustration, finally standing up to Higgins in the face of his insensitivity. Fear floods her at the thought that, having no further use for her, he will abandon her, throwing her into the street—just as her father and stepmother had done. She has had a taste of life as a lady and acquired all the necessary attributes. Her dreams have grown beyond merely working in a flower shop. As Mrs. Higgins had predicted in Act 3, she now has "the manners and habits that disqualify a fine lady from earning her own living" and has no means of supporting herself.

Higgins dismisses her fear, suggests that now she could marry well, and advises her to take a good look in a mirror—"you won't feel so cheap," meaning, worthless. Throughout the experiment, Higgins has viewed Eliza as his creation, and the changes he has imposed are superficial: language, clothing, and manners. Therefore, in his perception Eliza is what he can see and hear, and he assumes this is all that matters to her as well. In Act 3, he speaks to his mother about the human soul, saying that proper speech can fill up "the deepest gulf that separates class from class and soul from soul." Even so, Higgins has not yet seen that Eliza possesses this feature.

In the 1913 version of the play, Higgins takes the ring Eliza returns to him along with her rented jewelry and throws the ring violently into the fireplace. The scene ends with Eliza "on her knees on the hearthrug," searching through the ashes for the ring—an image suggestive of the fairy tale character Cinderella. In the 1941 version, this scene leads into the optional scene with Freddy. Eliza retrieves the ring and puts it on the dessert stand where she knows Higgins will find it, being so fond of sweets. She then goes upstairs, changes her clothes, and leaves. Outside, when Freddy sees her he properly addresses her as "Miss Doolittle." Judging herself by Higgins's behavior, Eliza rebukes him, saying, "Don't you call me Miss Doolittle, do you hear? Liza's good enough for me." She "knows" she is only a low-class flower girl masquerading as a lady. Nevertheless, Freddy's affection is comforting and the tonic she needs.

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