Pygmalion | Study Guide

George Bernard Shaw

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Pygmalion | Act 5 | Summary

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Summary

The next day, Mrs. Higgins is in her drawing room when the parlor-maid announces that Higgins and Pickering are downstairs phoning the police about Eliza's disappearance. Mrs. Higgins sends the parlor-maid upstairs, where Eliza has taken shelter, to ask that she stay there until she is sent for. Mrs. Higgins then chastises her son and Pickering for their thoughtless treatment of the girl, but the arrival of Doolittle cuts the scolding short. He enters dressed in the height of fashion for a bridegroom and in a highly agitated state. Without greetings, he accosts Higgins with the heated accusation, "See here! Do you see this? You done this." Doolittle then explains that Higgins's offhand remark in a letter to a rich gentleman has delivered him into the hands of "middle class morality." The gentleman died and left the dustman a generous yearly pension. Now his happy days are over as one of the undeserving poor, and everyone wants to "touch" him for money, just as he used to do. In addition, his live-in missus now wants to get married.

Seeing a solution to Eliza's financial future in her father's newfound wealth, Mrs. Higgins reveals that the girl is upstairs. Explaining how she came to be there, Mrs. Higgins again reproaches her son and Pickering for their callous conduct the night before. Then sending for Eliza, she asks Doolittle to wait on the balcony until Eliza is ready for the shock of his news.

Eliza enters, looking coolly self-possessed, and politely greets the two men. She then thanks Pickering for always treating her well and showing her respect. "The difference between a lady and a flower girl," she explains, "is not how she behaves, but how she's treated ... I can be a lady to you, because you always treat me as a lady, and always will." Higgins's arrogant, ill-mannered reaction to this prompts Doolittle to make his presence known to Eliza. After an awkward moment, he and Eliza are guardedly reunited, and she agrees to come along to see him married.

For a few moments before leaving, Eliza and Higgins are left alone. Higgins tries to convince her that he did not treat her any differently than anyone else, that he treats everybody rudely. Then he softens a bit and tells her that he will miss her if she leaves. Knowing Higgins will never change and refusing to be trapped by sentimentality, Eliza suggests that she may marry Freddy and support them both by teaching phonetics, possibly as an assistant to Nepommuck. Outraged, Higgins grabs her and threatens to wring her neck if she does. Yet he suddenly sees something in Eliza that he has overlooked until now: No longer a sniveling flower girl, Eliza is a woman, "a tower of strength: a consort battleship." He likes her like this. Even so, as the play closes, Eliza seems set on a path away from Higgins. In contrast, the professor remains cheerfully confident that she will return to Wimpole Street and continue to be part of his life.

Analysis

A play's resolution, or denouement, usually ties up all the loose plot threads and answers any lingering questions. However, Shaw breaks with tradition and leaves the question of Eliza's future unanswered. Higgins and Eliza talk about the possibilities—marriage to Freddy, reconciliation and return to Higgins, a return to her father—but nothing is conclusive. Eliza declares her independence from Higgins, says good-bye for the last time, and sweeps out of the room. Even so, there is no guarantee that she intends never to see him again, and Higgins himself is confident that she will return. The resolution, then, is left up to the audience and depends on their interpretation of events, what they learned about the characters, and their own romantic tendencies.

The final act also raises a fresh question: Is Eliza better off now that she is a lady? Shaw uses Doolittle's reappearance as a wealthy gentleman to clarify the question, but not the answer. In contrast to Eliza, Doolittle's rise in social status is not wished for. He was happy as a member of "the undeserving poor" and, still a dustman at heart, mourns the loss of freedom to live as he likes. Unhappy in his newfound wealth, he feels like a victim of middle-class morality, forced to act respectably and responsibly. At the same time, he lacks the courage to reject the generous inheritance, feeling caught between "the Skilly of the workhouse and the Char Bydis of the middle class." He is referencing a story from Homer's The Odyssey in which a narrow sea passage is guarded on one side by Scylla, a sea monster, and on the other by Charybdis, a deadly whirlpool.

Unlike her father, Eliza wants to be a lady, and views returning to the ways of a flower girl as a "relapse into the gutter." She has lost the knack for her old ways and has grown beyond her dream of selling flowers in a shop. Her only path is forward, but she faces new limitations based on her elite status. So, despite new advantages, is the lady better off than the flower girl?

Shaw also uses Act 5 to explore the essential qualities of a lady and of change. Underscoring the power of language, Eliza attributes her true transformation to Pickering always calling her "Miss Doolittle" and treating her like a lady. His respect creates a frame of reference—a possibility that she can fulfill. While acquiring good manners and fine speech, she also assimilates this new perception of herself. Higgins cannot see Eliza as anything but a flower girl until she establishes herself as his equal: self-assured and independent. At this point, the transformation is real and complete. Eliza, in her soul, truly "owns" her status as a lady, and not even Higgins, her creator, can take that away.

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