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Pygmalion | Study Guide

George Bernard Shaw

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Pygmalion | Discussion Questions 1 - 10


In Act 1 of Pygmalion, how do physical and verbal characteristics mark the flower girl Eliza as a member of her particular class?

Shaw describes Eliza as generally dirty, with her hair in need of washing and her teeth in need of a dentist. She wears a soot-covered hat, shoddy and coarse clothing, and boots that are "much the worse for wear." All these items mark Eliza as a member of the lower class. Cleanliness, well-cared-for teeth, and decent clothes cost money not readily available to the poor. More than clothes or cleanliness, however, Eliza's Cockney accent and unschooled vocabulary mark her as lower class. As Higgins asserts, it is her "kerbstone" English that "will keep her in the gutter to the end of her days."

In Act 1 of Pygmalion, how does Higgins display his passion and respect for the English language?

Higgins displays his passion and respect for language when he admonishes Eliza to "remember that you are a human being with a soul and the divine gift of articulate speech: that your native language is the language of Shakespeare and Milton and The Bible." He is referencing three of the most significant literary entities in the Western world. William Shakespeare (1564–1616), considered the greatest English-language writer, is also the world's best playwright. John Milton (1608–1674) authored Paradise Lost (1667), one of the greatest epic poems in world literature. The Bible has had a major impact upon all European languages and is a foundational book of Western culture.

In Act 1 of Pygmalion, what statement by Higgins foreshadows events later in the play?

In conversation with Pickering, Higgins points out the deplorable state of the flower girl Eliza's English, and how it will confine her to the lower class to the end of her days. Then he claims that in three months, he "could pass that girl off as a duchess at an ambassador's garden party" or "get her a place as lady's maid or shop assistant" by teaching her better English. It is the kind of thing he does for "commercial millionaires." His assertion foreshadows the experiment that takes shape in Act 2 after Eliza shows up at Higgins's laboratory to ask for speech lessons. In the original version of the play, Eliza's ultimate triumph takes place at a garden party, just as Higgins boasted in Act 1. In the 1941 version, the setting is altered to become an evening party at an embassy.

In Act 1 of Pygmalion, why do bystanders challenge Higgins to apply his language skills to a gentleman like Pickering?

When Higgins is first spotted writing down the flower girl Eliza's speech, he's taken for a policeman or an informer by the various bystanders. They react to the idea of police spying and demand to know what right he has to write down what people say, especially when no harm has been done. To ease the tension, Higgins begins to declare where some bystanders are from based on their speech. Astonished at Higgins's accuracy but still suspicious, the bystanders accuse Higgins of "taking liberties" with them (being too familiar) because "you take us for dirt under your feet." They challenge him to take such liberties with Pickering, who is clearly an upper-class gentleman. In Victorian society, the upper classes were afforded courtesies and respect often denied the lower classes. The bystanders are surprised when Higgins takes up their challenge and accurately guesses what locations have influenced Pickering's speech.

In Act 1 of Pygmalion, what is significant about the bystander's statement, "It's all right: he's a gentleman: look at his boots"?

This statement refers to Higgins who, at this point in the scene, is known only as the note taker. He has been listening in on Eliza's chatter and writing down her words, so his actions initially cause him to be suspected of being a policeman or detective. However, the bystander takes a cue from Higgins's boots and revises his first impression, determining there is nothing to worry about really—no policeman would be wearing such nice footwear. The man is clearly a gentleman and no threat to Eliza. Throughout the play—as in Victorian society—clothes are important indicators of identity, including a person's social and economic class, and Shaw takes care to describe people's clothing to signal their status.

In Act 1 of Pygmalion, how are Victorian standards reflected in Freddy's attempts to procure a cab for Mrs. Eynsford Hill and Clara?

Freddy's mother and sister huddle—cold but dry—beneath the portico of St. Paul's Church, while Freddy searches for a cab up and down London's streets in a heavy rain. When he returns without having found one, his mother accuses him of not really trying and of being "very helpless," while his sister demands, "Do you expect us to go and get one ourselves?" The two women then send him out again into the downpour with instructions of "don't come back until you have found a cab." People in the Victorian Era viewed women as fragile and helpless, physically weaker than men and in need of protection. Men, in turn, were expected to provide for women's safety and comfort, to stand between them and the harsh realities of life. It is unthinkable for Freddy to allow his mother or sister to risk getting wet or ruining their fine clothes in order to procure a cab home. It is his duty, as a man and gentleman, to step up and do this for them.

In Act 1 of Pygmalion, what characteristics does Eliza exhibit that will allow her to improve her station in life?

Eliza is presented as a dirty, inarticulate, uneducated flower girl with little hope for escaping a life of poverty. Yet, she exhibits raw qualities of self-awareness and self-respect that, when developed and strengthened, will allow her to improve her station in life. For example, she is very concerned about the appearance of impropriety in speaking to the gentleman Pickering. Any suggestion of soliciting for prostitution could ruin her reputation: "My character is the same to me as any lady's," she says, and further insists, "I'm a good girl, I am." Her comments suggest that she senses the traits in herself that, despite appearances, could align her with a woman of higher social standing. They are attributes to be respected and protected, and they impel her to stand up to Higgins when she feels threatened by his note taking. They also support her courageous move to approach Higgins later for speech lessons and to participate in his experiment.

How are Victorian social classes represented in Act 1 of Pygmalion?

Pedestrians gather beneath the portico of St. Paul's Church to escape a sudden downpour. Among them are members of the lower, middle, and upper classes of Victorian society. The flower girl, Eliza, represents the lower class. She is the working poor, barely making enough money to pay for food and shelter. The note taker, Higgins, places her by her speech as coming originally from Lisson Grove, a poor section of London. Pickering, the gentleman, and Higgins represent Victorian upper class, while Freddy and his mother and sister represent the genteel poor—those born into wealth but who have fallen on hard times and yet do not work. The bystanders represent classes in between—those who work in service or at a trade and those who have the potential for upward mobility. For example, Higgins identifies the bystander and the sarcastic bystander as coming from Selsey, a seaside village, and Hoxton, a trade and manufacturing center at the time, respectively.

What does Higgins's allusion to "Shakespeare and Milton and The Bible" in Act 1 of Pygmalion suggest about his true character?

Higgins has called out two of the most highly regarded literary figures in the English language as well as a book that has been admired for its exceptional literary qualities. All three have had a great influence on the language and how people speak. In making this allusion, Shaw presents Higgins as a man who has the greatest regard, almost reverence, for language, but also as one who has little patience for those whose speech does not meet the minimum standards set by this rich tradition. Higgins, like his creator Shaw, is appalled to hear the language mangled into sounding like "crooning like a bilious pigeon." Such a person, Higgins says, "has no right to be anywhere—no right to live." Readers cannot help but regard this arrogant, judgmental attitude as that of someone lacking in good manners and almost totally blind to the feelings of others.

In what ways are Shaw in the character of Higgins in Pygmalion similar and different?

Shaw clearly put much of himself into the character of Higgins. Both are fascinated by language, by how it is used, and by how it affects a person's place in society. In Act 1, Higgins (as the note taker) describes Eliza's speech as "kerbstone English: the English that will keep her in the gutter to the end of her days." Shaw made similarly direct statements about language, as when he says in his 1942 preface to the play that an Englishman cannot "open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him." And later, he says that "the reformer England needs today is an energetic phonetic enthusiast." Likewise, both Shaw and Higgins see themselves as egalitarians. Higgins declares that his goal in dealing with people is "behaving as if you were in Heaven, where there are no third-class carriages, and one soul is as good as another." In this statement, Higgins offers what he thinks is an honest assessment of himself, but he is wrong. In fact, he is not rude to Pickering or his mother, but he certainly is to Eliza and some others. Shaw, according to many sources, was a much more human and down-to-earth man—friendly, witty, and generous.

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