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Pygmalion | Study Guide

George Bernard Shaw

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Pygmalion | Discussion Questions 11 - 20


In Act 2 of Pygmalion, what characteristics does Eliza demonstrate when she presents herself to Higgins for speech lessons?

Eliza displays great courage when she presents herself to Higgins, and discloses, "I want to be 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." In Victorian society, a girl of her low station might expect to be told she has no right to aspire to anything higher. The era's social hierarchy was strictly defined and the barriers hard to breach. Yet, Eliza reveals her dream to Higgins and Pickering—both strangers and men from the upper class—and risks them crushing it and turning her away. She also displays optimism, believing that she can accomplish her goal. The self-respect that she exhibits in Act 1 is expressed again when she offers to pay like any lady. Nevertheless, Eliza demonstrates a flawed view of herself and how much she must change in order to achieve her goal. For example, she perceives herself as clean enough for the purpose, and complains as she is led off to a bath, "If I'd known what I was letting myself in for, I wouldn't have come here."

How does Act 2 of Pygmalion foreshadow Higgins's treatment of Eliza during and after the experiment?

As plans for transforming Eliza into a lady take shape, Mrs. Pearce begs Higgins to be reasonable and sensible in his treatment of the girl. She presses him to explain what's to become of Eliza once the experiment is over. Anticipating how Higgins will likely treat the girl, she says, "Of course I know you don't mean her any harm; but when you get what you call interested in people's accents, you never think or care what may happen to them or you." This, of course, is exactly what happens as the experiment progresses. Higgins's mother points out the same problem in Act 3, and Eliza herself feels abandoned once the experiment is a success. Higgins's entire focus is on accomplishing Eliza's transformation, while he totally disregards how the future may play out.

In Pygmalion, what does Higgins's attitude toward women and marriage say about his character?

In Act 2, Pickering questions Higgins on his intentions toward Eliza. Higgins assures him they are entirely honorable, that he finds women "jealous, exacting, suspicious, and a damned nuisance ... Women upset everything." Later, in Act 3 when Mrs. Higgins voices the hope that her son is bringing home a young woman in whom he is romantically interested, Higgins replies, "Oh, I can't be bothered with young women. My idea of a lovable woman is someone as like you as possible." These statements suggest that he is looking for the perfect woman—one who is a match for himself in intelligence and independence and with the strength and refinement of his mother. Yet, this model female will make no demands and change nothing in his life. While he himself is far from perfect, Higgins envisions an ideal for a marriage partner, much like the mythic sculptor Pygmalion for whom the play is named. Unable to find his ideal, he will remain a bachelor.

In Act 2 of Pygmalion, how does Shaw use verbal irony when Eliza protests, "I ain't dirty: I washed my face and hands afore I come, I did"?

As Higgins contemplates taking on Eliza as his project, he tells Pickering, "It's almost irresistible. She's so deliciously low—so horribly dirty." It is to this observation that Eliza is responding. Clearly, there is a gulf between Higgins's definition of dirty and Eliza's. With verbal irony (a contrast in intended and understood meaning), Shaw underscores how little Eliza appreciates her personal lack of hygiene, especially in contrast to the standards of a lady. It also illustrates the vast difference between Higgins's perceptions of Eliza and her perception of herself. It will take a bath for Eliza to grasp the difference between washing her face and hands and actual cleanliness.

In Act 2 of Pygmalion, what does Doolittle's willingness to part with his daughter, Eliza, for five pounds say about morality and social class?

When Alfred Doolittle, Eliza's father, discovers that she is moving into Higgins's home, he comes to negotiate a price for parting with his daughter. He explains to Higgins that he cannot afford the middle-class morality that frowns upon such a transaction, suggesting that morality is a luxury only the rich can afford. He is a member of the undeserving poor, and happy to be so. Nevertheless, his needs are no less than those of the deserving middle class, and he requires food, drink, and amusement. Yet, he can't afford as much because businesses charge him "just the same for everything as they charge the deserving." Therefore, because Eliza seems to be coming into some luck, he—as the father who brought up, fed, and clothed her—considers that he should get a bit for himself: "All I ask," he says, "is my rights as a father; and you're the last man alive to expect me to let her go for nothing." To him, five pounds seems a reasonable amount.

In Act 2 of Pygmalion, what is the relationship between Eliza and Doolittle?

Doolittle shows no paternal feelings toward Eliza. Suggesting that familial love and responsibility are also luxuries only the rich can afford, he and her sixth stepmother turned her out of the house to earn her own living, and Doolittle has not seen her for two months. He explains to Higgins that "as a daughter she's not worth her keep," describing his relationship with Eliza in monetary terms. Doolittle's purpose in visiting Higgins is to see what money he can get out of Eliza's new situation in the house on Wimpole Street. As he says to Higgins, "Well, what's a five pound note to you? And what's Eliza to me?" His attitude does not come as a complete surprise. Earlier, Mrs. Pearce tells Eliza to go home to her parents. Eliza's feelings about her father are clear when she responds, "I ain't got no parents. They told me I was big enough to earn my own living and turned me out." Later, encountering her father after her bath, she guesses correctly that he's not come out of fatherly concern but to "touch" Higgins for money. After Doolittle leaves with his five-pound note, Eliza says firmly, in a turn where she sounds like the parent, "I don't want never to see him again ... He's a disgrace to me."

In Act 2 of Pygmalion, what is significant about Eliza's first bath?

Eliza has never before enjoyed the luxury of bathing like a lady. The plentiful hot and cold water, woolly towels, scrubbing brushes, and sweet-smelling soap are a revelation to her. She learns that washing is a treat for ladies, and wishes "they saw what it is for the like of me!" While this shows she has not yet altered the personal view she holds of herself, Eliza nevertheless has taken her first step toward being a lady. In addition, water and bathing often symbolize rebirth. In this scene, Eliza literally washes away her former self and emerges reborn with a budding new identity. Beneath all the dirt is an attractive young girl who now understands what it is like to be clean from head to toe, in contrast to merely washing her face and hands and calling it clean. She understands that transformation is possible—her own father doesn't recognize her until she speaks to him.

In the optional bath scene in Act 2 of Pygmalion, what does the bath episode reveal about Eliza?

In the optional scene, Eliza resists taking her first bath, expressing genuine fear of the process. She has never had a proper bath in her life and asserts, "It's not natural" and "I should catch my death," being certain that it will kill her. She also has a fixed idea that removing her clothes to bathe is indecent—as indecent as removing her clothes at night to sleep. This belief aligns with Eliza's dread of any appearance of female impropriety, which often triggers the remark, "I'm a good girl, I am." When Mrs. Pearce states firmly that Eliza will remove her clothes nightly and wear a proper nightdress, the girl expresses alarm that she will "lie awake shivering half the night." Her fear of the cold—"But you don't know what the cold is to me ... how I dread it"—provides a glimpse into the deprivation that she has dealt with by being poor.

In Act 2 of Pygmalion, what is the significance of the contrast between Higgins's claim to be "a shy, diffident" man and Mrs. Pearce's assessment of him as overbearing?

Higgins is an outward-looking man, keenly aware of others' shortcomings and blind to his own. His claim follows a discussion with Mrs. Pearce in which she points out his need to curb his cursing and other bad habits in front of Eliza. As she brings up each area needing improvement, Higgins becomes increasingly agitated, denying his faults to the point of yelling. He is shocked when Mrs. Pearce responds, "I hope you're not offended, Mr. Higgins," and then concedes that she is right to bring the matters to his attention. Moments later, he confides to Pickering, "That woman has the most extraordinary ideas about me ... She is firmly persuaded that I'm an arbitrary overbearing bossing kind of person. I can't account for it." His statement reveals his lack of self-knowledge with regard to his nature. He has been rude and authoritarian in his treatment of Eliza and cross with Mrs. Pearce, yet views himself as an amiable sort of man. He acts without malice and is oblivious to the effects, which accounts for his surprise when the ill effects are mentioned.

How does Eliza in Pygmalion represent Shaw's idea of the modern woman?

Shaw believed that women should be on equal footing with men. In 1889, he ran for office, and in his platform declared his support for "suffrage for women on exactly the same terms as for men." On another occasion, he wrote a letter to a newspaper, urging all men and women who have any regard for one another to boycott a performance of Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew. He spoke out against the idea that women should marry in order to attain financial security. In short, he believed in gender equality, an idea foreign to most people's thinking in Victorian England. While Eliza does not represent the full scope of Shaw's vision for a society of equals, she displays some elements of it. In Acts 1 and 2, Eliza bravely stands up to Higgins's bullying to assert her worth and independence. She plots her own future as a lady in a flower shop and devises a way to achieve it. In Act 4, she rejects the notion that she needs a wealthy husband to care for her. Though not fully formed, Eliza is the sort of woman Shaw would choose to represent his vision for a modern society.

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