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Pygmalion | Study Guide

George Bernard Shaw

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Pygmalion | Discussion Questions 21 - 30


In Pygmalion, how are Victorian ideals of femininity reflected in Mrs. Higgins?

Pygmalion is set in the early 20th century when women's basic rights and privileges were still restricted by Victorian standards. Established ideals of femininity placed women in a submissive role to men, properly belonging in the home as caretaker of the family. In keeping with this standard, Mrs. Higgins's domain is her home, and here she is largely confined throughout the play. However, while Victorians expected women to be meek and powerless, Mrs. Higgins exerts influence over her son and Pickering, and plays an important role in unfolding events. This position of social power reflects the rising conflict within Victorian society as more women gave voice to their need for increased political and legal rights and greater economic opportunities. While Mrs. Higgins conforms to her role as defined by society, she also champions Eliza's bid for independence from Higgins, suggesting that Victorian ideals of femininity may have to change in the future.

In Act 3 of Pygmalion, what is Clara's perception of Eliza?

Clara and her mother, Mrs. Eynsford Hill, are guests for Mrs. Higgins's at-home day, where Eliza is also present. Although born to the upper class, the family has fallen on hard times. Clara, however, maintains an "air of being very much at home in society: the bravado of genteel poverty." Captivated by Eliza's beauty and elegance, she immediately sits next to her, "devouring her with her eyes." As Eliza slips into her unsuitable story, Clara listens attentively to the "new small talk," as Higgins describes Eliza's speech gaffes. Believing Eliza to be a lady, Clara defends Eliza's use of the forbidden word bloody and describes the new small talk as "delightful and quite innocent." Fooled by appearances, she perceives Eliza to be a lady of sophisticated wit, someone to be emulated, and proof that "all this early Victorian prudery" is nonsense.

In Act 3 of Pygmalion, what qualities contribute to Eliza's swift improvement?

While trying to explain to Mrs. Higgins the serious and absorbing nature of the experiment, Higgins and Pickering launch into a description of Eliza's aptitude for learning. According to Higgins, Eliza has "the most extraordinary quickness of ear" that allows her to parrot whatever she hears, from Continental dialects to "Hottentot clicks." Pickering praises Eliza's gift for accurately recalling music, from classical to contemporary tunes. Once she hears the songs, she plays them well on the piano—an instrument unknown to her just six months before. In summary, she is a keen listener and quick study with a natural ability for language and a notable talent for music.

In Act 3 of Pygmalion, how does Shaw use dramatic irony to draw attention to the superficiality of class distinctions based on language?

Eliza visits Higgins's mother during her at-home day when she is entertaining guests. Present are Mrs. Eynsford Hill and her children, Clara and Freddy, all three of whom were introduced in Act 1. They do not recognize the flower girl Eliza when she enters, but rather, they see a beautifully dressed lady who is clearly a member of the social elite. The audience is aware that Eliza's "pedantic correctness of pronunciation and great beauty of tone" as she speaks mask her natural "kerbstone English." Yet the Eynsford Hills—under the illusion of her high social status—allow themselves to be charmed, even when Eliza slips into a socially unsuitable story. They attribute to this social error a new and sophisticated manner of speaking as a way to maintain their illusion—"the new small talk," as Higgins describes it to hide Eliza's blunder. As inappropriate as the subject matter is, Eliza tells it so well that Clara goes so far as wishing to emulate her, much to Mrs. Eynsford Hill's distress. Eliza's loveliness and odd ways captivate Freddy, who never suspects she is anyone of lower origins than her clothes and manner of speaking suggest.

In the "optional scene" at the end of Act 3 of Pygmalion, what is Shaw's purpose in having Eliza pass as royalty at the embassy party?

In the optional scene at the end of Act 3, Eliza risks being exposed as an impostor by one of Higgins's former students, a Hungarian linguist and interpreter named Nepommuck. The embassy party hostess instructs him to "find out all about her," meaning the mysterious guest, Eliza. Fulfilling his assignment, Nepommuck concludes that Eliza is, indeed, a fraud, but ironically accuses her of faking her nationality, not her social class. He concludes that she speaks English too perfectly, as only foreigners who have been well taught will speak it. His "instincts" tell him she is of royal Hungarian blood—a princess. Higgins's (and Shaw's) premise that language is the key to breaking down social barriers is vindicated. Paradoxically, Higgins finds little pleasure in having outwitted people for whom he has no respect and labels "fools."

In Act 4 of Pygmalion, why does Eliza wish Higgins had left her where he found her?

The experiment is over and Eliza has successfully been passed off as a member of the social elite. However, as Mrs. Higgins predicted in Act 3, Eliza now finds herself thrust into a new social status, with "manners and habits that disqualify a fine lady from earning her own living." Instead of entering a future full of possibilities, Eliza is facing one in which her options are reduced to marriage in order to achieve financial security. She has become a product to sell or a doll to be passed on to a new owner: "We were above that at the corner of Tottenham Court Road," she tells Higgins. "I sold flowers. I didn't sell myself." Eliza asserts a morality of the lower class that the upper class does not possess. Eliza has never lost the sense of respectability that sparked her to proclaim, "I'm a good girl, I am." Had Higgins left her where he found her, she at least would not be pressed to compromise this closely held value.

In Act 4 of Pygmalion, when Higgins tells Eliza to look in the mirror "and you won't feel so cheap," what does he reveal about his perception of Eliza?

Now that Higgins has won his bet, he exclaims, "Thank God it's over! ... now I can go to bed at last without dreading tomorrow." To Eliza, this is a dismissal of all her hard work and achievement and the end of her usefulness to Higgins. Suddenly the future is frighteningly uncertain: "What am I fit for?" she demands. "What have you left me fit for?" Higgins treats her fear lightly, saying, "I shouldn't bother about it if I were you," and suggests that now she can marry well. He then advises her to take a good look in a mirror. Throughout the play, Higgins has viewed Eliza as a thing to be shaped, a guttersnipe to be transformed into a duchess. All the changes he imposes are superficial: language, clothing, and manners. In his perception, Eliza is what he can see and, of course, hear. Therefore, he thinks this is all that will matter to her as well: she can look in the mirror and see her value. Though he often speaks of the human soul and says that proper speech can fill up "the deepest gulf that separates class from class and soul from soul," Higgins fails to recognize that his creation, Eliza, possesses this feature, and it has nothing to do with what she can see in a mirror.

In the optional scene in Act 4 of Pygmalion, why does Eliza tell Freddy, "Don't you call me Miss Doolittle ... Liza is good enough for me"?

Higgins's brutal insensitivity toward Eliza following the ambassador's party has crushed her feelings of self-worth. When she leaves Higgins's home, she finds Freddy outside on the street. His devotion to her has grown, and he spends most evenings here now. As social custom demands, he addresses her as "Miss Doolittle," acknowledging her presumed high social status. Eliza rebuffs him; she "knows" what she is: a low-class flower girl masquerading as a lady. Higgins has treated her as such, and she feels that it's all superficial—that she has no more real worth than a guttersnipe, as Higgins calls her. She does not yet realize how profound and thorough her transformation has been.

In Pygmalion, how does Eliza discover how much she has changed as a result of her education?

Eliza meets with Higgins and Pickering at the home of Mrs. Higgins. As a way of redefining her relationship with Higgins, Eliza tells him to call her "Miss Doolittle." When he curses her instead, Pickering asks her "Why don't you slang back at him? It will do him a lot of good," knowing that once she could do it with ease. Eliza explains that now it is impossible for her, as she discovered wandering the streets after leaving Higgins's home the night before. A girl spoke to her, and Eliza "tried to get back into the old way with her; but it was no use." Like a child who has been brought to a foreign country, she has learned a new language and forgotten the old.

In Act 5 of Pygmalion, why does Eliza reject Pickering's excuse for Higgins's boorishness as "only his way ... He doesn't mean it"?

Eliza is exposing Higgins's hypocrisy in teaching her that language and behavior matter. Higgins had judged her way of speaking and acting as a flower girl as unacceptable, though she didn't know any better at the time. She accepts the evaluation, saying, "Oh, I didn't mean it either, when I was a flower girl. It was only my way. But you see I did it; and that's what makes the difference after all." In other words, her ignorance was not an excuse. However, now that she has learned to speak and act like a lady, Higgins treats her no differently. It's as if she were still a flower girl. In this sense, her speech and manners don't matter. Furthermore, though Higgins has been raised a gentleman, he allows his bad language and lack of self-control to be excused as "only his way." Nevertheless, he does know better. He holds language in high esteem and bases his experiment with Eliza on the elevating effects of speaking and behaving well. Yet, he daily violates the premise of his work. Pickering, Eliza points out, could behave similarly but chooses not to. As a member of the upper class, Higgins behaves rudely, speaks as coarsely as he wishes, and is still considered a gentleman, demonstrating that language and manners, after all, are only skills, "just like learning to dance in the fashionable way." They do not always reflect the inner quality or value of a person.

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