Pygmalion | Study Guide

George Bernard Shaw

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Pygmalion | Discussion Questions 31 - 40


How do appearance and identity conflict in the character of Doolittle in Act 5 of Pygmalion?

When Eliza's father, Alfred Doolittle, is introduced in Act 2, he wears the grubby garb of a dustman (garbage man) and identifies himself as a proud member of the undeserving poor. When he reappears in Act 5 at the home of Mrs. Higgins, he wears the top-quality clothes of a wealthy gentleman on his way to get married. The physical contrast is clear, and Doolittle explains that he has come into money in the amount of 3,000 pounds a year. However, that is as far as his transformation goes. Higgins had brought Doolittle to the attention of the former dustman's benefactor: an American millionaire. Therefore, Doolittle blames the professor for his new condition, exclaiming, "See here! Do you see this? You done this." Unlike his daughter, Doolittle does not appreciate the imposed rise in status and has no desire to change who he is to conform to societal standards. As a dustman, he was happy and free. Now he feels forced by his new position to act more respectably, and he sees himself as a victim of middle-class morality. Lacking the courage to reject the yearly inheritance, he laments, "Happier men than me will call for my dust, and touch me for their tip; and I'll look on helpless, and envy them." Despite his apparent wealth and status, Doolittle will remain a dustman at heart.

What is unusual about the denouement, or resolution, of Pygmalion?

Traditionally, the denouement of a play or other literary work provides conclusive answers to all questions that have been presented and ties up any loose ends in the plot. In Pygmalion, the question is asked but never definitively answered: What will become of Eliza once the experiment is over? She has acquired the language, behaviors, and sensibilities of a woman of status, but this has removed her from the working-class world she once inhabited. Even if she wished to return to her old life as a flower girl, she cannot. She is left with the options of marriage for money—which she sees as a form of prostitution, an identity she rejects in the opening act—or perhaps supporting herself (and Freddy, if they marry) by teaching the skills she learned from Higgins. Higgins and Pickering both have indicated they would like her to return to Wimpole Street, but Eliza seems more inclined to strike out on her own. As Shaw intended, when the curtain falls, the audience is left still wondering what will happen to Eliza. An additional question also lingers: Considering the limited social and economic opportunities for both a flower girl and a lady, is Eliza better off now than she was at the beginning of the play?

Why is Shaw's play titled Pygmalion?

Shaw's play draws on a myth taken from the poet Ovid's work Metamorphoses. In this myth, a master sculptor named Pygmalion sculpts from ivory a life-sized image of a woman so perfect that he falls in love with her. Later, he prays to the goddess Venus to bring him a wife like the statue he has created; Venus then brings the statue to life. Mirroring the mythic Pygmalion, Higgins has no use for the women of his time, and considers them " a damned nuisance." The only woman he admires is his mother, and about relationships, he says, "I shall never get into the way of seriously liking young women." However, Higgins takes on the task of fashioning a girl into the perfect lady. While he offers no prayers to bring her to life, his creation acquires the soul and spirit of an independent woman and breaks through the barrier that held her, socially immobile, in poverty. Shaw is specifically calling this parallel to his audience's mind by naming his play Pygmalion, and is in fact taking critical aim at Ovid's version. Galatea, the statue come to life, is a blushing bride and little more, exhibiting no free will of her own. Eliza, on the other hand, is fully independent and possessed of a strong and durable free will.

Throughout Pygmalion, how is the theme of transformation portrayed by Eliza's appearance?

Eliza appears in Act 1 as a dirty, shabbily dressed flower girl. Her unattractive appearance reflects her lower-class status. In Act 2, she attempts to improve her appearance for her trip to Wimpole Street by washing her face and hands and wearing a gaudy feathered hat. However, the effect still identifies her as a member of the poor class. Once Higgins takes her on as his experiment, she receives a full bath—the first real step toward her transformation. By the time she is scrubbed clean and dressed in a Japanese kimono, even her own father does not recognize her. In Act 3, Eliza's outward transformation takes a leap. When she enters Mrs. Higgins's drawing room, she is so elegantly dressed, distinguished, and beautiful that all of the guests rise. Nevertheless, it soon becomes apparent that she and Higgins still have work to do. In Act 4, Eliza's appearance reflects the high level of refinement she has achieved. Her exquisite evening dress, diamonds, fan, flowers, and accessories are fit for a duchess, and she plays the part to perfection. Yet, in Act 5 when her most important transformation becomes apparent—that of an independent woman, free of Higgins's domination—her clothing is not described. The need for that has fallen away, like a mask, because it is now clear who and what she is.

How does the play Pygmalion differ from the myth of the same name?

In its simplest form, the myth of Pygmalion tells of a gifted sculptor by the name of Pygmalion who carves a woman out of ivory. It is an image of perfection, and he falls in love with it. When the man's creation is given life, she becomes his worthy partner. The play draws upon the myth's basic structure, with Higgins as a gifted phonetician who fashions an ideal lady out of a crude flower girl. However, Higgins does not fall in love with his creation, and when Eliza comes to life, she realizes who she has become and what potential she has. She pointedly makes a bid for independence. This spin on the myth reflects an evolving view of women as able to function in society as self-directed beings.

In Pygmalion, what characteristics does Higgins share with the mythic sculptor Pygmalion?

Both Higgins and Pygmalion are gifted in their profession—Higgins as a specialist in phonetics, Pygmalion as a sculptor. Both men are repelled by the women of their time and find them unsuitable for marriage. They have an ideal in mind. In Higgins's case, the ideal is based upon his intelligent, refined, aristocratic mother; Pygmalion's ideal is a product of his imagination. Each man uses his gift to fashion a woman based on his ideal. Higgins creates a duchess from a crude flower girl; Pygmalion carves a statue of unsurpassed perfection from ivory. For each man, the creation becomes his passion—the focus of his life—and before each creation "comes to life," he provides for her physical comfort and adornment. Higgins clothes Eliza beautifully and provides her with all the comforts that she needs; Pygmalion drapes his statue in fine cloth and adorns her with jewels and flowers. Here, their shared characteristics end. Pygmalion plainly adores his creation, whereas Higgins's feelings for Eliza are left open to interpretation. Moreover, both characters share a simplistic and potentially dangerous belief in their ability to create and control their female "projects." Pygmalion's belief is justified by the intervention of Venus, whereas Shaw is not so generous with Higgins.

In what ways is Pygmalion a coming-of-age story for Eliza?

Step by step as the play progresses, Eliza grows or is pushed from being a "squashed cabbage leaf" of a girl to becoming a fully developed person with her own mind. She comes to Higgins as an ignorant, unrefined girl with a spark of hope for bettering herself. She is raw material in his hands, dependent upon him for everything. He must tell her how to speak, how to dress, and how to behave. Pickering's kindness and respect show her that she is more than her poverty, physical appearance, and "kerbstone English" imply. However, Eliza continues to submissively look to Higgins, her creator, for approval and for proof of her evolving identity as a lady. She does not trust that the transformation is more than superficial. Following her triumph at the ambassador's party, she begins to understand that Higgins is unable to see her as anything more than a squashed cabbage leaf, no matter what she achieves. Something in her realizes that she is and deserves to be treated like a lady. In anger, she leaves, breaking free of her creator. When she confronts him at his mother's home the next day, she has taken the final step in her transformation by moving beyond being Higgins's "live doll." She is now a self-possessed woman: "I can do without you: don't think I can't," she tells Higgins. She knows she can now stand on her own—the knowledge she acquired cannot be taken away, and she can use it: "Oh, when I think of myself crawling under your feet," she tells Higgins, "and being trampled on and called names, when all the time I had only to lift up my finger to be as good as you, I could kick myself." At this point, even Higgins realizes that Eliza has become a self-directed human being in mind and spirit. Even so, his descriptive terms of "tower of strength" and "consort battleship" are less than flattering.

In Pygmalion, in what ways is Pickering an effective foil for Higgins?

As a foil for Higgins, Pickering effectively highlights the professor's coarseness and insensitivity when dealing with others, especially Eliza. From the beginning, Pickering is kind to the flower girl, treating her politely and coaxing her to tell Higgins why she has come to Wimpole Street. In contrast, Higgins is bullying, arrogant, and rude toward her. During the play, Pickering often underscores Higgins's coarseness with direct questions and comments. For example, in Act 2 he reproaches Higgins by asking, "Does it occur to you, Higgins, that the girl has some feelings?" Higgins, of course, replies to the contrary: "Oh, no, I don't think so. Not any feelings that we need bother about." Later in Act 3, Pickering is very direct when Higgins denies that he uses bad language and is a bad example for Eliza. Highlighting one of the professor's major flaws, he says, "Come, Higgins, you must learn to know yourself. I haven't heard such language as yours since we used to review the volunteers in Hyde Park." In addition to providing contrast to Higgins's speech and manners, Pickering's kindness and respect provide much-needed support for Eliza. In Act 5, she states frankly that, while she learned important skills from Higgins, without Pickering she would not have learned what it really meant to be a lady. Pickering illustrates that it is character, not class, that form the foundation of goodness in a person.

What is Shaw's purpose for using the word bloody in Act 3 of Pygmalion?

Shaw intended Eliza's reply, "Walk! Not bloody likely," to shock the audience and at the same time underscore how easily fooled some people are by appearances and behavior. The word was considered to be obscene and was forbidden on the English stage; its use had never been tested. The Eynsford Hills should have been appalled by Eliza's language, and the audience should have wondered how Eliza was going to overcome such a dreadful blunder in polite society. Instead, Mrs. Eynsford Hill weakly states that it "is really too much," while Clara defends Eliza's language, saying, "Such nonsense, all this early Victorian prudery!" Freddy is so smitten with Eliza that he makes no comment. For the audience, the moment shows the misleading but lasting nature of first impressions.

In what ways are the consequences of Eliza's education in Pygmalion both positive and negative?

On the positive side, Eliza has acquired the attributes of a lady and can blend in with the best circles of Victorian society. All the training that Higgins has given is hers to keep and to use, and Pickering has helped her to feel like someone worthy of respect. Her accomplishments have given her confidence that she can stand on her own, though the direction she will take remains unclear. This last point leads into the negative aspect of Eliza's education. While she has climbed the social ladder, her economic opportunities are limited by Victorian standards for middle- and upper-class women. As a flower girl she was free to earn a living, though a poor one. As a lady, she is expected to marry and become a caretaker to her family. As predicted by Higgins's mother, she has risen too high to work in a flower shop. That dream is now beneath her station. Even the possibility of becoming a teacher of phonetics, like Higgins, is restricted to working as an assistant to Higgins's rival. Eliza's intelligence, refinement, and ambition are at odds with an era that severely limited women's participation in society.

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