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Pygmalion | Study Guide

George Bernard Shaw

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Pygmalion | Discussion Questions 41 - 50


In Pygmalion, in what ways is Pickering a more influential teacher for Eliza than Higgins?

While both men contribute to Eliza's transformation, Pickering is the key. While Higgins teaches her to speak, this was only an acquired skill, "just like learning to dance in the fashionable way." As she says, her real education began with Pickering calling her "Miss Doolittle" on her first day at Wimpole Street: "That," she explains, "was the beginning of self-respect for me." Throughout the experiment, Pickering treats her as "something better than a scullerymaid," in contrast to Higgins, who continues to regard her as a low-class flower girl. To Eliza, being treated as a lady was essential to her belief that she could become just that. As she says, "The difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves, but how she is treated." She rose to meet Pickering's perception of her and learned from him appropriate manners and behavior—something she never could have learned from Higgins. Without Pickering, she would have remained in her habits and self-perception a member of the lower class while dressing and speaking beautifully.

In Pygmalion, what is significant about Eliza repeatedly saying, "I'm a good girl, I am"?

In Acts 1 and 2, Eliza repeats this particular phrase when she feels that somehow her honor is in jeopardy. She has set a personal standard for herself and values her reputation. Her initial confrontation with Higgins at Covent Garden is provoked by the fear that he may take away her character by charging her with soliciting for prostitution: "My character," she says, "is the same to me as any lady's." In Act 2, she repeats the assertion so often that Higgins threatens to send her home with her father if she says it again. In Act 4, Higgins wounds Eliza by suggesting that she may find financial security in marrying well—in essence, selling herself. Though she doesn't repeat her mantra, she states, "We were above that at the corner of Tottenham Court Road ... I sold flowers. I didn't sell myself." And finally, in Act 5 when Higgins mulishly persists in thinking all Eliza wants is financial security, she assures him that if this was so, she could have had it all along, saying, "I could have been a bad girl if I'd liked. I've seen more of some things than you, for all your learning. Girls like me can drag gentlemen down to make love to them easy enough." So for Eliza, the statement "I'm a good girl, I am" is not an empty phrase but the reaffirmation of a deeply held value.

How does Mrs. Pearce's attitude toward Eliza change in Act 2 of Pygmalion?

Mrs. Pearce, Higgins's housekeeper, initially describes Eliza as a "very common" girl with a dreadful accent, and later refers to her as foolish and ignorant. Her attitude toward Eliza is stern and dismissive. However, as plans for the experiment evolve, her attitude softens, and she becomes somewhat protective. She can see that Higgins is consumed with the idea of teaching Eliza without any thought for the girl or her future. She begs him to be reasonable and to think: "You can't take a girl up like that as if you were picking up a pebble on the beach." Her last effort to stop the experiment and return Eliza to her parents fails when Eliza explains, "I ain't got no parents." Mrs. Pearce then attempts to get Higgins to focus on how the girl should be clothed, housed, and cared for. She asks him to consider "what is to become of her when you've finished your teaching?" Eventually, she sees that it's best if she takes charge as best she can. By the time she has successfully given Eliza a bath, she has warned Higgins about his bad language and asked him to curb his bad manners in front of the girl. Once Eliza is cleaned up, she cautions Higgins against saying "anything to make the girl conceited about herself." She also tries to shield Eliza from criticism concerning her prudish reaction to the bathroom mirror. Mrs. Pearce seems to have assumed the role of surrogate mother to Eliza.

Why does Shaw describe Pygmalion as a romance in the subtitle?

A romance is a narrative that involves love and usually ends happily. It is a stretch to say Pygmalion satisfies this definition. The play does not clearly involve love, other than Freddy's infatuation with Eliza, an infatuation that the audience cannot be sure is ever returned. Likewise, although the relationship between Eliza and Higgins is close and tangled, and although audiences have persistently imagined that Higgins and Eliza marry, there is no sound proof that such is the case. On the other hand, Shaw had an undisguised disdain for romances. As he makes clear in his sequel to Pygmalion, Eliza does not marry Higgins, she marries Freddy. Complications follow, but as Shaw says, "they were economic, not romantic." So why did Shaw subtitle his play A Romance in Five Acts? A possible answer is that he was using verbal irony. The play is not about love and happy endings. It is a satire and a comedy, poking fun at Victorian conventions and the constraints they placed on women and Victorian England's social classes. Shaw was making a subtle joke, and he wanted his audience to share in it. Those who believed Eliza ultimately married Higgins and lived happily ever after have missed the point.

In Pygmalion, in what ways does the creation of Eliza end and her independence begin after the ambassador's party?

At the beginning of Act 4, when Eliza, Higgins, and Pickering return in triumph from the ambassador's party, Eliza is still just the product of Higgins's training. She has performed well, as instructed, but she is not yet in full possession of all she has learned. She is still the live doll described by Mrs. Higgins in Act 3. It takes her passionate response to being overlooked and taken for granted on this evening to bring her to life and drive her to break free of her creator. Only then can she take possession of the lady she has become. By the time Higgins finds her staying with his mother in Act 5, Eliza has fully transformed into a self-reliant woman with a soul who can move on in life without her creator.

In Pygmalion, how do the metaphors Higgins uses to describe Eliza reflect her transformation?

Like Eliza herself, Higgins's descriptions of Eliza change as she transforms. His initial opinion of her is summed up in the metaphor "a squashed cabbage lea[f]," an inanimate object. When he and Eliza quarrel in Act 4, he calls her a "presumptuous insect," something alive but inhuman, for suggesting that she won his bet for him. In response to her fury, he says, "The creature IS nervous, after all," an allusion to the creature, something human but created, in Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein. However, once Eliza stands up to him as an independent women with a mind of her own, his metaphors change. In Act 5, he refers to her as a "tower of strength: a consort battleship," resorting again to inanimate objects but this time with positive connotations. In other words, she has risen in his estimation, but this esteem does not extend to her humanity.

How does the significance of the flower shop as a symbol change during the course of Pygmalion?

Initially, Eliza's dream is to be a lady in a flower shop. Higgins's chance reference in Act 1 that he could teach her to speak properly, which is required if she wants to realize this dream, brings Eliza to his laboratory on Wimpole Street. However, her transformation goes beyond mere speech—Eliza acquires the manners, taste, and spirit of a lady. These newly acquired attributes may disqualify her from earning her own living, pushing her beyond her dream of working in a flower shop. It's clear in Act 4 that Eliza realizes this disparity when she tells Higgins that she is no longer fit to sell anything but herself, by way of marriage. In this way, the flower shop as a symbol changes from an incentive for change to a benchmark that Eliza surpasses in her bid to be a lady.

Why is the setting of Pygmalion significant?

Pygmalion is set in early 20th-century London. It is the end of the Victorian period in England, which was characterized by a rigid social hierarchy and strictly defined roles for men and women. However, the system of class distinctions was being challenged by new ideas and changes in English society, resulting from industrialization. Social mobility was increasingly possible, and women were demanding greater economic, educational, and political opportunities. The wealthy upper classes were increasingly concerned over the blurring of class distinctions. By setting Pygmalion during this period of transition, Shaw puts these social divisions on display and examines the manners, codes of proper behavior, and speech that enforce and maintain them. He asks the audience to consider the nature of a system that relegates people to a social status based on superficial qualities. He also explores language as a means of breaking through social barriers, as well as the consequences of shifting from one level of society to another.

How does the relationship between Eliza and Doolittle change by the end of Pygmalion?

In Act 2 of Pygmalion, Eliza tells Mrs. Pearce that she has no parents—her father and sixth stepmother turned her out to earn her own way. Later, her father, Alfred Doolittle, shows up at Higgins's home to see what he can get for handing Eliza over to the professor. After all, he asks, "if Liza is going to have a bit out of this, why not me too?" He describes Eliza as "a fine handsome girl" but as a daughter, "she's not worth her keep." He clearly has no interest in her well-being and accepts a five-pound note in exchange for leaving her without a fuss. His last advice to Higgins is "If you want Eliza's mind improved, Governor, you do it yourself with a strap." After he leaves, Eliza says she never wants to see her father again, and adds, "He's a disgrace to me, he is." In Act 5, Doolittle shows up again, this time at the home of Mrs. Higgins. He has come into an inheritance and, too intimidated to reject his newfound wealth, has joined the upwardly mobile middle class. Eliza is unaware of his presence when she comes downstairs to confront Higgins and Pickering, allowing Doolittle to see the lady she has become and to witness Higgins's coarse treatment of her. He hears Higgins curse her and assert that "she will relapse into the gutter in three weeks without me at her elbow." Shaw writes that "with a look of dignified reproach at Higgins, he [Doolittle] comes slowly and silently to his daughter." A guarded reconciliation follows, and Eliza agrees to attend the wedding of her father and stepmother. Doolittle further redeems himself when, in a quiet aside with Pickering, he admits that he had shielded Eliza from the fact that he had not been married to her mother and will continue to do so.

Who is the antagonist in Pygmalion?

In most literary works, the antagonist is a person who struggles against the hero or protagonist. Eliza is the protagonist of the play. However, her adversary is not one of the other players; it is society. Within the rigid hierarchy of Victorian society, Eliza is relegated to poverty, not by intellect or lack of ambition but by lack of opportunities to move up and by superficial qualifiers, such as language. As Higgins asserts in Act 1, Eliza's kerbstone English "will keep her in the gutter to the end of her days." By learning to speak and behave in accord with upper-class standards, she proves that the barriers can be broken and that a human being like herself, considered devoid of worthwhile qualities, has the same intellectual and spiritual potential as the elites. However, as the play makes clear, having beaten back one social adversary, Eliza faces a new one. Upper-class women of the time had their own struggles with restrictions imposed by society. At the end, Eliza is left wondering, "What have you left me fit for? ... What am I to do? What's to become of me?"

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