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Pygmalion | Study Guide

George Bernard Shaw

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Plot Summary

Professor Bill Yarrow of Joliet Junior College explains the plot summary of George Bernard Shaw's play Pygmalion.

Pygmalion | Plot Summary

See Plot Diagram


Pygmalion opens on a summer night in the London marketplace Covent Garden. A sudden downpour has pedestrians sprinting for shelter or taxis. Beneath the portico of St. Paul's Church, several people have gathered, including a young Cockney flower girl, an older gentleman of military bearing, and a man taking notes on the flower girl's speech.

The flower girl assumes the note taker is a policeman. Terrified, she protests her innocence of any wrongdoing. Soon it becomes clear that the man is only interested in phonetically noting her "kerbstone" English—"English that will keep her in the gutter to the end of her days." He boasts that he could teach her to speak like a duchess in three months. It turns out that he is the famous phonetician Henry Higgins. The elderly gentleman is Colonel Pickering, an admirer and fellow speech expert. Higgins invites Pickering to come around the next day to his home on Wimpole Street. Then, flinging a generous collection of coins at the flower girl, Higgins departs for supper with the colonel.

The next morning, the flower girl—Eliza Doolittle—boldly shows up at Higgins's home. She explains that she wants to be a lady in a flower shop, and she offers to pay him to teach her to "talk more genteel." Pickering, who is present, says he will cover all expenses if, in six months, Higgins can pass Eliza off as a lady. Intrigued, Higgins accepts the terms of the bet. Mr. Higgins's housekeeper, Mrs. Pearce, urges Higgins to consider the girl's future: "What is to become of her when you've finished your teaching?" she asks. "You must look ahead a little."

While Higgins's housekeeper bathes Eliza and orders new clothes, another visitor arrives: Alfred Doolittle—Eliza's ne'er-do-well father. A poor dustman (garbage man), he has no paternal interest in Eliza beyond handing her over to Higgins for five pounds. His callousness is slightly diminished by the fact that he believes Higgins's motives are honorable. Higgins gives him "a fiver," and Doolittle departs.

Some months later, Higgins takes Eliza on a surprise visit to his mother, an intelligent and dignified lady. While the girl's pronunciation is quite good, she needs to learn what to say, and Higgins hopes his mother can help. Also at the get-together are Mrs. and Miss Eynsford Hill, a mother and daughter encountered earlier in Covent Garden, as well as Pickering and Freddy. Though Eliza now looks and acts the part of a fine lady, her vocabulary and unfortunate choice of topics gives away her humble beginnings. With some difficulty, Higgins covers her gaffes, and Freddy is smitten with the lovely Eliza.

Later, Mrs. Higgins scolds her son and Pickering both for "playing with your live doll" without considering what will happen to Eliza when the experiment is over. She points out that Eliza will have the refinements of a lady, which inevitably will bar her from earning a living. Untroubled by this prospect the two depart, and Mrs. Higgins cries out in frustration, "Oh, men! men!! men!!!"

Months later, after Eliza has further honed her skills, Higgins and Pickering put Eliza's accomplishments to the test, and she performs flawlessly. Back at the Wimpole Street laboratory, Higgins and Pickering bask in the victory, with no thought of Eliza. Higgins declares "Thank God it's over," so now he can go to bed "without dreading tomorrow." Directing Eliza to turn off the lights, Higgins starts upstairs, but then returns to get his slippers and finds Eliza weeping with rage. She flings the slippers at him and asserts that they mean more to him than she does; she has won his bet for him, and now he will toss her back into the gutter. The stormy scene that ensues ends with Higgins stalking out and slamming the door. In his anger and hurt, he is oblivious to the fact that Eliza intends to leave.

The next morning, Higgins and Pickering visit Mrs. Higgins to tell her that Eliza is missing. Shortly, the parlor maid announces that a gentleman is waiting to speak to Mr. Higgins. His name is Mr. Doolittle. Higgins learns, to his astonishment, that an offhand mention of Doolittle in a letter to a rich American has made the former dustman very well off. Far from pleased by this turn of luck, Doolittle accuses Higgins of robbing him of his freedom and happiness. Now he is trapped by middle-class morality and on his way to get married, like a respectable citizen.

In this, Mrs. Higgins sees good fortune for Eliza, who now will have someone to support her. She reveals that the young lady is upstairs and defends Eliza's choice to leave him and Pickering. The two have behaved heartlessly and selfishly toward her.

A calm, composed Eliza comes downstairs and greets the men. She thanks Pickering for treating her with respect from the very beginning. To Higgins she explains that he will always treat her like a common flower girl, though now she has it in her power to be his equal. No, she will not come back.

Higgins is pleased with Eliza's unexpected transformation from whimpering girl to self-assured woman, and tells her so. All the same, as she leaves with Mrs. Higgins to see her father wed, Higgins cannot resist instructing her to buy some gloves and a tie for him. Eliza replies, "Buy them yourself," and sweeps out. Complacently, Higgins chuckles, certain that "she'll buy em all right enough."

Pygmalion Plot Diagram

123456789101112131415ClimaxResolutionIntroductionRising ActionFalling Action


1 On a rainy night in London, a poor girl sells flowers.

Rising Action

2 Phonetics expert Higgins busily records the girl's words.

3 Higgins chances on Indian dialect expert, Pickering.

4 Higgins claims he could teach the girl to speak like a lady.

5 The flower girl, Eliza, takes Higgins up on his boast.

6 Higgins begins tutoring Eliza in speech and manners.

7 Eliza's first test in public is a marginal success.

8 Higgins's mother scolds him for treating Eliza like a doll.

9 Eliza's final test is a complete triumph.

10 Higgins dismissively proclaims the experiment is over.


11 Enraged by Higgins's boorish insensitivity, Eliza runs off.

Falling Action

12 Higgins finds Eliza staying with his mother the next day.

13 Eliza asserts she has choices now and no longer needs him.

14 Higgins accuses her of ingratitude, yet asks her to return.


15 Eliza departs, but Higgins is sure she is not gone for good.

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