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Pygmalion | Study Guide

George Bernard Shaw

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

Pygmalion | Themes


In the preface to Pygmalion, Shaw states that plays should always be instructive. Subsequently, this play asks socially conscious questions and explores problematic themes.

Language as a Class Barrier

Shaw laments the fact that the English do not sufficiently value the power of their language. Through the character of Higgins in Act 1, he reminds the audience that articulate speech is a divine gift, and the eloquent words of Shakespeare and Milton and the Bible form the basis of their native tongue. The defining nature of language is illustrated when Higgins accurately pinpoints the geographic origins of various people among those sheltering from the rain. He then declares that the flower girl Eliza's kerbstone English will "keep her in the gutter." Yet by teaching her better English, he could pass her off as a duchess. This boast serves as the catalyst for all that follows in the play as Shaw attempts to show that social placement is not innate and, hand in hand with language, may be acquired.

There is danger in the experiment to teach Eliza to speak well. As pointed out by Mrs. Higgins in Act 3, Eliza will be stranded between two worlds when she has "the manners and habits that disqualify a fine lady from earning her own living without giving her a fine lady's income." Shaw emphasizes the rigid hierarchy of English society through a variety of characters from different socioeconomic levels. Eliza, with her Cockney dialect, is associated with the lowest social rank. In contrast, Higgins and Pickering represent the elite. Between the two levels are Mrs. Pearce, a member of the servant class; Doolittle, representing the middle class (following his inheritance); and the Eynsford Hills, standing in for the genteel poor—those whose higher living standards have been reduced by hard times.

The power of language to break through social barriers is fully realized in Eliza's triumphant performance at the ambassador's party. She is perceived to be a duchess. Yet victory has its price. In Act 5, she tells Higgins that she is like a child who has come to a foreign country who "picks up the language in a few weeks, and forgets its own." She can speak nothing but his language now, which cuts her off from her former life. Feeling abandoned by Higgins and faced with an uncertain future, she says, "Oh! if I only COULD go back to my flower basket! I should be independent of both you and father and all the world!" But language has irreversibly placed her in society's higher echelon, and she must—and will—find a new way to strike out on her own.


Shaw explores the theme of transformation by showing how a poor flower girl becomes a lovely, self-reliant lady, both superficially and at heart. Her metamorphosis begins with an idea planted by Higgins when he tells Pickering in Act I that he could teach "this creature" to speak like a duchess. It takes a further step when she is given a bath in Act 2, cleaning her up so well that even her father does not recognize her. By the time she visits Higgins's mother in Act 3, the transformation is well on its way. As Mrs. Higgins tells her son, "She's a triumph of your art and of her dressmaker's."

Nevertheless, the changes so far are only external. Like "visible Speech"—the notation system Higgins uses for visualizing the production of speech—they are merely the sight and sound of Eliza. Higgins himself sees her in superficial terms as a pupil: "a block of wood," something to be shaped, an experiment. He works to "create" Eliza, like the Greek sculptor Pygmalion created his sculpture, and several times Higgins refers to her as a "creature"—an allusion to Mary Shelley's (1797–1851) 1818 novel Frankenstein and "the creature" created by Dr. Frankenstein.

The professor does not realize that a deeper, more important transformation is taking place—something he cannot take credit for. It is the awakening of Eliza's soul. From the beginning, the qualities required lie within her, like uncultivated seeds. For example, in Act 1, while she appears rough, ill-mannered, and saucy, she displays a crude sense of dignity when she thinks Higgins is a policeman who may accuse her of soliciting for prostitution. Defensively, she asserts, "He's no right to take away my character. My character is the same to me as any lady's." A quality of courage comes to light when Eliza seeks out Higgins and lays before him her fragile dream to become a lady. She then pursues that goal with diligence. However, it is after the ambassador's party that Eliza becomes a lady in more than speech and manners. In response to Higgins's insensitive treatment, she takes a stand for her own self-worth and dignity and then leaves him. She understands that this aspect of her metamorphosis was sparked by Pickering. In Act 5, she asks the colonel, "But do you know what began my real education? ... Your calling me Miss Doolittle that day when I first came to Wimpole Street. That was the beginning of self-respect for me." She further explains, "The difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves, but how she is treated."

All three facets of Eliza's transformation—sight, sound, and soul—come together when, at last, she breaks free of Higgins, her creator. Like Pygmalion's ivory sculpture, she is brought to passionate life. No longer a "squashed cabbage" or even a duchess, she becomes an independent woman. It is important to note that Shaw is pointedly contrasting Eliza to Pygmalion's idealized statue. In Ovid's version of the story, Pygmalion and Galatea, the statue now brought to life, marry and live happily ever after. But Galatea is nothing more than a blushing bride with little agency. Shaw rejects this version to show the foolishness of a man who would fashion a human being in this simplistic way.

Appearance and Identity

In Act 1 of Pygmalion, Henry Higgins is thought to be a policemen, though one bystander points out, "It's all right: he's a gentleman: look at his boots." Throughout the play, appearances identify the social status of characters. How they speak, how they dress, their money (or lack of it), and their manners and morality all serve as indicators. Yet the signs are superficial, often contradicting reality, as in the case of Henry Higgins who has all the trappings of a gentleman and few of the expected social graces. And as Eliza demonstrates most clearly, it is the reality beneath appearances that matters. While exploring the relationship between appearances and a person's identity, Shaw suggests that the outward show can be a reflection, a mask, or a means of changing identity.

Pickering offers an example of the mirror-like nature of appearances. He appears as a well-dressed gentleman of military bearing. In keeping with this upper-class facade, he is kind and well-mannered to everyone, without consideration of social standing. For example, in Act 1, his speech and conduct do not change whether he is speaking to Clara and her mother, the flower girl, or Higgins. Another example of this theme is the behavior of Eliza's father, Doolittle, as he is introduced in Act 2. His crude speech and manners, dustman's clothing, poor financial state, and questionable morality are all indicators of his station in life as a happy member of the "undeserving poor." He has no use for middle-class morals, spends his life "touching" others for money, and at this point he has never pretended to be other than what he seems.

However, appearances can be deceiving and mask the true essence of a person. In Act 1, Eliza is a dirty, disheveled flower girl who butchers the English language while wheedling a few coins from pedestrians in exchange for flowers. Nothing about her appearance suggests the intelligence she possesses, her desire to be a lady, or her potential. Only her protestations of "I'm a good girl, I am" and distress at the idea of losing her character hint at hidden qualities that later emerge. In the reverse, her father, once he comes into money, is taken for a gentleman by his fine clothes and his adopted middle-class ways.

At the same time, appearances can be a vehicle for changing identity. This idea is demonstrated in Eliza's transformation as well as her dilemma once she becomes a lady. Under the guidance of Higgins and Pickering, she evolves in speech and dress, etiquette, and expectations. However, she discovers that she no longer fits into her former situation. That self is lost to her. Her identity—who she is and where she fits in the world—must adjust.

The fundamental nature of identity is expressed well by Higgins, who recognizes, perhaps too late, that what lies beneath the beautiful language and clothes—the essence of Eliza—is what matters to him. In Act 5, when he tells her he has become accustomed to her voice and appearance, she retorts, "You have both of them on your gramophone and in your book of photographs. When you feel lonely without me, you can turn the machine on. It's got no feelings to hurt." Higgins replies, "I can't turn your soul on."


Victorian values strictly defined the status and functions for women and established firm boundaries for femininity among social classes. In Pygmalion, Shaw illustrates these class boundaries and roles through various characters. At the bottom tier of the hierarchy is the flower girl, Eliza, a member of the working-class poor. Mrs. Pearce, Higgins's housekeeper, represents the servant class. Doolittle's wife-to-be—once the dustman comes into money—represents the middle class that has achieved a higher standard of living through work. Mrs. and Miss Eynsford-Hills, members of the genteel poor, do not work. Occupying the top tier is Mrs. Higgins, an upper-class lady of some wealth who has raised a family and keeps a home. Shaw aims to show in Pygmalion that such boundaries, with their fixed roles and definitions of femininity, are artificial and can be breached.

Victorian society envisioned the ideal woman as inhabiting a separate sphere from a man: the home, an oasis to which the man escaped from the moral taint of the business world. As wife and mother of his children, she was calm, cheerful, efficient, and morally superior (the "angel of the house"), and certainly did not aspire to life outside the home. Marriage and motherhood were her means of securing financial security.

Shaw envisions a new ideal in Pygmalion: a free-spirited, educated, self-reliant, and career-minded woman. Higgins's mother provides the model upon which the final creation—Eliza—is based. Mrs. Higgins is intelligent, cultured, educated, and independent. Higgins himself says, "My idea of a lovable woman is something as like you as possible" (Act 3). She sympathizes with Eliza as the subject of her son's experiment and eventually becomes her champion. However, it is too late for her to more fully break the social mold. She runs her household as expected and upholds the customs of the day. The next step must be taken by a younger woman.

In Eliza, Shaw creates a fresh ideal—a woman with all the attributes of Higgins's mother but with the time, spirit, and ambition to go her own way. Like the mythic artist Pygmalion who sculpts the ideal woman, Higgins and Pickering fashion Eliza into the perfect lady—refined, self-reliant, and with all the potential this implies. Nevertheless, the question remains: Can she break through the reigning Victorian definition of femininity set for middle- and upper-class women? Or has she exchanged one set of limitations—those of a working-class flower girl—for another? She still must have a means of financial survival.

It seems that society has left her three options—to marry Higgins, Pickering, or Freddy. Yet in Act 5, Eliza herself conceives of a fourth. She, indeed, may marry Freddy, but now she has a career choice—the capability to teach what she has learned. By exercising this choice, she can breach established boundaries and define for herself a new femininity.

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