Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion is a play based on the Greek myth of Pygmalion and Galatea. In this myth, Pygmalion is a sculptor who falls in love with Galatea, one of his sculptures. After praying to Venus to bring his “ivory girl” to life, she grants his wish. Venus brings Galatea to life, and she and Pygmalion seemingly live happily ever after. Shaw’s play grants more depth to the idea of Pygmalion and Galatea, and applies their story in a more modern and societal setting. Shaw very heavily criticizes British society through the eyes of Eliza Doolittle and Henry Higgins. These characters are Shaw’s modern take on Galatea and Pygmalion, respectively. The following paper will take a closer look at Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion and the social criticism that it contains.
Eliza Doolittle is a common woman, not of high standing in society. She holds a somewhat menial job selling flowers. By accident she meets Henry Higgins, who is a famous linguist. Higgins makes a bet with his fellow linguist, Colonel Pickering. Higgins bets the Pickering that in 6 months he will make Doolittle into a respected society woman. It should be noted that Higgins is not doing this for Eliza’s benefit. Higgins looks down upon Eliza, going so far as to make fun of her while he and Pickering are in her flower shop. Though she is common, Eliza has many privileges that women in high standing do not have, like her independence for example. In fact, Mrs. Higgins and the housekeeper are the two women who recognize and acknowledge what Doolittle is to lose if she gives up her position in society. In the plot it is evident that she gives up many things, simply because women who have a high position in society are either housewives or widows. They are not independent, they are too attached to the male figures in their lives. This is what often happens in life. We strive toward things that, in the end, turn out to be different than what we expected them to be. For Doolittle, this is just the case. While this might sound rather strange, when Doolittle enters the higher circle, she clearly understands that a woman of such high standing has no other choice but to “sell” herself to a good party, becoming a wife. This highly coveted social position robs her of all freedom. For Doolittle this compromise is too big. The author goes to great lengths in comparing the various social classes of 20th century society. Shaw looks at all of the hidden compromises and incongruences that might otherwise stay unnoticed.
Pygmalion emphasizes that speech alone can define one’s social standing. In the play, Higgins says that he created Eliza (“this thing”) “out of squashed cabbage leaves” (Shaw). Aside from speech, the play emphasizes how one is treated determines his/her social class. Pickering treats Doolittle with respect, as if she were a lady, when he meets her. Thus, he marks her as somewhat
above the class that she occupies in the beginning of the story. The story also refers to the middle class. In particular, it shows how people who belonged to the middle class differed from those in the lower and higher classes. There is the pushy and lacking personal containment Clara. She is pretentious in her manners, and thus we can see in the story that the lower, middle, and higher classes really differ in terms of their manners, behavior, and lifestyles. At the end of the story, the submissive Eliza Doolittle is no longer there. In the play, Higgins is the “leader” or “master” of the situation the whole time. However, toward the end of the play, we see how Eliza is making her first steps toward attaining greater psychological equality with him. She is no longer willing to be an object that he manipulates, teachers, and instructs. She has a voice and she wants to use it. Therefore, one can see how topics of social class, feminism, and gender equality intertwine. Shaw’s play shows that one’s social standing is not something natural. It is not a caste that cannot be entered. Through various characters, Doolittle and some others, Shaw demonstrates that it is possible to enter another higher class. We can learn manners and learning these manners has the potential to move us up the social ladder. In the Fifth Act, Pickering says that Eliza actually fulfilled her role better than most ladies who were born into this high social status. This way, he underscores that status is not fate. It is happening in and of its own.
Education is one of the topics that is explored profusely in this play. Shaw stresses that one’s education has the power to determine where one will be located on the socioeconomic ladder. However, still, the play points to the “dependent” position that most women are in, where their education is only bound to determine the kind of husband that they can get for themselves. The more educated a woman, the more intelligent, the more likely she is to marry someone of a high social standing. This education focuses on manners, speech, and behavior. We should also keep in mind that Shaw was a socialist. Thus, he wrote about matters that according to him were of social importance. The situation with Doolittle shows the reader that it is possible to enter another social class if one learns to adhere to the rules that prevail among those people. However, there are inevitable compromises that one cannot shy away from. For Eliza this means becoming more reserved but also more determined. Together with new manners she obtains a voice that prior was hushed.
Shaw was aware of the fact that workers were largely exploited by the higher classes. Thus, his play can be interpreted as a manifesto of sorts that demonstrates that one can leave the confines of social restrictions/boundaries. This play shows the situation that prevailed in British society during a time when the capitalist order reached its “full height.” To sum up, the various characters that are a part of this story represent a certain segment of society based on socioeconomic standing. These are stereotypical representations of what a person from a given social class might do, how they might act, etc. These are Shaw’s perceptions that are most likely representative of the time in which he lived.
Ultimately this play somewhat ironizes the very concept of class and social standing. It stresses that all things are flexible, even those which seem rigid. Social class mobility is much easier than it seems. However, there are consequences that come with this
mobility, which are equally highlighted by Shaw in this play. Although Higgins succeeded in transforming Eliza, she loses key elements about herself that once made her independent and unique. These characteristics are sent aside for the sake of social class. This leaves us wondering whether this is Eliza or Higgin’s victory, and whether this transformation is for the better or worse.