Transformation Rediscovered in Pygmalion

Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, published in 1912 and first debuted in 1913, follows the plotline of an early twentieth century romance with a twist, the story of a flower-girl transformed into a duchess who ultimately chooses her own destiny. Despite many misinterpretations and faulty performances of its ending, Pygmalion remains a bold comment on socialism, feminism and the English class system.

The typical melodramatic romance is warped with unpleasant details of the hardships of middle-class life and a startling ending in which the meticulously crafted masterpiece deserts its creator, to constitute the progressive, socialist text that is Pygmalion. In a forceful rejection of man-made social boundaries and material meters of judgment, Shaw advocates for man’s ability to recreate himself without the superficial qualities and possessions typically associated with different classes. Shaw promotes humans’ ability to initiate complete self-recreation by distorting the traditional plotline of the Pygmalion myth and the classic romantic archetype to expose the restrictive nature of the social system. In the myth, the artist Pygmalion, disgusted with the women of his time, falls in love with his own sculpture, Galatea, who is brought to life and eventually marries Pygmalion. Although Shaw certainly incorporates the idea of an artist in love with his art into the play, his Galatea gives a much different reaction to her creator than is expected.

We Will Write a Custom Case Study Specifically
For You For Only $13.90/page!

order now

Henry Higgins perfectly embodies Pygmalion, as he explained his love for phonetics to Colonel Pickering as “the science of speech. That’s my profession: also my hobby. Happy is the man who can make a living by his hobby!”(17). Higgins is truly in love with his work, arguably more so than Pygmalion was; his infatuation with his art is so intense that it leads him to overlook and marginalize its subjects, sometimes to an extreme as demonstrated when he likens his female students to “blocks of wood”(38). Eliza Doolittle, Higgins’ newest pupil, represents Galatea, the product of the meticulous efforts of her creator.

While Higgins does bring Eliza new life, just as Pygmalion gives his sculpture Galatea life, by equipping her with the proper mannerisms and language to integrate her into upper class society, Higgins’ Galatea behaves much differently than the docile and adoring female figure from Ovid’s poem. While the traditional Galatea blindly embraces her creator as her lifelong partner, Eliza’s rebirth opens her eyes to the monstrosity of Higgins’ condescending, demeaning lifestyle and empowers her to leave him for a new life of her own choosing. This deviation from the well-known story punctuates Pygmalion’s statement that humans should not be confined to the classes into which they were born or long-standing social norms and traditions like the outdated myth that was used to outline the play. Audiences are shocked at the unconventional, dissatisfying final scene in which Eliza walks out on Higgins to marry a man of her choice, vastly different from the closing of the traditional myth and of typical romances in general, featuring the expected union of the male star and female counterpart. Shaw’s decision to alter this timeworn archetype highlights his confidence in the evolution of social class and the empowerment not only of women but also of the lower and middle class citizens whose lives are often constituted by multiple seemingly inescapable vicious cycles of poverty and hardship. This revolutionary idea of recreating the self in the face of ancient social and economic boundaries also remarks on the overvalued features of upper class citizens like language or behavior which Shaw demonstrates are easily duplicated.

Although appropriate speech and behavior were considered gauges of an individual’s class or social status, Pygmalion exposes these traits as surface-level, overrated and not at all indicative of true respectability. Shaw first establishes the massive gap between social classes by characterizing each with distinct language, mannerisms and expectations, and then explains that these same distinguishing factors are not telling of true difference in status as they can be easily replicated by someone not of that class. The details of the dichotomy between the classes are intentionally unpleasant for the stage, but nonetheless succeed in communicating the uncomfortable truth about the imbalance of wealth and tension between the upper, middle and lower classes. Richard Huggett in The Truth About Pygmalion, acknowledges Shaw’s assertion that moving between classes and redefining oneself was challenging but not impossible and comments that “as was fitting for such a Supreme master of language, Shaw [chose] his adjectives with great care, for the truth was indeed grotesque…”(Huggett,5); performing a work like Pygmalion in a theatre with its cursing and societal criticisms was almost unheard of, and yet Shaw makes a point of retaining the realistic nature of his play to properly illustrate the distinct classes only to dismiss the characteristics that separated them as irrelevant. Instead, he argues, that the true indication of self recreation is the perception of oneself.

By the end of the play, Eliza, who has been transformed into the image of grace and fashion, realizes that for all her successes and triumphs, she is still regarded as nothing more than an object of an experiment to Higgins. However, this realization is coupled with a newfound understanding of her position and of her manipulation; she laments that when she was a flower girl, “I sold flowers. I didn’t sell myself. Now that you’ve made a lady of me I’m not fit to sell anything else” (78). In this way, Eliza recognizes that because of the social standards imposed on people of her alleged class, if she chooses this predetermined path of a respectable lady, she will be forced to abide by these rules as a result of her new position.

It is precisely this ability to understand her situation and choose a path of independence and liberation that shows that Eliza changed on a more drastic level than simply her immaculate English and expensive clothes. Her confidence in leaving Wimpole Street to find her own husband and capability of assessing the difference between her initial state of poverty and newfound luxury embody Eliza’s true metamorphosis. Therefore, Pygmalion concludes, it cannot be external factors like behavior and speech that truly transforms people, but a change in attitude and self-respect. Shaw effectively addresses this prospect through the incorporation of two other female characters, Mrs. Higgins, and Mrs. Pearce, whose actions and demeanors expose the insignificance of material assets related to class in power dynamics and influence.

Throughout the play, both women act as equally powerful voices of reason in the madness of Higgins’ lifestyle and yet their social statuses could not be more distant. Mrs. Higgins is regarded as a respectable, intelligent figure with considerable power over Higgins which she uses almost humiliatingly to treat him like a child. She is given an indubitably caring, maternal side, however, questioning Higgins about things as a concerned parent, like marriage and his work relations, and seems keen on staying up to date with the latest social trends like “small talk”. However, Mrs.

Higgins is also immensely sensitive and cognizant of the effects of Higgins’ experiment with Eliza which her son fails to realize; she can fearlessly and explicitly identify the injustices against Eliza and confront Higgins concerning them. Because of this, Mrs. Higgins is given a place of power above Higgins and Pickering not simply because of age and relation, other external features, but due to her capacity to project Eliza’s future as a result of the experiment and recognize the injustice and manipulation of her son and his colleague. Like Mrs. Higgins, Mrs.

Pearce wields a similar influence over Higgins in explicitly stating the logical and ethical flaws in his plans but her social position lends her no help in gaining this power. As a servant of the house and a woman, Mrs. Pearce is the closest in status to Eliza; perhaps this is why she feels an obligation to protect and look out for her. While Higgins is attempting to coerce Eliza into agreeing to the terms of his experiment, Mrs. Pearce fears for Eliza’s future once Higgins is through with her and protests, “Stop Mr. Higgins.

I won’t allow it. It’s you that are wicked”(31). Thus is Mrs. Pearce’s authority established a voice of reason and compassion. Her ability to stand up to Higgins, her superior, with the intention of protecting someone incapable of protecting themselves and force him to address more than his own desires raises Mrs.

Pearce to an unspoken position of power above Higgins. Shaw uses her status as a servant to prove that influence is not reliant on surface level features like class and gender. That both Mrs. Higgins, a respected woman of high class and Mrs. Pearce, a domestic servant hold significant influence over Higgins, articulates Pygmalion’s promotion of liberation from the social boundaries and rejection of material means of judgment and distinction. One scene in particular, however, seems to contradict Eliza’s progress towards independence and escape from the pressures of the societal system: Eliza’s final moments in Mrs.

Higgins’ drawing room where she confronts and abandons Higgins. In a wave of bitter enlightenment, Eliza recognizes that “apart from the tings anyone can pick up (the dressing and the proper way of speaking, and so on), the difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves, but how she’s treated. I shall always be a flower girl to Professor Higgins because he always treats me as a flower girl and always will; but I know I can be a lady to you because you always treat me as a lady and always will”(95). This comment appears to render Eliza weak and at the mercy of external judgment off of which she bases her own self-perception. By stating that the difference in class is a result of others’ reactions to an individual rather than the individual’s actions alone strips Eliza of power to form her own image and allows an outside source to determine her worth. Additionally, Eliza repeatedly demeans and degrades herself by referring to herself as “nothing more than an ignorant flower girl” and “a squashed cabbage leaf”, atrocities that Higgins had at one point called her.

The recurrence of these derogatory terms imply that Eliza has accepted her inferiority and reliance on Higgins, challenging the progress towards independence that she has achieved up until this point. Coupled with her comment regarding the power of external judgment dictating a person’s worth, Eliza’s character seems hopelessly static as she has returned to a state of inferiority by the end of the play. However, it is Eliza’s recognition and acceptance of two different kinds of people in society and stoic resolution to continue to act as her own idea of a lady that reiterates her dramatic transformation and newfound self-respect. Colonel Pickering serves “as a kindly person who helps Eliza Doolittle to become a lady by treating her like a lady” (Wall 42) while Higgins “is a monster of egotism, a tyrant [and] a bully” (Grene xiv). Through her acquisition of the manners and language of a high-standing lady of class, Eliza also gains an indomitable sense of self-respect and confidence, with which she comprehends the complex dynamics of society; she cannot change those who perceive her negatively but she can continue to carry herself in the way she sees fit for a lady. Thus is Eliza’s statement in this closing scene clearly supportive of her journey towards independence and self-sufficiency because of her recognition and acceptance of this divide.

Because of these critical details in his play’s final scene which distinctly promote transformation through internal rather than materialistic means, Shaw includes a forceful epilogue in anticipation of its misinterpretation. Audiences’ unconscious attraction to common romantic archetypes, he writes, lead them to the entirely false assumption that Eliza would return to marry Higgins because “our imaginations…[are] so enfeebled by their lazy dependence on the ready-mades and reach-me-downs of the ragshop in which Romance keeps its stock of ‘happy endings’ to misfit all stories” (107). Shaw stresses that happy endings in the sense that audiences are accustomed to in which the heroine of a story ends up marrying the hero have no place in the function of real world situations nor are they in tune with any “sense of human nature in general [or] of feminine instinct in particular” (107). Because of the unsatisfying ending implied but not explicitly stated in the text, audiences and acting companies alike have mutilated Shaw’s message into one more fitting of the standard romance, a crime which Shaw defiles as “unbearable”. It is this inclination to romanticize and stifle the unconventionality of an individual overstepping traditionally accepted social boundaries that Shaw hopes to discourage and expose; ironically, his work concerning man’s liberation from material societal constraints falls victim to the same oppression it reveals, as audiences and acting companies alike attempt to crush the storyline back into one of comfortable, typical romance. Such a tendency hinders the growth of society by confining its members to predetermined lives within their respective classes where the prospect of change is a matter of the gain or loss of the tangible assets associated with each group.

Shaw replaces this depressing vision of society with one in which transformation is dependent only a change in perception and respect of oneself, which he expresses directly through his Galatea’s rejection of her Pygmalion. The importance of Eliza’s decision to marry a man of her own choice is further emphasized in the epilogue as Shaw discusses the social position of women and the strategic execution of marriage to benefit oneself. The only reason a woman would marry someone like Higgins “especially if he is so little interested in marriage [would be that] if she is at the end of her youth, and has no security for her livelihood…she must marry anybody who will provide for her” (107-108). Eliza has no such concerns as she is an attractive young woman with a new skill-set that awes upstanding socialites. However, despite her decision to marry Freddy and desert Higgins, Shaw articulates that “to admire a strong person and to live under that strong person’s thumb are two different things” (110). Eliza has no intention of completely forgetting Higgins and feels not the “slightest doubt as to his remaining one of the strongest personal interests in her life”(108).

That she has come so far as to understand her respect for what Higgins has given her yet refuse to allow herself to live under his abusive rule prominently displays Eliza’s embodiment of true transformation according to Shaw, the result of an alteration of pride and dignity rather than mere clothing and behaviorism. Through the epilogue, Shaw makes apparent that the most important part of the play is a series of events that are never seen onstage and utilizes the audience’s inherent desire to create an alternative ending to fit their idea of a proper conclusion to expose the restrictions of traditional social boundaries. Shaw asserts that man should be free of these unspoken constraints and meters of judgment and allowed to redefine himself, and continues on to redefine transformation as a change independent of these outdated external factors and reliant only on one’s own self-respect and attitude. Therefore, in a work that both entertained and shocked audiences with its unconventionality and boldness, Shaw encapsulates his vision of empowered individuals initiating their own transformation through a change in attitude and self respect. The Pygmalion myth, typically referenced in relation to an artist’s relationship with his craft, is used to focus on a completely new aspect: Galatea, the creation itself.

Shaw visualizes a Galatea independent of her maker and free to pursue her own future; this sharp turn from the well-known story emphasizes that humans should not be restrained by the long-standing social boundaries imposed by years of tradition and expectation, but empowered to recreate and redefine themselves. Change, as Eliza Doolittle portrays, is not a matter of gaining the material objects characteristic of another lifestyle but dependent on self-driven initiative and a change in mentality.