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by George Bernard Shaw

Pygmalion Theme of Manipulation

In Pygmalion, we see different types of influence and control, sometimes literal and other times metaphorical: the teacher training his student, the artist shaping his creation, the con artist fleecing his mark, the child playing with his toy. That said, these roles aren't always well-defined; they can change easily, without warning. Sometimes the master becomes the slave and the slave the master, in the blink of the eye, while other times the two simply become equals. Shaw wants us to observe the consequences of control, to see how these changes occur.

Questions About Manipulation

  1. Toward the end of the play, Eliza tells Higgins that she has become a slave. Is she right? Does that make him a slave driver?
  2. Throughout Pygmalion, Eliza is repeatedly objectified, compared to everything from a pebble to a piece of trash. Is there any reason why Shaw compares her to the things he does? Is there a better way to describe the way she is treated?
  3. The mythical Pygmalion was a sculptor who fashioned his ideal woman out of stone. Shaw is clearly making a comparison between Pygmalion and Higgins, but does that comparison really hold up?
  4. Higgins is most certainly the "manipulator-in-chief" in Pygmalion, but what about the other characters? Do any of them exert their own influence on Eliza? Does she do anything manipulating herself?

Chew on This

Try on an opinion or two, start a debate, or play the devil’s advocate.

Shaw asserts that manipulation and coercion are presented as natural, necessary modes of action. Without them, real change – personal and societal – would not be possible.

In recognizing Eliza as his equal at play's end, Higgins is really recognizing the extent to which he has manipulated his subject. Eliza has changed, yes, but Higgins's perceptions have changed even more.

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