Study Guide

Pygmalion Analysis

By George Bernard Shaw

  • Tone

    Didactic, Witty

    As we've said more than once, Shaw wants to get us thinking about a lot of important stuff.

    Luckily, he's not into lecturing. Think of him as a zany, loveable teacher: he wants you to learn something and have fun doing it.

    The play's scenario seems so simple—poor girl becomes duchess thanks to brilliant, eccentric teacher—that, by the time Shaw starts asking the Big Issues, we're so invested in the characters that resistance is futile. The whole thing is a bit like Higgins himself. Sometimes Pygmalion can be hard to deal with, but in the end it's so charming that you can't help but like it.

  • Genre

    Drama, Realism

    Shaw has a lot to say here: heavy stuff about language, society, and the soul. Lucky for us, in this case he likes to show and tell.

    We get long speeches from Higgins about how language is what makes us human, about the great significance of his work with Eliza, and sometimes it seems like Shaw is simply using him as a mouthpiece. But we get enough perspectives on other issues—Alfred Doolittle on the undeserving poor, Mrs. Higgins on the place of women in society—and enough heated arguments to raise doubts about the truth of Higgins's statements.

    Until we get to the fourth act, the play seems like it's headed toward the usual sort of Hollywood ending. Eliza's going to be transformed into an intelligent, elegant, eloquent, and eligible young woman, grumpy old Higgins is going to learn a lesson or two about manners and compassion, somebody will get married...

    Instead we get two more acts full of arguing and passive-aggressive behavior with no real end in sight. We do get a marriage, in the end, but it's not your neat little fairy tale kind. (Papa Doolittle's not really much for sticking with a single woman. He wouldn't even be thinking about wedding bells if it weren't for that whole "middle class morality" thing.)

    In the end, Higgins seems to be the only one who's sure how things will turn out. Eliza will come back, he tells his mother, but we have no real way of knowing if she will. As it turns out, the play's central question isn't, "Can you pass off a flower girl as a duchess?" but, "What can you do with her once you succeed?"

    As attractive and, perhaps, truthful as Higgins's talk about the soul and language is, Shaw forces us to put it to the test. As Higgins tells Eliza: 

    HIGGINS: The great secret is not having good manners or bad manners, but having the same manner for all human souls. (5.197)

    We have to wonder, though: can this apply to the real world, or is this nothing more than a fantasy?

  • What's Up With the Title?

    Made In His Image

    Oooh, this is a juicy one.

    Shaw wrote Pygmalion in 1912, but he took its name from something way, way older: an Ancient Greek myth. The most famous of its many versions can be found in the Roman poet Ovid's Metamorphoses.

    In the myth, Pygmalion, a sculptor from Cyprus, hates women, and especially hates the idea of getting married. (Sound familiar?) Still, he gets tired of lying in bed alone at night, and decides to carve a beautiful woman out of ivory—a woman so beautiful that he can't help but fall in love with her.

    Which is exactly what he does.

    After making the sculpture, he can't help himself, and he kisses her and starts dressing her up and doing anything he can to make her seem more human. None of that helps to turn her into a human being, but he can't let her go. So, when the feast of Venus rolls around, he prays and begs and pleads with the goddess Venus to please turn this statue into a real live woman.

    Venus, sympathetic (or maybe just sick of Pygmalion's whining) grants his wish. When Pygmalion tries kissing the sculpture again, she starts turning warm and fleshy, and soon enough she is a real live woman. Pygmalion and his statue/woman get married, have a kid, and live happily ever after.

    Pygmalion (Shaw's play) isn't a simple retelling of the myth, but it's pretty clear who's who here: Henry Higgins is the sculptor and Eliza Doolittle his creation. Shaw adds a lot more to the mix—stuff about British society and language—and it's science, not Venus, doing the transforming, but the basics are the same.

    At it's heart, it's about a man who craves power over women trying his hand at creating one.

    Just remember: there's a reason this original play is called Pygmalion and not My Fair Lady. The musical version is a little happier, a little more of a Cinderella story. But Pygmalion is about Henry Higgins and his crafting of Eliza Doolittle even more than it is a play about the relationship between Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle.

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    Fight! Fight Fight!

    Pygmalion ends with a bang, not a whimper.

    Here's what goes down: Henry and Eliza have a huge fight. Eliza's already made Higgins plenty angry by leaving his house, and then proceeding to act all cheery and nice the next day. She's already given Pickering most of the credit for her transformation from flower girl to lady, and now, to top it all off, she's refusing to come back and live with Higgins.

    You see, Eliza doesn't know what to do with herself now that she's got an upper class accent, but no money, and no place to go.

    Higgins doesn't seem too fazed by this. He tells her that, no, he doesn't mean to treat her poorly. He treats everyone poorly. It's just his way of being fair. Then, for good measure he calls Eliza a liar, a fool, an idiot, a "damned impudent slut" (5.263), and—oh, yeah—and he almost strangles her.

    Eliza doesn't buy a lot of what he's saying. She doesn't seem convinced by the whole "I treat everyone like garbage" excuse. She's insulted by Higgins's offer to arrange a marriage with somebody rich. She's so annoyed by the whole thing that she starts making threats of her own. She tells Higgins that she'll marry Freddy if she has to (Higgins doesn't want his "masterpiece" wasted on such a lout).

    She even threatens to use her knowledge against him, to teach one of Higgins's competitors the methods she learned or—and this really ticks him off—to go into business for herself.

    Cruelty = Equality (When You're Henry Higgins)

    Higgins then has a great realization. By finally learning to treat him poorly, Higgins believes that Eliza has finally become his equal. Again, this all seems a bit off, and Eliza herself isn't convinced. And why should she be? She has plenty of reasons not to trust him—the guy just tried to wring her neck.

    Eliza turns around to leave, telling Higgins,

    LIZA: I shall not see you again. Good-bye. (5.270)

    Higgins isn't one to give up, however. He calls after her and tells her to pick up some groceries and fresh clothes. Higgins's mother, who's just come in to get Eliza, thinks he's crazy, but Higgins himself is sure.

    HIGGINS: She'll buy em all right enough. Good-bye. (5.275)

    Those are the last words, leaving a lot up in the air. Higgins is sure Eliza will come back but, well, he's been wrong before. Eliza seems to doubt the sincerity of Higgins's arguments, but on the other hand, he can be pretty persuasive. She's still left in a difficult position: she can't go back to selling flowers, but she doesn't want to marry into money. And Higgins won't meet her halfway…at least not yet.

    Is there romance in the cards?

    Pygmalion 2: 2 Pyg, 2 Malion

    Not according to Shaw. He wrote a "Sequel" to Pygmalion and, like most sequels, it's not nearly as good as the original. It's just a really long explanation of what happens—Shaw just wants us to know that everybody reading the play is silly and sentimental, and, no, Higgins and Eliza don't ever smooch. Instead, she marries Freddy and they open a flower shop.

    The sequel closes with the lines:

    [...] [Eliza] likes Freddy and she likes the Colonel; and she does not like Higgins and Mr. Doolittle. Galatea never does quite like Pygmalion: his relation to her is too godlike to be altogether agreeable. (Source)

    We here at Shmoop say forget about the sequel and go with your gut. You can do better than that.

  • Setting

    London, England in the Early 20th Century

    In the beginning of the 20th Century, the city of London  was the capital of the largest empire in the world. That being said, we only get a very small glimpse of it (both the city and the empire).

    All of the play's action is confined to three places, each located in the very fashionable center of town: Covent Garden, the laboratory of Henry Higgins's apartment at 27A Wimpole Street, and the "drawing room" (think living room) of Mrs. Higgins's apartment on Chelsea embankment. You don't need to know exactly where these places are—just know that they're ritzy, about as far away from the poor parts of London you could get.

    The easiest way to understand the setting of the play is to look at who shows up where, and how they're treated.  Covent Garden was a large market on London's West End, which in turn was home to many of London's theaters, and it brought together a very diverse crowd of people. Everyone from the rich (like Colonel Pickering), the middle class (the Eynsford-Hills, for instance), to the poorest of the poor—who, like Eliza, were probably trying to make some money off the richer among them. This is the only place we see a bunch of people with (pay attention to this) a bunch of accents mingling freely.

    The rest of the action is confined to a lab and a living room, and in both cases the appearance of anyone "lower class" is met with surprise. In the second act, Eliza and her father can't simply walk into Higgins's place: they have to be screened by Mrs. Pearce before they can so much as get through the door.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (4) Base Camp

    As another great character of British literature once said, "A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down." Shaw seems to have kept that saying in mind when writing Pygmalion. Sure, it's got a Greek name and it's about a guy who studies words for a living, but the play still manages to be sharp, funny, and quick-moving. Higgins can be a real curmudgeon, but he's always got a good quip ready, and Eliza...well, she's Eliza. Her spirit really carries the play.

  • Writing Style

    Straightforward, Witty

    Though Henry Higgins claims to be a regular John Milton, Shaw doesn't let him get too poetic. He has too many important topics to tackle, and he can't be bothered with heavy symbolism, complicated metaphors, and big words.

    Above all, Shaw wants his characters to speak, whether with Eliza's almost incomprehensible accent, Doolittle's strange charm, or Higgins's cynical reason; he wants us to understand the variety of ways English can be spoken.

    And so we get Higgins imitating Eliza—"Cheer ap, Keptin; n' haw ya flahr orf a pore gel"—and what Higgins calls Doolittle's "native woodnotes wild." Each is distinct on a grammatical level, and, when performed, is delivered with a different accent.

    Remember how at the beginning Higgins is able to tell the people where they come from? Well, even if we, the audience can't pick out the different accents, it's the director's job to sort that out. Tough, huh?

    It's a good thing Shaw also has no problem with telling us what characters are like right off the bat. He lets us know from the very beginning that Higgins is a bit of a baby—it's in his character description—and we get plenty of confirmation later on.

  • Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

    The Looking-Glass

    The looking-glass is only mentioned once, toward the very end of Act 2. It is involved in what seems to be a very minor incident. Eliza, it seems, has never looked at herself in a mirror, and she doesn't want to start making a habit of it:

    LIZA. I tell you, it's easy to clean up here [] Now I know why ladies is so clean. Washing's a treat for them. Wish they saw what it is for the like of me!
    HIGGINS. I'm glad the bath-room met with your approval.

    LIZA. It didn't: not all of it; and I don't care who hears me say it. Mrs. Pearce knows.
    HIGGINS. What was wrong, Mrs. Pearce?
    MRS. PEARCE [blandly] Oh, nothing, sir. It doesn't matter.
    LIZA. I had a good mind to break it. I didn't know which way to look. But I hung a towel over it, I did.
    HIGGINS. Over what?
    MRS. PEARCE. Over the looking-glass, sir
    . (2.303-310)

    Given that Pygmalion is itself named after a character from Greek myth, it only seems right to bring up another mythological Greek figure: Narcissus. There's a whole back-story to the thing, but here's all you need to know: Narcissus was a really hot young man. So hot that every girl in town loved him. But Narcissus was vain, and preferred to keep to himself. One day, a god decided to teach the boy a lesson, and led him to a pool of water. When Narcissus saw his own reflection there he fell instantly in love…with himself. Eventually he realized his love could never be, and basically killed himself.

    Eliza's own fear of mirrors seems to spring from some fear of vanity. She certainly doesn't want to end up like Narcissus; but it's not clear where her fear comes from. Her father doesn't seem like the type to teach her those kind of life lessons, and we know she never got much help from her mom. Still, she's very protective of her own identity. Whenever anyone questions her motives – like at the beginning of the play, when she's afraid she's going to be arrested – she always pleads, "I'm a good girl!" Wherever her sense of right and wrong came from, it's clear she has one, and she doesn't want to end up like that vain Greek guy.

    It helps to begin with the looking-glass not only because it's a single incident that raises all sorts of questions. From here we can talk about another related issue: clothing.

    Clothing

    You know how they say "The clothes make the man"? Well, in Pygmalion it holds true…for the most part. The most striking example of this takes place just before the discussion of the mirror. Doolittle is about to leave Higgins's house when "he is confronted with a dainty and exquisitely clean young Japanese lady in a simple blue cotton kimono":

    DOOLITTLE: Beg pardon, miss.
    THE JAPANESE LADY: Garn! Don't you recognize your own daughter?
    DOOLITTLE {exclaiming Bly me! it's Eliza!
    HIGGINS {simul- What's that! This!
    PICKERING {taneously By Jove!
    (2.289-293)

    When Eliza is shown to the bath by Mrs. Pearce, she's nothing more than a poor young woman trying (and failing) to look presentable. When she comes back out, she's been so completely transformed that even her father can't recognize her. Shaw lets us know how drastic the change is within the text by referring to Eliza as "The Japanese Lady." Even we're supposed to be fooled, if only until Eliza opens her mouth.

    Here we can see how powerful appearance is – sometimes that suit you're wearing really can make you look like a million bucks – but Shaw also lets us know how flimsy the illusion really is. Sure, sometimes clothes can help give an accurate impression of someone – the bystander in Act 1 can tell that Higgins isn't a cop just by looking at his expensive shoes – but they can just as easily give a false one. Admit it, that whole "Japanese Lady" bit did trick you, right?

    Using clothes, Shaw can make a point about appearances and about social class. Pygmalion is more about language than it is about clothes; after all, Henry Higgins isn't a tailor, he's a specialist in speech. Still, Eliza is left in pickle at the end of the play because she can't get by simply by speaking like a rich person. She needs to clean herself like one, to dress like one, to spend money like one. Sure, she could marry a rich guy, but she doesn't want to; her sense of "goodness," which we see on display in the mirror scene, prevents her from doing that.

    In the end, Shaw leaves us in a pickle, too. Appearance is important he tells us again and again. After all, Eliza can bypass any number of social barriers just by getting all gussied up. The problem is, she, Pickering, and Higgins spend so much time getting ready to crash the party that they don't know what to do when they get there. What can you do when you're all dressed up with nowhere to go?

  • Booker's Seven Basic Plots Analysis

    Initial wretchedness at home and the 'Call'

    Eliza Doolittle has been standing on the corner selling flowers for who knows how long. She's uneducated, dirty, and, to top it all off, has an incredibly thick accent. Oh, and she's also extremely paranoid. Luckily, she has a chance encounter with Henry Higgins, a gifted phonetician and speech teacher. She shows up at his house the day after meeting him and demands lessons.

    This is a classic example of the scenario. Eliza is almost literally dressed in rags. She runs into a man who mentions, pretty much out of nowhere, that he could turn her into a duchess, and she has a pretty good idea of how talented a man he is. How could she pass up the opportunity? Well, as we find out, she couldn't. Her journey begins almost immediately thereafter.

    Out into the world, initial success

    At Higgins's place, Eliza is given a nice bath and fresh clothes. One might say she cleans up well. After a couple months of teaching, she is able to mingle at a party given by Mrs. Higgins, and though her speech and manners aren't perfect, she's got enough going for her to catch the eye of Freddy.

    Having already been welcome into a place the likes of which she's never seen (Higgins's apartment), in Act 3 she's brought out into the world in the coming of age, debutante sort of way. She makes her debut on the "at-home" circuit, and though her performance isn't perfect, it certainly qualifies as a success.

    The central crisis

    A few more months pass, and Eliza is able to "pass" as a duchess. Henry Higgins wins the bet, but he doesn't give any credit to Eliza. She doesn't know what to do with herself, and takes her anger out on Higgins by throwing his slipper at him.

    Shaw pulls a little switcheroo here. What we expect to be the triumphant conclusion to the play, Eliza's success as a duchess, turns out to be little more than the beginning of the play's major conflict. When the bet is over, the real drama begins.

    Independence and the final ordeal

    After her argument, Eliza realizes that she's her own women. She refuses to take Higgins's breakfast order, and leaves to stay at Mrs. Higgins's house later that night. When Higgins shows up there the next day, Eliza is calm, cool, and collected. She can't keep up the act, though, and she is soon arguing with Higgins about his treatment of her, her future marriage prospects, and potential occupations. Eliza threatens to marry Freddy – a prospect Higgins is none too happy about, and, perhaps go into competition with Higgins in the speech training business. Higgins gets angry, nearly strangles Eliza, and proceeds to tell her she's now become his equal.

    In the course of their argument, Eliza actually uses the word independent more than once, and though we can't be sure she'll find a way to make it on her own, it's certainly on her mind. And well, the end is truly an ordeal: Eliza nearly gets strangled, after all, but she stands her ground anyway.

    Final union, completion, and fulfillment

    Eliza says goodbye to Higgins for what she seems to think will be the last time. Higgins thinks otherwise, and tells Eliza to pick up some groceries as she's walking out the door.

    This is where it gets tricky. The fifth act concludes, well, inconclusively. The thing is, Shaw wrote a "Sequel to Pygmalion" in which we find out that she does in fact marry Freddy and the two more or less live happily ever after. You can read a more in-depth discussion of the ending in the "What's Up with the Ending?" section, but here's the bottom line: ignore the sequel and make of the ending what you will.

  • Plot Analysis

    Initial Situation

    Eliza Doolittle is a poor girl with a thick accent and no prospects. Henry Higgins and Colonel Pickering are gifted linguists. The three have a fateful encounter one night in Covent Garden, during which Higgins reveals his talents as a teacher.

    Okay, this is pretty standard. Shaw introduces us to the main characters, lets us know that Eliza has a problem, and that Henry has the skills to fix it.

    Conflict

    The next day, Pickering and Higgins are working in Higgins's laboratory. Their conversation is interrupted by the entrance of Eliza. When the girl demands to be given lessons, Higgins bets Pickering he can pass her off as a duchess given six months. Pickering agrees.

    Here we have the potential resolution. Higgins is now given the opportunity to fix Eliza's problems…but it's not all sunshine and rainbows. His motives for doing so aren't exactly clear.

    Complication

    Alfred Doolittle, Eliza's father, shows up and blackmails Higgins into giving him some money. Eliza is a quick study, but teaching her proper grammar and manners proves difficult. Freddy Eynsford Hill falls head over heels for her anyway. Higgins's mother warns him that he's only hurting Eliza by training her.

    This is where things get complicated. Eliza's father threatens to end the bet before it starts, teaching Eliza proves difficult, a romantic element is introduced, and a warning is issued. And rest assured, that warning isn't there for nothing.

    Climax

    After winning the bet, Higgins acts like he was completely bored by the whole process. He and Pickering proceed to talk about Eliza as if she hadn't even taken part in the plan. Eliza gets angry at Higgins and throws a slipper at him. Eliza decides to leave Higgins's home, and the two argue until Higgins loses his cool and nearly hits Eliza.

    This is where things get a little unconventional. The winning of the bet, which you might expect to happen at the conclusion, is stuck smack dab in the middle of the play, and not much is even made of it. That's where the conflict in the scene comes from, and things wouldn't be nearly as exciting if Shaw didn't tinker with the formula.

    Suspense

    Higgins shows up at his mother's house the next day looking for Eliza. She seems to have left in the middle of the night, and Higgins can't handle his daily affairs without her. He desperately wants to get her back, and even thinks about calling the police in to help search.

    The old runaway plot. A classic. Eliza is lost, then found. It's a perfect way to build suspense and get us ready for the play's conclusion, but first…

    Denouement

    It turns out that Eliza has been at Mrs. Higgins's apartment the whole time. She acts calm and collected, and gives Pickering most of the credit for her transformation, thus infuriating Higgins. When Eliza, surprised by the appearance of her father, howls as she used to before she was trained, Higgins declares victory. The two proceed to have a long argument.

    This isn't really a denouement in the usual sense. You could lump the events listed about with Eliza and Higgins's final argument, but the two episodes are really distinct episodes. Still, a lot of the plot is tied together: Doolittle is reintroduced, Eliza is brought back into the picture, she goes on to explain how she feels, we see that her transformation isn't quite complete, and we're ready for the conclusive fight.

    Conclusion

    The argument, which focuses on Eliza's future, ends after Eliza threatens to sell Higgins's trade secrets to support herself. Higgins nearly strangles her, before deciding that Eliza has finally established herself as his equal. He invites her come back and live with him and Pickering again. Eliza declines and says goodbye for the last time. Higgins feels confident she'll come back anyway.

    There isn't really anything about the conclusion that's conclusive, but we do get to see Higgins and Eliza talk about the many ways the play could have ended more conventionally: marriage, a total reconciliation and return to Higgins, a return to her father.

    Instead, we're left in the lurch. We don't know what's going to happen to her. She declares her independence from Higgins, but we don't know if it'll last. Though Shaw tells us what happens in his "sequel," well…go read "What's Up with the Ending?" to get the final verdict on that.

  • Three Act Plot Analysis

    Act I

    Henry Higgins bets Colonel Pickering that he can turn Eliza Doolittle, a flower girl, into a duchess in six months. After dealing with her for a short while, they both agree it will be a tough task.

    Act II

    After successfully "passing off" the flower girl as a duchess, Higgins wins the bet, but Eliza is left angry and dissatisfied.

    Act III

    Eliza runs away from Higgins; they meet again and argue once more before she says goodbye for what she thinks is the last time. Higgins thinks otherwise.