Study Guide

Pygmalion Themes

  • Language and Communication

    We hear language in all its forms in Pygmalion: everything from slang and "small talk," to heartfelt pleas and big talk about soul and poverty. Depending on the situation, and depending on whom you ask, language can separate or connect people, degrade or elevate, transform or prevent transformation.

    Language, we learn, doesn't necessarily need to be "true" to be effective; it can deceive just as easily as it can reveal the truth. It is, ultimately, what binds Pygmalion together, and it pays to read carefully; even something as small as a single word can define a person.

    Questions About Language and Communication

    1. Why does Eliza start speaking in her old manner when she gets emotional? What does this say about her training? Or about Higgins's abilities as a teacher?
    2. Higgins doesn't always use the kindest words when addressing Eliza. Given that language is so important to him, can we believe it when he says he treats all men in the same way?
    3. At Mrs. Higgins's party, Freddy and Clara confuse Eliza's normal way of speaking for "the new small talk." What does this say about the way language works in different contexts?

    Chew on This

    Pygmalion represents Shaw's attempt to not just use words and language to create art and raise questions, but to force readers to examine the power and purpose of language itself.

    Reading Pygmalion, we come to learn that communication is about more than words, and everything from clothing to accents to physical bearing can affect the way people interact with each other.

  • Transformation

    This one may seem like a no-brainer: Pygmalion's all about turning a poor girl into a duchess, right? Well, sure, and Eliza's metamorphosis is stunning. You could even go so far as to call it a Cinderella story.

    But remember: Cinderella turned back into a poor girl before she finally found her prince. Pay attention and you'll notice that not all the attempts at transformation here are successful. There are plenty of false starts and false endings. By play's end, Shaw's made one thing very clear: be careful what you wish for.

    Questions About Transformation

    1. Higgins and Pickering tell Mrs. Higgins that Eliza is an incredibly quick learner. They even call her a genius. Who, then, deserves more credit for Eliza's transformation: Eliza herself, because of her potential intelligence, or Higgins, for bringing it out?
    2. Why is Higgins so keen on teaching Eliza? Can we ever really understand his real motives? If so, what are they?
    3. Eliza tells Colonel Pickering that "her real education" began when Colonel Pickering began treating her like a lady (5.134). Do you agree with her? Can you think of any alternative "beginnings"?

    Chew on This

    Pygmalion is ultimately a story about the transformative, and sometimes problematic, power of education.

    In Pygmalion, Shaw asserts that nature, not nurture, is the more important factor in the development of intelligence and skill.

  • Identity

    Every single day we talk about ourselves, saying "I did this," "I did that," "I am," and "I'm not," but we don't usually think about what "I" means. In Pygmalion, Shaw forces us to think this through. Some characters want to change who they are, others don't want to change at all.

    Things get even more complicated when identities are made up, constructed. The play wants us to ask ourselves what I really means to think about different versions of the self, and whether that self can ever really be changed.

    Questions About Identity

    1. We watch Eliza change in a number of ways throughout Pygmalion: she learns how to speak properly, she begins dressing differently, etc. But does she ever lose her old self, her old identity? Can we really say what her old identity is anyway?
    2. On the other hand, can we ever really be sure that identity is fixed? Does Eliza's transformation call into question the way we view the self? Are there any characters who seem totally and completely comfortable with themselves and their personalities?
    3. What are the different ways in which the characters define themselves? For instance, do they compare themselves to other groups? Do they allow their class to define them, or their jobs? Are they even conscious of their own identities?
    4. Why the heck is Eliza so afraid that people will think she's not a "good girl"?

    Chew on This

    Eliza's identity is, from the very beginning, fixed. It is only her circumstances that change.

    Higgins's reluctance to change reflects a deep insecurity in regard to identity, an insecurity fostered by his own life-changing abilities.

  • Appearance

    Is beauty only skin deep? Is it in the eye of the beholder? Or is it the consequence of social circumstances? Shaw's more interested in dealing with the big questions – like that last one – than with old saws.

    In Pygmalion, anything from a pair of boots to a bath to an expensive dress can tell us important stuff about a character, like their place in the world or their state of mind. They can reveal what might normally be hidden from view, or hide that which might normally be obvious. So appearances can be deceiving, and the trick is learning how to judge what is true and what is false. The thing is, it's not an easy skill to pick up.

    Questions About Appearance

    1. At the end of Act 4, Eliza tells Higgins that she doesn't want the clothing and jewelry that was given to her. Why does this anger Higgins so much?
    2. Higgins tells Pickering that he can "pass off" Eliza as a duchess in six months. What does this phrase really mean? What does it say about his intentions?
    3. Shaw uses clothing to tell us about characters throughout the play. Eliza manages to trick people by wearing more expensive, fashionable clothes. What does this tell us about the power of appearance?
    4. Could Pygmalion still work as a play if Eliza were not attractive?

    Chew on This

    In Pygmalion, we learn that even the smallest changes in appearance can have a great effect on how a person or thing is perceived.

    In constructing Pygmalion around the classic rags-to-riches plot, Shaw fools us in the same way Eliza fools the upper classes. We expect the plot to resolve itself in the conventional way until, suddenly, we realize that the play we are watching will not resolve itself at all.

  • 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

    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.

  • Society and Class

    In Pygmalion, we observe a society divided, separated by language, education, and wealth. Shaw gives us a chance to see how that gap can be bridged, both successfully and unsuccessfully. As he portrays it, London society cannot simply be defined by two terms, "rich" and "poor."

    Within each group there are smaller less obvious distinctions, and it is in the middle, in that gray area between wealth and poverty that many of the most difficult questions arise and from which the most surprising truths emerge.

    Questions About Society and Class

    1. Shaw was a lifelong socialist, and wrote many essays on the subject. Can Pygmalion be interpreted as a socialist text?
    2. In the play, we are introduced to members of a number of different classes and areas of society. That said, does Shaw leave anyone out? Or, to put it another way, does he offer us a view of it in full?
    3. Why is it that the play's poorest characters, Eliza and her father, are also two of their most gifted?

    Chew on This

    Shaw argues that societal change can and must begin on the personal, spiritual level, that change can be affected with words, not weapons.

    Pygmalion allows us to observe a society in flux and understand the problems which crop up in an "age of upstarts."

  • Women and Femininity

    A lot, as you've probably guessed, has changed in the last century. Back when Shaw wrote Pygmalion, women couldn't vote in the United Kingdom; in 1918 women over the age of thirty were given the right, and it took another ten years for all women to be given a voice.

    Shaw's depiction of women and attitudes toward them is impressively and sometimes confusingly varied. They are shown in conventional roles – as mothers and housekeepers – and as strong-willed and independent. The play pays special attention to the problem of women's "place" in society (or lack thereof), and Shaw offers no easy answers to the tough questions that arise.

    Questions About Women and Femininity

    1. Shaw addresses a lot of problems concerning women, and allows us to hear a number of different opinions on them, many spoken by female characters. Does Shaw's position as a male author prevent him from directly addressing these issues? Or is he able to present an unbiased view?
    2. Eliza tells Higgins that she wants to be independent. Does she achieve that independence by play's end? Can any of the characters in Pygmalion truly be described that way?
    3. In Pygmalion, women don't have many options and, at least according to Mrs. Higgins, high class, educated women have fewer than most. What roles are they able to fill? Why can't they fill others?

    Chew on This

    In Pygmalion, Shaw portrays a society in transition, in which progressive notions of femininity clash with more established, traditional ideas about gender roles.

    In asserting her independence from Higgins and the usual conventions regarding marriage, Eliza nonetheless ends up confirming established gender stereotypes.

  • Dreams, Hopes, and Plans

    Mick Jagger was right when he sang, "You can't always get what you want." It's true, sometimes just by trying you can get what you need, but that's not always the way it works. What if you get what you want only to find out it isn't what you imagined it would be? What if your dreams come true, only to turn into nightmares?

    That said, Pygmalion also shows us what happens after everything ends up wrong. This play offers no quick fixes, but he does leave room for hope.

    Questions About Dreams, Hopes, and Plans

    1. Although Higgins is able to win the bet, and teach Eliza to speak and act correctly in the process, Eliza's dream of working in a florist's shop is not fulfilled or even addressed. Why do you think this is?
    2. Why is it that Higgins is so interested in the bet anyway? Is it just a matter of vanity? Does he really hope, for Eliza's sake, that he can do it?
    3. The play does not end with the happy ending we might have first expected, but does that necessarily mean that it ends unhappily?
    4. Doolittle ends the play with plenty of money, he's on his way to get married, and he seems to have patched things up with his daughter. In most plays, this would be cause for celebration, but he doesn't seem all that thrilled about it. What does this say about our usual expectations for happiness and success?

    Chew on This

    Eliza only completes her transformation when she realizes that her original dreams were unrealistic; that is, she can only really function as an individual when she is forced to reconsider the usefulness of her education.

    Eliza's own aspirations are frustrated by the very conditions which should have, supposedly, enabled them. By agreeing to participate in Higgins's bet, she also agrees, ultimately, to compromise.