Study Guide

Pygmalion Analysis

  • Context

    Believe it or not, Pygmalion wasn't the first person in Greek mythology to create a living statue. According to legend, this feat was mastered by Daedalus, the genius craftsman who also invented wings made out of wax. Greek writers credit Daedalus with constructing statues that could walk, dance, and "feel human sensations." Fancy!

    Hephaestus—the somewhat depressing god of blacksmithing and technology—was also fond of making moving statues. In Homer's Iliad, we learn that Hephaestus forged a pair of golden ladies to guard his house (yep, gold lady statues make great security guards). Hephaestus also crafted twenty golden tripods that wheeled around Olympus like little R2D2s, assisting with feasts and household chores. Not exactly humanoid, but certainly very helpful.

    Digging up Pygmalion's Roots

    Regardless of its predecessors, though, The Pygmalion myth is probably the most well-known of the statues-coming-to-life stories in Greek mythology. So if it's so popular, why aren't there more versions of the tale?

    In fact, Pygmalion isn't even discussed by many Greek writers. He gets a brief mention as Metharme's father in the ancient anthology Bibliotheca, and is cited as the King of Cyprus in Clement of Alexandria's Exhortation to the Greeks. In a small nod to the myth, Clement also mentions that Pygmalion fell in love with a shapely ivory statue that resembled Aphrodite.

    But the longest version of the myth comes from our friend Ovid, the Roman poet. Ovid wrote about Pygmalion in Book 10 of his Metamorphoses (8 CE), going into great detail about the gifts Pygmalion gave to the statue, and which parts of her body he liked best. (Ovid's descriptions get pretty hot and heavy, actually.) Unlike Clement, Ovid doesn't say that Pygmalion was King of Cyprus or that the statue looked like the goddess of Aphrodite. Instead, he just says that Pygmalion was an artful sculptor and that the goddess granted his wish because, well, she felt like it.

    From Sinful Story to Broadway Blockbuster

    In the Middle Ages, the story of Pygmalion was considered sinful, because it was a prime example of someone worshipping an object over God. This practice, called "idolatry," is a big no-no in Christianity and other monotheistic religions.

    The whole idolatry taboo went away by the 18th century, and the myth became a source of inspiration for several ballets, plays, and operas. The most famous play from this period was by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, philosopher and rabble-rouser who influenced the French Revolution. Rousseau's Pygmalion treated the myth like a love story, and used music and pantomime.

    Fast forward to the 20th century and we get George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion, in which a pompous professor transforms a flower girl into a well-spoken, high-class lady. This adaptation is one of the first times that the female "statue" rejects her male "creator," so in our book, it's pretty important. Shaw's play was later transformed into My Fair Lady, the smash hit musical and motion picture.

  • Setting

    Amanthus, a royal city on the island of Cyprus

    Amanthus is one of the most important cities in Cyprus, the third-largest island in the Mediterranean. (Yeah, no big whoop, we know.) Cyprus has a lovely, subtropical climate and happens to be the birthplace of Aphrodite. That explains the whole festival-in-her-honor thing.

    Although the Greeks lived on Cyprus first, the Turks took up residence during the Ottoman Empire. The relationship between the two groups have historically been pretty rocky, and the country was finally divided into Greek and Turkish sections in 1974. Pretty recent, right?

    All that aside, the majority of the myth takes place inside Pygmalion's art studio while he carves and falls in love with his statue. Near the end of the story, our "Reclusive Artist" ventures out to an opulent party in honor of Aphrodite—complete with a big bonfire—but that's about as much Vitamin D as he gets the whole time.

  • The Hero's Journey

    The Hero's Journey is a framework that scholar Joseph Campbell came up with that many myths and stories follow. Many storytellers and story-readers find it a useful way to look at tale. (That's actually putting it lightly. Some people are straight-up obsessed.) Chris Vogler adapted Campbell's 17 stages of a hero's journey, which many screenwriters use while making movies. Vogler condensed Campbell's 17 stages down to 12, which is what we're using. Check out a general explanation of the 12 stages.

    The story of Pygmalion doesn't fit perfectly into the Hero's Journey structure, but we're giving it a shot. As the gross old saying goes, there's more than one way to skin a cat. Here's how we've diced up the story:

    Ordinary World

    Pygmalion, a talented, mild-mannered sculptor, is living on the island of Cyprus. The weather's great, his town is peaceful, and (considering the expensive gifts he buys later in the myth), he makes pretty good money for artist.

    Call To Adventure

    One day, Pygmalion goes out for a walk in the beautiful Mediterranean sun, only to discover prostitutes on the street. The mere sight of these ladies utterly disgusts the guy. Even though the prostitutes didn't proposition him (we don't think), seeing these sexually adventurous women puts sex on the table for Pygmalion. Will he answer the call?

    Refusal Of The Call

    Nope. Not only does Pygmalion refuse to hang out with the prostitutes, he swears off all women forever. Ovid makes it very clear that Pygmalion hates the thought of having a wife. Just to prove his point, Pygmalion shuts himself up in his studio.

    Meeting The Mentor

    This part of the journey doesn't really apply. After all, much like Daedalus, Pygmalion is his own mentor. He is the ultimate creator in this myth, and the ultimate creator can't have a teacher or guide. If you ask us, a guy who's repressing his sexuality this much could have used some friendly advice, but that's just not part of the story.

    Crossing The Threshold

    Here's where things get interesting. Although Pygmalion may not be ready for a relationship with a real woman, he is ready for one with a fake woman. His first step out of the world of "normal" is to carve a beautiful woman out of stone… and to fall in love with it. With each chisel, he journeys further away from the real world, becoming completely involved in his fantasy.

    Tests, Allies, Enemies

    Since a statue can't physically or emotionally return affection, being in love with one has plenty of challenges. Pygmalion holds his statue. He kisses her. He squeezes her. But despite all of these advances, she doesn't respond to him, and her hard ivory body even repels his touches. Can he stay in love with her, despite these cuddling difficulties?

    Approach To The Inmost Cave

    Well, Pygmalion certainly tries to approach—going so far as to lay her, naked, on his bed.

    Metaphorically, the bed traditionally represents the inner most sanctum of sex and romantic relationships. By bringing the naked statue to it, Pygmalion is admitting that he does want a lasting romantic relationship with someone, despite his opinions at the beginning of the myth. According to Ovid, Pygmalion even thinks of the statue as his bride when he lays her on the bed. This is a big step for someone who originally abhorred the idea of marriage.

    In going over to the bed, Pygmalion is also entering the "inmost cave" of his psyche, where he discovers the truth about his own desires. Dun dun dun.

    Ordeal

    After the whole bed thing, Pygmalion leaves his studio (presumably, for the first time since making the statue). Stepping back into the real world marks a break from his fantasy world, and Pygmalion may be having doubts about the wisdom of forging a lifelong commitment to a lifeless statue.

    This feeling is confirmed when he goes to Aphrodite's festival and prays for a bride like his statue. He's too ashamed to actually ask for his statue to come to life—he knows this is an insane thing to say out loud. So yeah, he's clearly having doubts about the whole endeavor.

    Reward (Seizing The Sword)

    Pygmalion shouldn't have worried though, because Aphrodite was feeling both clairvoyant and generous that day. She knew that Pygmalion was really wishing for his statue to come to life (don't ask how, she just knew), and so she granted his wish. This might have had something to do with the fact that Pygmalion made the statue in her image, and she was flattered by his rendering.

    Pygmalion sees the fires at the festival leap three times, which is a good sign for prayers being answered. Natch.

    The Road Back

    Hoping that his wildest dreams have come true, Pygmalion races back to his studio. Not super exciting.

    Resurrection

    And behold! His statue has come to life. Not only is she resurrected (or, well, just regular "surrected," since this is the first time she's been alive), but Pygmalion is resurrected, too.

    How can Pygmalion be resurrected? you might ask. He never died!

    Well, he never literally died. But by swearing off women and hiding in his studio, he stopped being a healthy, well-balanced person, and started being a creepy weirdo living in a fantasy world. When his statue comes to life, Pygmalion is "resurrected" into normalcy. He is no longer some lunatic groping a statue in the privacy of his own home, but a guy in a loving relationship with a real woman.

    Return With The Elixir

    This is the part of the journey where the hero returns to the normal world, usually as a changed man. And indeed, Pygmalion does fully return to the normal world by marrying that living-statue Galatea (who is symbolically his "elixir") and having children with her. He becomes a happily married family man, and you really can't get more ordinary than that.

    But did Pygmalion really change throughout this myth? That's debatable. On the one hand, not really, because he was rewarded for living in a fantasy world. This never really happens in real life. When was the last time all of your fantasies came completely true, and you lived happily ever after? More often, real life demands that we confront our problems, make compromises, and grow as people.

    By getting exactly what he wanted (a living statue), Pygmalion doesn't learn any life lessons. He never learns how to talk to real, "non-perfect" women or have meaningful relationships with them. He never learns that passing judgments on others (even prostitutes) is sometimes dangerous and wrong. Instead, he learns that he was completely right to reject all women without even knowing them and that demanding perfection in a romantic partner is perfectly reasonable.

    On the other hand, you could say that by the end of the myth, Pygmalion was finally comfortable with the ideas of relationships and sexuality. Remember, this is the guy who was so disgusted (or we might argue, terrified) by sex at the beginning of the myth that he swore off half of humanity. So for him to get married and have kids with a living, breathing person is actually kind of a big deal.

    Ultimately, how you interpret this myth is up to you.

  • Pandora

    There's not much doin' in the other-myths-like-Pygmalion department. But the story of Pandora—which also comes from the Greek tradition—is a good example of where Pygmalion's whole God complex comes from.

    According to Greek myth, Zeus asks the giants Prometheus and Epimetheus to create man. The giants do as they're told, but after they make man, they decide he needs something extra to set him apart from animals. So Prometheus steals fire from the heavens and gives it to man, as sort of a "welcome to being alive" present.

    This fire-stealing doesn't go over well with Zeus. In an act of revenge, he concocts an elaborate plot to release evil spirits into the world. First, he asks the god Hephaestus to craft the first woman—named Pandora—out of clay. Then he sends Pandora to Epimetheus as a bride, accompanied with a jar full of evil spirits. When the curious Pandora opens the jar, she unleashes evil spirits onto humanity forever. Oh dear.

    Like Galatea, Pandora is crafted by a male figure out of a lifeless substance. By sculpting a woman out of ivory and then watching her come to life, Pygmalion is following in the footsteps of Hephaestus and Zeus. Those are some pretty big shoes to fill, buddy!

  • Statue of a Woman

    Google image search "Pygmalion," and you're going to see a lot of images of a naked female statue standing on a pedestal. That's because the statue of Galatea is the main symbolic image of this myth. Pygmalion believes this statue is the most beautiful woman in the world, and the more he stares at her, the deeper in love he falls. This is a bit of a problem, of course, since, um, she isn't real.

    By refusing to talk to real women and becoming obsessed with his statue, Pygmalion creates an unrealistic romantic fantasy for himself. Galatea can't talk, so Pygmalion is free to imagine her personality as anything he wishes. This frozen woman will never disappoint him, since she is incapable of arguing, leaving, or eating the last of the ice cream and not replacing it.

    Love Advice From an Ancient Myth

    Although few people actually create statutes of their love interests (because it's creepy), we metaphorically do this all the time. For example, have you ever made a list of the qualities that your perfect girlfriend or boyfriend would have? Well, you're constructing a person in your mind who very well might not exist in real life.

    Similarly, have you ever had a friend who was totally in love with someone at school, even if they didn't really know that person? They're basically doing exactly what Pygmalion did—worshipping the idea of a person, even if they barely know them.

    And that's what people mean when they say, "don't put them on a pedestal." It basically means, "don't think about that person like a perfect statue." As human beings, we all have flaws. But here's the thing: this myth seems to be telling us that creating an unhealthy ideal of someone isn't necessarily a bad idea. Hmmm.

    Romantic Ideals Are People, Too!

    Symbolically, the idea of putting someone on a pedestal is all over our culture. Think of Charlie Brown and his crush on the Little Redhead Girl who he hardly knows. Or all the girls in Win a Date With Tad Hamilton. Or even consider our collective crush on Ryan Gosling. There's no way that guy is as perfect as we think he is… is there?

    In high culture (not that Ryan Gosling isn't high culture), the image of the naked, statuesque woman appears all over Renaissance paintings. Even if she isn't explicitly a statue, she poses in a very "statue-y" way, presenting herself as an idealized vision of female beauty. Botticelli's Birth of Venus should give you an idea.

  • The Reclusive Artist

    Pygmalion wasn't exactly what you'd call a social butterfly. When he sees a group of townswomen prostituting themselves, he doesn't attempt to talk them out of it or bring it up at the next town meeting. Instead, Pygmalion swears off all women, and locks himself in his studio. Well, okay then.

    Thus, we get our image of the reclusive artist. This is the guy who can't really deal with the world and the people in it, usually because he's super sensitive. For this dude, art seems more real and truthful than reality ever will.

    Often, after renouncing real life, the reclusive artist gets so involved with his art that he totally forgets about everything else. Sometimes he even has trouble distinguishing reality from fiction. Sound familiar? Yeah, Pygmalion is the ultimate example. Basically it's a three-step program to reclusiveness: (1) stops speaking to real women; (2) become obsessed with making a statue of a woman; (3) falls in love with that statue, and keep fantasizing about it being real.

    If he weren't such a shut-in, the "reclusive artist" would probably be BFFs with the "mad scientist", since these archetypes share so many qualities. They both see themselves as the ultimate creators, and they usually become obsessed with the things they make. Dr. Frankenstein, anyone?

    Where Can We Find Them?

    Of course, it's not only sculptors who have trouble distinguishing reality from fiction. The movies Synecdoche, New York, and Stranger Than Fiction show how different works of art can all become "real" to the people involved with them. Live inside your world of art long enough, and reality can get pretty blurry.

    Oh, and reclusive artists are by no means confined to works of fiction. Examples of real-life reclusive artists include authors J.D. Salinger (Catcher in The Rye), Harper Lee (To Kill a Mockingbird), and poet Emily Dickinson. These people changed the landscape of literature, but just couldn't handle making idle chit-chat at parties.

  • Extravagant Gifts

    In the time-honored tradition of showing someone you love them by buying them expensive things, Pygmalion gives his lifeless statue lots of exotic presents: clothes, pearls, shells, earrings, rings, pretty stones, singing birds, flowers, and even talking parrots.

    The Greeks placed a high value on beauty, so in Pygmalion's mind, the most beautiful woman deserves the most exotic, expensive presents. Ovid calls these "the pow'rful bribes of love," suggesting that Pygmalion was trying to purchase his statue's affections. (Don't think too hard about the logic of giving an unconscious piece of ivory a parrot in order to get it to love you… love makes people do crazy things.)

  • Body Parts

    A person should always be more than the sum of their parts, right? But with this myth's descriptions of the statue's body, it's hard to remember that. Ovid in particular really dwells on Galatea's lips, skin, and limbs. He even goes so far as to comment on the bounciness of her… veins. Yeah.

    This intense focus on her body speaks to the fact that Pygmalion isn't really interested in the statue's personality. Instead, he's 100% focused on her hot bod. This reinforces the idea that the only thing that matters about a woman is her body—a message that, unfortunately, gets repeated a lot in contemporary society.