English Literature
Pygmalion Overview

Pygmalion Overview

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George Bernard Shaw was a renowned playwright known for his social and political commentary. Along with his contemporaries, he aimed to create realistic characters that would resonate with his middle-class audience. However, Shaw stood apart from others by portraying his characters as introspective, thoughtful, and intellectual. His plays delved into moral and philosophical themes that challenged the societal norms of his time. One of his most famous works, Pygmalion, explores social mobility and subverts traditional gender roles. The central question of the play is whether those who attempt to mold and improve others should have the power to control them.Pygmalion is a comedy that utilizes humor to examine individuals and society. While it may not follow the traditional Greek definition of a comedy with a happy ending, the fate of its characters, especially Eliza, is left open-ended. The main conflict in the play is between Eliza and Higgins, and whether her newly acquired linguistic skills will help her navigate society. This ultimately leads to a comedic resolution.The play, subtitled "A Romance in Five Acts", cannot be strictly categorized as a romance as the relationship between the main characters does not culminate in marriage. Eliza's transformation from a flower girl to a lady is romanticized but may not fit the traditional definition of a romance. Some argue that the true romance in the play is between Eliza and Freddy, while others believe that Mr. Dolittle's common law marriage is the central love story. However, it can also be argued that the most significant love story is Eliza's journey to self-love and independence. Through her transformation, she gains self-respect and the ability to make her own choices.Pygmalion draws inspiration from Ovid's "Metamorphoses", specifically the story of Pygmalion, a sculptor who falls in love with his own creation, Galatea, brought to life by the Goddess Venus.The play follows the story of Henry Higgins, a linguist and professor, who makes a bet with his colleague to teach Eliza Dolittle, a flower girl, how to speak and act like a lady of the upper class. Eliza, a strong-willed and uneducated girl, becomes the subject of their experiment. To better understand the unfolding events, here is a summary of each act.Act I serves as an introduction to the play and its characters, as the audience is exposed to the different social classes and their behaviors. While the wealthy Eynsford family seeks refuge from the rain in a taxi, the lower class must endure the storm. Shaw effectively distinguishes between the classes through behavior, appearance, and dialect. The main action revolves around a young girl with a thick accent trying to sell flowers to an older gentleman. Higgins, who is studying people and their language, can easily determine their social status. After claiming he can turn a flower girl into a duchess, Higgins gives Eliza money, with which she takes a taxi home.In Act II, Eliza arrives at Higgins' residence the following morning, inspired by his words. She asks him to teach her how to speak correctly, with the goal of securing a job in a flower shop instead of on the streets. While Higgins mocks her, Pickering treats her with respect and kindness.

The Communication Barrier and Social Classes in Pygmalion

Freddy Eynsford Hill, the son of a wealthy family, becomes infatuated with Eliza's eloquent speech. However, her excitement causes her to slip back into her Cockney accent, a sign of her lower class upbringing, creating a communication barrier between the social classes.

Despite Eliza's improved pronunciation and appearance, her true origins are revealed when she mentions her father's alcoholism, her aunt's illness, and is offended when suggested to walk instead of take a taxi. Mrs. Higgins, a voice of reason, disapproves of the experiment and warns of potential consequences, reminding them that one's true nature cannot be hidden by appearance or speech.

The Turning Point in Act IV

After the party, Higgins, Pickering, and Eliza return home. In the living room, Higgins becomes fixated on a lost pair of slippers, while Eliza quietly retrieves them unnoticed. Feeling unappreciated and used, Eliza throws the slippers at Higgins when he finally acknowledges her. An argument ensues, and Eliza expresses her frustration with her limited options once the experiment is over, even wishing she were back on the streets selling flowers.

As the argument intensifies, Eliza's father arrives in fancy attire, having inherited money from a benefactor thanks to a letter written by Higgins. He argues with Higgins over who "owns" Eliza, until Mrs. Higgins intervenes and calls Eliza downstairs. Eliza thanks Pickering for his kindness and reveals her plans to marry Freddy, who has been sending her love letters. She also announces her intention to take Higgins's research to his rival. Hurt by her words, Higgins dismisses her and asks her to bring groceries upon her return. Eliza leaves without revealing her plans.

The Multi-Dimensional Characters in Pygmalion

The characters in Pygmalion are complex and dynamic, each with their own unique backgrounds and values. Some serve as foils for others, adding depth to the story.

A "foil" is a character who contrasts with the protagonist, highlighting their qualities through comparison.

As you read about the characters, notice the foils and how they contribute to the drama.

Eliza Dolittle: A Transformation of Self

Eliza Dolittle challenges societal norms and embraces her identity as a flower girl. She is strong-willed and unafraid to be true to herself. Throughout the play, she undergoes a remarkable transformation from a naive flower girl to a confident and self-aware lady, with the power to shape her own future.

Alfred Dolittle: From Drunken Fool to Opportunistic Success-Seeker

Alfred Dolittle, Eliza's father, begins the play as a drunken fool who sells his daughter for a small sum. He is content with his simple way of life, but as the story progresses, he finds success and is ultimately unhappy with the newfound responsibilities that come with his elevated status in the middle class.

Professor Henry Higgins: The "Pygmalion"

In Shaw's play, Professor Henry Higgins is the "Pygmalion" to Eliza's "Galatea." Despite the focus on Eliza as the most dynamic character, the play is named after Higgins. He is an intellectual man, but his brusque mannerisms and superior attitude make him seem coarse. He is willing to make bets on others' lives without a second thought and lacks empathy. While essentially a good person, his thoughtlessness and lack of consideration can be hurtful and push others, including Eliza, away.

The Transformation of Dynamic Characters

A dynamic character is multi-dimensional and realistic, undergoing changes or revelations throughout a story that permanently alter their lives, personalities, or perspectives.

Mrs. Higgins: The Voice of Reason

Mrs. Higgins, the mother of Professor Higgins, serves as a wise figure and moral compass. She reprimands her son and Pickering for their treatment of Eliza and their experiment. She warns them of the potential consequences of their actions and is the first to object to the experiment. When Eliza runs away, she turns to Mrs. Higgins for support and protection, understanding her son's flaws and character.

The Contrasting Characters in Pygmalion

In George Bernard Shaw's play, Colonel Pickering and Freddy Eynsford Hill serve as foils to Professor Higgins, embodying kindness and social graces while he lacks tact. Meanwhile, Mrs. Eynsford Hill and Miss Eynsford Hill represent the upper class, with the former epitomizing proper behavior and the latter seeing Higgins as a potential suitor.

The Transformation of Eliza

Eliza, a poor flower girl, is the central character in Pygmalion. Through her interactions with Higgins and Pickering, she learns valuable lessons and transforms from a lower-class woman to a refined lady.

Eliza's Potential Suitor

Freddy Eynsford Hill, an aristocrat, falls for Eliza and becomes a potential suitor for her. While not the brightest character, he is kind and privileged. At the end of the play, he offers to help Eliza adjust to her new social status.

The Well-Bred Matriarch

Mrs. Eynsford Hill, the matriarch of her family, represents the epitome of a proper gentlewoman. She is friends with Mrs. Higgins and supports her son's interest in Eliza.

A Suitable Match

Miss Eynsford Hill, the daughter of the Eynsford Hills, is lively and well-mannered. She sees Higgins as a suitable match and hopes for a potential relationship between them.

The Uncertain Ending

While Freddy desires to marry Eliza, the play leaves their relationship in limbo. The ending suggests that their future together is uncertain, adding a touch of realism to the story.

The Themes of Pygmalion

Pygmalion delves into the themes of appearance and identity, highlighting the influence of language and social status on individual behavior and perception.

Appearance: A Facade of Social Status

A prominent theme in the play is the concept that one's social standing is often shaped by perception rather than character. Through Higgins' lessons and Pickering's support, Eliza transforms into a refined lady, highlighting the power of appearance in society. Along with new clothing and proper speech, she gains a newfound confidence and voice.

Identity: Defined by Social Status

The play also explores the idea that one's identity is often defined by their social status and how others treat them. Eliza's transformation involves gaining self-respect, which enables her to see herself as an individual, thanks to the respect and kindness shown to her by Pickering.

The Effects of Social Status on Behavior

Pygmalion also showcases the impact of social status on behavior. This is evident in Mr. Dolittle's character, who struggles to adapt to the expectations and responsibilities that come with a higher social status. Similarly, Eliza breaks away from societal norms as she is perceived as a lady, no longer defined by her lower-class background.

Pygmalion: A Tale of Language and Social Status

In conclusion, Shaw's Pygmalion highlights the powerful role of language and social status in shaping individual identity and behavior. Through the characters' interactions, the play challenges societal norms and examines the impact of appearances and perception.

The Main Themes Explored in Pygmalion

  • The portrayal of social class and its effects on behavior and identity
  • The influence of gender expectations and societal norms
  • The significance of moral integrity and societal recognition

A Brief Overview of Pygmalion

First performed in 1913, Pygmalion is a romantic comedy based on the Greek myth of a sculptor who falls in love with his own creation. This timeless classic delves into important and relevant themes, making it a must-see for audiences of all ages.

The play follows Eliza's journey from a lower-class flower girl to a refined lady, showcasing the power of language and the impact of societal expectations. Pygmalion challenges the notion that one's social standing is solely determined by their own identity, but rather by how others perceive them.

In Summary

Pygmalion offers a compelling examination of how language and social status shape an individual's behavior and identity. It also challenges conventional norms and ideals, ultimately prompting viewers to question the true worth of social standing and the influence of language.

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