English Literature
Pygmalion Overview

Pygmalion Overview

Shiken premium Upgrade Banner

George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion: A Bold Commentary on Society and Gender

George Bernard Shaw, an acclaimed playwright, used his works as a powerful tool to critique social and political issues. Unlike his peers, Shaw's characters were not mere reflections of society, but rather complex and thought-provoking individuals who challenged societal norms and expectations. One of his most famous pieces, Pygmalion, delves into the idea of upward mobility and traditional gender roles, raising the question of whether those who shape others should also control them.

Pygmalion: A Comedic Masterpiece with a Deeper Message

While known primarily as a comedy, Pygmalion uses humor to examine the individual and society as a whole. In ancient times, comedies were known for their happy endings, and while Shaw's version does not end in death, the fate of the characters and whether Eliza will return to Higgins remain uncertain. The play's central conflict centers on the relationship between Higgins and Eliza, and whether her newfound linguistic skills can help her navigate high society, resulting in a comedic resolution.

With the subtitle "A Romance in Five Acts," Pygmalion cannot be easily classified as a traditional romance, as the main characters, Eliza and Higgins, do not end up together. While Eliza's transformation from a poor flower girl to a refined lady may seem romanticized, it does not fit the characteristics of a typical love story. Some argue that the real love story is between Eliza and Freddy, while others believe that Mr. Dolittle's unconventional marriage is the true romance. However, Shaw's unique storytelling style suggests that the ultimate love story lies within Eliza's journey of self-discovery and self-love as she gains independence and learns to make her own decisions.

A Modern Adaptation of Ovid's "Metamorphoses"

Pygmalion is based on the 8CE poem "Metamorphoses" by Ovid, where the protagonist, Pygmalion, a sculptor, falls in love with his creation, a statue named Galatea, and the goddess Venus brings her to life. Shaw's version puts a contemporary spin on this classic tale, drawing parallels between the ancient story and the play's characters and themes.

Pygmalion: A Synopsis

The play revolves around Henry Higgins, a linguist and professor, who makes a bet with his colleague, Colonel Pickering, that he can transform a poor flower girl, Eliza Dolittle, into a sophisticated lady. Eliza, a strong-willed and uneducated girl who sells flowers for a living, becomes the subject of their social experiment. To fully appreciate the events in the play, here's a summary of each act.

Act I: Setting the Stage

The play opens on a rainy evening, effectively showcasing the stark contrast between the upper and lower classes as a wealthy family seeks shelter from the storm while the lower class endures the harsh weather. Shaw uses the characters' behavior, appearance, and dialogue to highlight the class differences. The central action centers around a young girl with a heavy accent trying to sell flowers to an older gentleman. Higgins, who is studying the people around him, can accurately determine their social status based on their language. He boasts that he can transform a flower girl into a duchess and gives the girl some money, which she uses to take a taxi home.

Dialect refers to a specific form of language, including accent and manner of speaking, unique to a particular region, area, or social group.

Act II: A Deal is Made

The next morning, Eliza shows up at Higgins' house, motivated by his promise to transform her into a lady. She asks him to teach her proper speech, hoping to one day work in a flower shop instead of on the streets. Higgins mocks her, and she is unable to defend herself verbally, while Pickering treats her with kindness and respect.

Pickering's Pledge

When Pickering offers to pay for Eliza's education if Higgins can teach her to behave like a duchess, Eliza agrees to live with Higgins for six months and take lessons. Mrs. Pearce, the housekeeper, assists Eliza to take a bath while her father, Mr. Dolittle, arrives to collect money from Higgins for promoting his daughter's education.

Alfred Doolittle: A Father's Desperate Search for His Daughter

Act III marks the beginning of Eliza's transformation from a simple flower girl to a lady. Attending a party hosted by Mrs. Higgins, the mother of Professor Higgins, she encounters the wealthy Eynsford Hills family. Despite her improved appearance and refined language, Eliza's working-class roots are evident, causing tension between the social classes.

A Progressing Transformation

Though her progress is commendable, Eliza still displays traits that betray her true identity. She speaks of her father's alcoholism and takes offense at the suggestion of walking instead of taking a taxi. Mrs. Higgins, the voice of reason, cautions the men about their experiment and reminds them that Eliza's true nature cannot be fully hidden by a change in wardrobe and accent.

Act IV: The Experiment Takes a Toll

As the experiment continues, Higgins and Pickering bask in their success, taking all the credit while ignoring Eliza's contributions. When Higgins becomes enraged over a misplaced pair of slippers, Eliza quietly retrieves them, yet still goes unnoticed. Fueled by hurt and anger at their treatment, Eliza confronts Higgins, questioning her value to him.

Eliza's Awakening

Feeling unappreciated and disregarded, Eliza decides to leave and seeks refuge at Mrs. Higgins's home. When Higgins and Pickering come to find her, they are met by Eliza's father, who is now wealthy thanks to a letter written by Higgins. As they argue over Eliza's ownership, she enters and reveals her plans to marry Freddy and use Higgins's research to benefit his rival.

The Intricacies of Pygmalion's Characters

The characters in Pygmalion are complex and multi-dimensional, each possessing their own histories and moral codes. While some serve as foils for others, all contribute to the depth and meaning of the play.

Foil Characters: A Tool in Pygmalion

In literature, foil characters are used to contrast the traits of the main character or other key figures. In Pygmalion, these characters serve to highlight Eliza's unique qualities and add complexity to the story.

Eliza Doolittle: A Journey of Transformation in Shaw's "Pygmalion"

Eliza Doolittle is a headstrong character who defies societal norms. She is outspoken and confident, unafraid to be herself as a flower girl in the streets. Throughout the play, the audience witnesses her incredible journey as she transforms from a naive girl to a self-assured lady, empowered to take control of her own destiny.

Alfred Doolittle: From Drunkard to Successful Man

Alfred Doolittle is Eliza's father, initially portrayed as a drunken and foolish man. He even sells his daughter for a few shillings. He is a sly opportunist, content with his carefree lifestyle. However, by the end of the play, he becomes a successful man, though ultimately unhappy. He resents the responsibilities that come with his newfound wealth and being part of the functional middle-class.

Professor Henry Higgins: The Man Behind the Transformation

Professor Henry Higgins is the "Pygmalion" to Shaw's "Galatea." While Eliza is the primary focus of the play, Higgins is the central character. He is brusque and arrogant, taking pride in his intelligence. He sees himself as superior to others and even places a bet on transforming another human being. His lack of patience and consideration for others, including Eliza, can be hurtful and cause them to push him away. However, at his core, he means well and is ultimately a decent person.

The Impact of Dynamic Characters

A dynamic character is multi-faceted and reflects real-life individuals. Throughout a story, they undergo changes or have realizations that greatly impact their personality, perspectives, and entire lives.

Mrs. Higgins: The Voice of Wisdom

Mrs. Higgins, the mother of Professor Higgins, serves as a voice of wisdom and moral guidance. She lectures him and Colonel Pickering on their treatment of Eliza, warning them about the consequences of their experiment. When Eliza runs away, she turns to Mrs. Higgins for support and protection. Mrs. Higgins's character adds depth and complexity to the play, showcasing the essential themes of social class and transformation.

The Contrast of Characters in "Pygmalion": Colonel Pickering, Freddy Eynsford Hill, Mrs. Eynsford Hill, and Miss Eynsford Hill

In George Bernard Shaw's play "Pygmalion," the characters serve as reflections of the contrasting elements within society. Colonel Pickering, Freddy Eynsford Hill, Mrs. Eynsford Hill, and Miss Eynsford Hill all play significant roles in highlighting the themes of appearance and identity.

The Kindness of Colonel Pickering

Colonel Pickering is an elderly gentleman and a linguist who serves as a foil to the arrogant and abrasive Professor Higgins. His considerate treatment of Eliza teaches her about self-respect and the traits of a lady. Unlike Higgins, Pickering is thoughtful, respectful, and compassionate towards others.

The Love Interest: Freddy Eynsford Hill

Freddy Eynsford Hill is an aristocrat who falls in love with Eliza and pursues her. He lacks intelligence due to his privileged upbringing, but by the end of the play, he proves to be a suitable match for Eliza, capable of adapting to her new lifestyle and social status.

The Aristocratic Eynsford Hill Family

  • Mrs. Eynsford Hill: The matriarch of the Eynsford Hill family, she embodies the qualities of a well-bred lady with her gentleness, kindness, and elegance.
  • Miss Eynsford Hill: Mrs. Eynsford Hill's daughter, who follows in her mother's refined footsteps and sees Professor Higgins as a potential husband.

Appearance and Identity in "Pygmalion"

Shaw's "Pygmalion" explores the themes of appearance and identity, shedding light on the impact of societal expectations on an individual's sense of self.

Society's Perceptions Determine Social Status

The play highlights the idea that one's social standing is determined more by how they are perceived, rather than their actual status. Professor Higgins transforms Eliza's appearance and teaches her proper speech and manners, giving her a voice and presence in high society.

The Influence of Social Status on One's Identity

Through her relationship with Colonel Pickering, Eliza experiences the effects of her newfound social status and learns the value of self-respect. Her transformation is shaped by her learned behavior and the respect she receives from others, highlighting the profound impact of societal expectations on one's identity.

Breaking Away from Societal Structures: The Power of Perception in "Pygmalion"

In Shaw's "Pygmalion," Eliza's statement, "the difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves, but how she's treated," speaks to the significant influence of society's perception on one's self-perception and actions. The play ultimately showcases the impact of societal expectations on individuals and their identities.

Summary of "Pygmalion"

"Pygmalion" is a romantic comedy written by George Bernard Shaw in 1913, based on the Greek myth of "Metamorphoses." The play delves into themes of social class, gender expectations, and morality, highlighting the powerful influence of appearance and societal perceptions on one's identity and actions.

The Transformative Effect of Language and Perception

George Bernard Shaw's famous play, Pygmalion, delves into the idea that one's social status is not solely determined by their background. Instead, it is greatly influenced by how others perceive them. The character of Eliza serves as a perfect example of this as she undergoes a dramatic transformation from a working-class flower girl to a refined lady. This change is a result of her learning proper language, manners, and behavior, which ultimately alters how others view her. This showcases the power of perception in shaping one's identity and social status.

The Impact of Social Expectations

Through Eliza's journey, Pygmalion serves as a commentary on the significant impact that society's treatment and perception have on an individual. It highlights the pressure to conform to social expectations and the consequences of not doing so. As Eliza evolves and struggles to fit into the upper-class society, we see how her perception of herself changes, bringing to light the delicate relationship between societal norms and personal identity.

A Lesson in Self-Transformation

Ultimately, Pygmalion teaches us that true transformation and growth come from within, not from outward appearances or social status. Eliza's physical transformation may have affected how she is perceived by others, but it is her inner growth that leads to her true success. Through her character, Shaw emphasizes the importance of staying true to oneself and not succumbing to societal pressure. She defies the expectations placed upon her and ultimately carves her own path, proving that one's worth is not defined by their social status.


In conclusion, Pygmalion not only entertains with its witty dialogue and intriguing storyline but also serves as a powerful commentary on the influence of language, perception, and societal norms. It prompts us to reflect on our own perceptions of others and ourselves and challenges us to break away from societal expectations to truly find our own sense of self. Shaw's masterpiece remains relevant today, reminding us of the timeless lesson that true transformation begins within.

Join Shiken For FREE

Gumbo Study Buddy

Explore More Subject Explanations

Try Shiken Premium
for Free

14-day free trial. Cancel anytime.
Get Started
Join 20,000+ learners worldwide.
The first 14 days are on us
96% of learners report x2 faster learning
Free hands-on onboarding & support
Cancel Anytime