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Posted: September 19th, 2021

In what ways does Eliza Doolittle change in Pygmalion?

Based on classical myth, Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion plays on the complex issue of human relationships in a social world. Phonetics Professor Henry Higgins, tutors the very Cockney, uneducated Eliza Doolittle, not only in the refinement of speech, but also in the refinement of her manner. When the end result produces a very ladylike Miss Doolittle, the lessons learned become much more far reaching.
Shaw took the title of his play from the legendary King of Cyprus, Pygmalion, who was also a famous sculptor. Pygmalion sculpted a beautiful woman from ivory, called Galatea, with whom he fell in love. On begging Aphrodite (the Greek goddess of love), to breathe life into his creation, his wish was granted and he married her.
Pygmalion is therefore an appropriate title for this play, for Galatea is created from a block of stone, and Eliza herself originates from similarly unpromising beginnings, with Professor Higgins as the ‘Pygmalion’ character, as it is he who creates a ‘new woman’ from such raw material.

It is Eliza’s metamorphosis, from downtrodden flower girl to a polished young lady (the highs, the lows, the intense drama and the comic moments) which provide the basis for Pygmalion’s well crafted story-line.
Eliza’s Appearance
Our first introduction to Eliza, is in the form of the Act 1 stage directions (page 8), where her appearance comes under scrutiny by Shaw’s vivid writing. She is described as being, “not at all a romantic figure” whose “hair needs washing rather badly” and whose clothes are “coarse” and “shoddy”.
All of this, plants a very vivid picture of Eliza as a lowly, insignificant figure- another bleak form on the miserably wet London skyline, which is a far cry from the mental images of her appearance conveyed later, as a cosmopolitan and fashionable young woman who, rather than paling into insignificance, as she previously did, is quite striking.
This is one Eliza’s major transformations, -her change in her appearance. It is a major key in the metamorphosis from flower-girl to lady, and is beautifully executed with the help of Mrs Pearce’s severity on the insistence that cleanliness is vital, -“Well, don’t you want to be clean and sweet and decent, like a lady? You know you can’t be a nice girl inside if you’re a dirty slut outside”, and Prof. Higgin’s vast funds which kept dressed in the latest fashions.
She makes particular impact at the ambassador’s garden party, her final test, where she must be passed of as a duchess, (for a bet). The character of the hostess is clearly very taken with Eliza, and acts as an indication to the reader (by whom the transformation cannot be witnessed) of the enormity of Eliza’s change in appearance, with her comments of “She will make a sensation”, “…wonderful young lady” and “They tell me there has been nothing like her since people stood on their chairs to look at Mrs Langtry”.
Eliza’s Status
Much of Pygmalion revolves around a very divided class system. The play’s theme that a person’s success in life should not be dictated and limited by their social class, speech and status, was a belief of Shaw’s that clearly held a lot of importance for him. This is evident due to his early membership to the Fabian Society- a socialist organisation dedicated to the establishment of an equal and just society for all citizens.
Shaw’s apparently cruel and even insulting comments on Eliza’s initial appearance may seem harsh, however they have very important relevance. The Eliza’s shabbiness at first not only amplifies the dramatic transformation which results, but also highlights the vast difference between her and Miss and Mrs Eynsford Hill, which conveys to the reader Eliza’s lower status and class.
Eliza herself behaves, as though she is inferior (she is still very polite to Miss Eynsford Hill despite her rudeness in Act 1), however Eliza’s status, by the play’s end has soared from a poor, uneducated Cockney, to a much more respectable young woman. Before her transformation in Act 1, Freddy pushes past Eliza quite abruptly, barely noticing her presence, however after meeting her in all her finery at Prof. Higgin’s house (Act III), he is besotted with her. Although Freddy is far from wealthy or aristocratic (Shaw describes the Eynsford Hill’s as having the air of “genteel poverty”), to seem respectable enough to be worthy of his attention, to be unrecognisable to Mrs Eynsford Hill and considered fashionable by the previously haughty Miss Eynsford Hill, is quite a vast leap in status for Eliza, and a credit to her teaching.
*Eliza’s Speech
Shaw himself, was a crusader for many changes to be made to the English language, believing it to be in need of great reform. He fought long and difficult battles throughout his life to change the spelling system of the English language, because of his views that it was illogical that most English spelling did not relate to the way words are pronounced.
So this is probably one of the reasons he has made language and pronunciation major themes of the play, and as he says in his comprehensive Preface to Pygmalion, made an “energetic phonetic enthusiast, the hero of a popular play”.
Shaw began Eliza’s speech (in Act I) in a mixture of written broken English and phonetic symbols, quite unintelligible to the reader (and as he describes it, “unintelligible to anyone outside London”). This has a dual purpose, for it clearly shows the reader the distinctiveness of Eliza’s accent (and the large distance between her “kerbstone English” and her ambitious aim of being able to speak like “a lady in a flower shop”). This will not only increase the reader’s awe at the magnitude of her transformation, but it will also show the amount of work that would have had to go into the transformation (Shaw does not show the many months of tutoring in the play- he just surprises the audience with Eliza’s ‘new found eloquence’).
The other purpose of spelling out Eliza’s pronunciations is to enhance the element of confusion the scenes of Act I are intended to evoke from the reader (and no doubt the audience of a staged Pygmalion). The confusion arises in a variety of places; the true identity of some characters (the ‘Note Taker’, the ‘Daughter’, the ‘Gentleman’, etc.) and Eliza’s hysterical confusion when she wrongly accuses the ‘Note Taker’ (Prof. Higgins) of being a “copper’s nark” (police informant) when a ‘Bystander’ warns her that someone is writing down her speech.
Eliza’s character
It seems that confusion follows Eliza relentlessly throughout the beginning of the play, embarrassingly highlighting her uneasiness and ignorance when she finds herself in many unfamiliar situations. Not only is it present in Act I, but it is clear in Act II as well, when she bravely seeks out Prof. Higgins to request elocution lessons. In this scene, Eliza finds herself lost and misunderstanding, -drowned in a sea of complex words and jokes used by everyone around her, leaving her totally bewildered. For example, when Eliza offers Prof. Higgins a shilling for her lessons, he comments to Colonel Pickering that a shilling in relation to Eliza’s earnings is about the equivalent of about sixty pounds from a millionaire, which Eliza misunderstands and fearfully thinks is the sum of money she must pay.
However, by the end of the play Eliza has gained masses of confidence, which compliments her raw, fiery spirit and gives her the ability to argue her point well and defend herself. For example later in the play, she confronts Higgins on the subject of his insensitivity towards her- “..I’m not dirt under your feet.” (Page 102) and is no longer prepared to be suppressed by his haughty egotism.
There is no doubt that Eliza’s transformation is a successful one, however, I think something very important to realise about Eliza is that despite the radical changes that take place in the play with her appearance, speech and status, her character still remains as strong-minded, fiery and emotional as it was on that bleak, rainy day in the heart of London’s Covent Garden. The fact that this is one of the few things that do not change in Eliza, is a huge indication of the tremendous sincerity of her character.
Prof. Higgins has created something which is unnatural and out of place in society, with his intensive training of Eliza. Her appearance and behaviour are doll-like, her movement is robot-like and her speech too careful and precise to ever be real. To create the outward appearance of the lady she becomes, Eliza is forced to sacrifice and suppress her own personality, leaving her empty and without any vitality or energy. This is the reason why Eliza clearly strives for a rich combination of her original vigour and strong-mind, and the new manner and speech of the middle and upper classes introduced to her by Higgins to create a true identity for herself which she is happy with.
Higgins, typically for him, claims all the credit for the transformation in Eliza, showing him not only to be big-headed, arrogant and conceited, but to also undervalue Eliza’s own hard work. “You will jolly see whether she has an idea in her head or a word that I haven’t put into her mouth. I tell you I have created this thing out of the squashed cabbage leaves of Covent Garden…” (Page 92)
I think it is vital for the reader/audience to remember that Eliza and her own character and personality have achieved her transformation. Although, there is no doubt that Eliza would have remained in the gutter if Higgins had not taken her into his home and changed her speech, dressed her fashionably and shown her how the upper classes behave, I personally, resent any direct comparisons between Eliza and her mythical equivalent, Galatea. This is because I think that her initial character had the foundations present for the creation of her ‘new self’.
Whereas Galatea was created from nothing (a block of ivory) by King Pygmalion,- Prof. Higgins, Colonel Pickering and Mrs Pearce merely enhanced and remoulded many of the qualities Eliza already possessed to create the end result.
Without Eliza’s self discipline, raw talent, commited and swift learning, it would have been impossible to pass her off as a duchess after just a matter of months. I think the way Shaw portrays her as growing more and more confident and independent throughout the play, does well as a message to the reader that Eliza herself, was in a sense, her own creator.
I think that Eliza’s need to liberate herself from Prof. Higggins to become a teacher herself, was more necessary than she herself even knew, for just like Galatea, she could never truly like Prof. Higgins (the equivalent of King Pygmalion) for as Shaw cleverly points out, “his relation to her is too godlike to be altogether agreeable”.
Throughout his life, Shaw’s plays often tended to attack what he felt to be bad elements in society and make his audiences feel uncomfortable with the bitter truth of society’s flaws. If this is what he intended for Pygmalion, I think he was certainly successful. Pygmalion challenges many of the damaging root elements of society including the segregation of the class system, and the ruthlessness of human nature, themes that almost all of us are guilty of either condoning or ignoring- both of which are detrimental if there is ever to be any kind of social reform.

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