Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
Like The Doctor’s Dilemma (pr. 1906, pb. 1911), Pygmalion is a problem play that examines a social issue. Shaw deals here with the assumptions of social superiority and inferiority that underlie the class system. He demonstrates how speech and etiquette preserve class distinctions. As he wrote in the play’s preface, “It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him.” Pygmalion therefore tries to illustrate the arbitrariness of basing a person’s worth on his or her pronunciation.
The phonetics professor Henry Higgins is an expert in dialects and accents. At Covent Garden he phonetically transcribes all that the innocent flower girl Eliza Doolittle says. Since he boasted of his successes in educating social climbers in speech, Eliza comes to Higgins’s house the next day, asking to be taught to speak like a lady so that she might be employed in a classy flower store. A fellow phonetics professor, Colonel Pickering, offers to cover the expenses of the experiment if Higgins can pass Eliza off as a duchess at a garden party six months later. Sure of his abilities, the tyrannical and condescending Higgins is enticed by the Frankensteinian challenge “to take a human being and change her into a quite different human being by creating a new speech for her.”
While Higgins is successful in transforming Eliza in terms of speech, his rough manners, rudeness, and swearing do not teach her the accompanying social etiquette. Eliza betrays her lack of...
(The entire section is 638 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Late one evening in the Covent Garden theater district of London, playgoers are attempting to summon taxicabs in the rain when a crowd gathers around an unkempt young woman selling flowers. The flower girl has been speaking in a very strong Cockney dialect, and a distinguished gentleman has been transcribing her speech into a notebook. The gentleman, Henry Higgins, is a professional phonetician who earns a handsome income teaching people how to change their lower- and middle-class accents so that they can pass as members of the upper class. Higgins amazes the crowd by using his analysis of individuals’ accents to pinpoint where each of them lives. Appalled by the flower girl’s lower-class dialect, Higgins boasts that in a matter of months he could teach her how to speak properly and pass as a duchess at an ambassador’s garden party.
The next morning, in the drawing room and laboratory of Higgins’s Wimpole Street residence, Higgins is showing Colonel Pickering his elaborate equipment for recording speech when the housekeeper, Mrs. Pearce, announces the arrival of the flower girl, Eliza Doolittle. Eliza wants to take lessons from Higgins so she can improve her speech and get a job as a clerk in a proper flower shop. Higgins is impressed by the percentage of her meager wealth that Eliza is willing to pay and accepts her as a student, making a wager with Pickering that in six months he can pass Eliza off as a duchess. Mrs. Pearce asks what is to become of Eliza when Higgins has finished his teaching, but Higgins dismisses the question as trivial. After Mrs. Pearce takes Eliza away so that the young woman can bathe, Pickering asks Higgins if his intentions toward Eliza are honorable; Higgins assures Pickering that he is a confirmed bachelor, determined not to let women into his life.
After helping Eliza into the bath, Mrs. Pearce reenters the drawing room to set down rules for Higgins’s behavior while Eliza is staying in the house—proper dress and table manners and no swearing. Eliza’s father, Alfred Doolittle, a dustman, or trash collector, arrives and attempts to extort money from Higgins. When Higgins insists that Doolittle take his daughter back immediately, he drives down Doolittle’s price to a five-pound note. Higgins offers Doolittle ten pounds, but Doolittle refuses the extra five because he does not want to be tempted to save money. On his way out, Doolittle sees his daughter but does not immediately recognize her, as Eliza is clean and well dressed.
After a few months, the training has gone so well that Higgins decides to test Eliza by taking her to his mother’s flat for a formal visit. He arrives first to prepare his mother, informing her that...
(The entire section is 1104 words.)