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,...
(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...
(The entire section is 1104 words.)
Act 1 Summary
The action begins at 11:15 p.m. in a heavy summer rainstorm. An after-theatre crowd takes shelter in the portico of St. Paul's Church in Covent Garden. A young girl, Clara Eynsford Hill, and her mother are waiting for Clara's brother Freddy, who looks in vain for an available cab. Colliding into flower peddler Liza Doolittle, Freddy scatters her flowers. After he departs to continue looking for a cab, Liza convinces Mrs. Eynsford Hill to pay for the damaged flowers; she then cons three halfpence from Colonel Pickering. Liza is made aware of the presence of Henry Higgins, who has been writing down every word she has said. Thinking Higgins is a policeman who is going to arrest her for scamming people, Liza becomes hysterical. Higgins turns out, however, to be making a record of her speech for scientific ends. Higgins is an expert in phonetics who claims: "I can place any man within six miles. I can place him within two miles in London. Sometimes within two streets." Upbraiding Liza for her speech, Higgins boasts that "in three months I could pass that girl off as a duchess at an ambassador's garden party." Higgins and Pickering eventually trade names and realize they have long wanted to meet each other. They go off to dine together and discuss phonetics. Liza picks up the money Higgins had flung down upon exiting and for once treats herself to a taxi ride home.
(The entire section is 239 words.)
Act 2 Summary
The next morning at 11 a.m. in Higgins's laboratory, which is full of instruments, Higgins and Pickering receive Liza, who has presented herself at the door. Higgins is taken aback by Liza's request for lessons from him. She wants to learn to "talk more genteel" so she can be employed in a flower shop instead of selling flowers on the street. Liza can only offer to pay a shilling per lesson, but Pickering, intrigued by Higgins's claims the previous night, offers to pay for Liza's lessons and says of the experiment: "I'll say you're the greatest teacher alive if you make that good." Higgins enthusiastically accepts the bet, though his housekeeper, Mrs. Pearce, pleads with him to consider what will become of Liza after the experiment. Liza agrees to move into Higgins's home and goes upstairs for a bath. Meanwhile, Higgins and Pickering are visited by Liza's father, Doolittle, "an elderly but vigorous dustman." Rather than demanding to take Liza away, Doolittle instead offers to "let her go'' for the sum of five pounds. Higgins is shocked by this offer at first, asking whether Doolittle has any morals, but he is persuaded by Doolittle's response, that the latter is too poor to afford them. Exiting quickly with his booty, Doolittle does not at first recognize his daughter, who has re-entered, cleaned up and dressed in a Japanese kimono.
(The entire section is 228 words.)
Act 3 Summary
The setting is the flat of Mrs. Higgins, Henry's mother. Henry bursts in with a flurry of excitement, much to the distress of his mother, who finds him lacking in social graces (she observes that her friends "stop coming whenever they meet you"). Henry explains that he has invited Liza, taking the opportunity for an early test of his progress with Liza's speech. The Eynsford Hills, guests of Mrs. Higgins, arrive. The discussion is awkward and Henry, true to his mother's observations, does appear very uncomfortable in company. Liza arrives and, while she speaks with perfect pronunciation and tone, she confuses the guests with many of her topics of conversation and peculiar turns of phrase. Higgins convinces the guests that these, including Liza's famous exclamation "not bloody likely!" are the latest trend in small talk. After all the guests (including Liza) have left, Mrs. Higgins challenges Henry and Pickering regarding their plans; she is shocked that they have given no thought to Liza's well-being, for after the conclusion of the experiment she will have no income, only "the manners and habits that disqualify a fine lady from earning her own living." Henry is characteristically flip, stating "there's no good bothering now. The thing's done.'' Pickering is no more thoughtful than Higgins, and as the two men exit, Mrs. Higgins expresses her exasperation.
A following scene, the most important of the "optional" scenes Shaw wrote for the film version of...
(The entire section is 337 words.)
Act 4 Summary
Midnight, in Henry's laboratory. Higgins, Pickering, and Liza return from the party. Higgins loudly bemoans the evening: "What a crew! What a silly tomfoolery!" Liza grows more and more frustrated as he continues to complain ("Thank God it's over!"), not paying attention to her or acknowledging her role in his triumph. Complaining about not being able to find his slippers, Higgins does not observe Liza retrieving them and placing them directly by him. She controls her anger as Higgins and Pickering exit, but when Higgins storms back in, still wrathfully looking for his slippers, Liza hurls them at him with all her might. She derides Higgins for his selfishness and demands of him, "What's to become of me?" Higgins tries to convince her that her irritation is "only imagination," that she should "go to bed like a good girl and sleep it off." Higgins gradually understands Liza's economic concern (that she cannot go back to selling flowers, but has no other future), but he can only awkwardly suggest marriage to a rich man as a solution. Liza criticizes the subjugation that Higgins's suggestion implies: "I sold flowers. I didn't sell myself. Now you've made a lady of me I'm not fit to sell anything else." Liza infuriates Higgins by rejecting him, giving him back the rented jewels she wears, and a ring he had bought for her. He angrily throws the ring in the fireplace and storms out.
In the next important "optional scene," Liza has left Higgins's home and comes...
(The entire section is 323 words.)
Act 5 Summary
Mrs. Higgins's drawing room, the next day. Henry and Pickering arrive, and while they are downstairs phoning the police about Liza's disappearance, Mrs. Higgins asks the chambermaid to warn Liza, taking shelter upstairs, not to come down. Mrs. Higgins scolds Henry and Pickering for their childishness and the careless manner in which they treated another human. The arrival of Alfred Doolittle is announced; he enters dressed fashionably as a bridegroom, but in an agitated state, casting accusations at Higgins. Doolittle explains at length how by a deed of Henry's he has come into a regular pension. His lady companion will now marry him, but still he is miserable. Where he once could "put the touch" on anyone for drinking money, now everyone comes to him, demanding favors and monetary support. At this point, Mrs. Higgins reveals that Liza is upstairs, again criticizing Henry for his unthoughtful behavior towards the girl. Mrs. Higgins calls Liza down, asking Doolittle to step out for a moment to delay the shock of the news he brings. Liza enters, politely cool towards Henry. She thanks Pickering for all the respect he has shown her since their first meeting: calling her Miss Doolittle, removing his hat, opening doors. "The difference,'' Liza concludes, "between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves but how she's treated."
At this point, Doolittle returns. He and Liza are reunited, and all the characters (excepting Henry) prepare to leave to see...
(The entire section is 380 words.)