Pygmalion Questions and Answers
by George Bernard Shaw

Pygmalion book cover
Start Your Free Trial

How would you describe English society, including issues of social relationships, gender, social class, and social mobility, at the time this play was written?

Expert Answers info

Lynnette Wofford eNotes educator | Certified Educator

calendarEducator since 2011

write7,057 answers

starTop subjects are Literature, History, and Business

Pygmalion premiered in 1913, a period during which gender and class roles in British society were changing rapidly. Shaw himself was aware of these changes and generally favored them, regarding both the older, more rigid class system and the patriarchal oppression of women as both morally wrong and irrational. 

Conventions concerning social and sexual relationships varied with class, with the middle classes opposing sexual activity outside of marriage but the lower classes tending to have a more open attitude towards such relationships. In general, there was a double standard in which having sexual relationships outside marriage proved a man's virility but was considered improper for women. When Eliza states "And I'm a good girl, I am," she is referring to a large degree to her only selling flowers, not her body, a theme that recurs towards the end of the play in her notions about marriage. 

The rapidly changing role of women is reflected by Mrs. Pearce's concern about Eliza's role in the household. For a single woman to live in the house of an unwed man would be improper unless she fit into an established role such as that of a servant or relative.

Although the play is, to a great degree, about social mobility, it also portrays a rigid class system, in which socioeconomic status is reflected in speech and manners as much as money. A central issue in the plot is what happens when people's self-perception, education, and behavior would place them in one class but their income is that of a different class. Mr. Doolittle and Eliza are both suddenly raised in class, but the Hill family portrays people of an aristocratic background who are descending in class due to a lack of money. In all cases, this class dislocation is portrayed as emotionally traumatic.

Further Reading:

check Approved by eNotes Editorial