How does Shaw satirize society in Pygmalion?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw (26 July 1856–2 November 1950) was first staged in 1913. Shaw himself was a lifelong socialist, vegetarian, social critic, and spelling reformer. His quirky and idiosyncratic works use sharp verbal humor to satirize many facets of British society, especially class and gender roles. When he...

Unlock
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Start your 48-Hour Free Trial

Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw (26 July 1856–2 November 1950) was first staged in 1913. Shaw himself was a lifelong socialist, vegetarian, social critic, and spelling reformer. His quirky and idiosyncratic works use sharp verbal humor to satirize many facets of British society, especially class and gender roles. When he published his plays, he wrote extensive prefaces that point out precisely what he was trying to achieve in the plays in well-argued and cogent detail. Students writing essays about Shaw's plays will benefit greatly from reading and referencing these prefaces.

The first thing Shaw satirizes in Pygmalion is gender roles. Traditionally, in romantic dramas of this period, women were treated as weak and passive and men as heroes who protected and rescued them. Eliza, however, despite her disadvantages, is a shrewd and powerful character, who despite being initially cowed by Higgins, proves resourceful. Rather than wishing to be dominated in marriage, she chooses Freddie as a husband precisely because his own weakness will allow her to maximize her potential for self realization.

In the character of Eliza's father, Shaw satirizes the concept of the "deserving poor" that was a foundation of British charity. His portrait of the engaging but "undeserving" Alfred Doolittle makes the audience reconsider traditional notions of virtue. Alfred, although not displaying conventional virtues, is a delightful and sympathetic character.

The main target of Shaw's satire is the British class system. He satirizes linguistic and behavioral elements of the system, showing that these are simply learned behaviors rather than signals of inherent worth. He shows that many of the conventions of the upper class serve to restrict them from leading happy and productive lives.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In Eliza Doolittle's conquest of British society, Shaw skewers the idea that class and privilege are based on genetic superiority. Henry Higgins teaches Eliza, a lower-class flower seller from London's East End, to have an upperclass accent and manners. He also has her bathed and dressed as a lady. In no time, Eliza has established herself in English society. Shaw thus shows that membership in the upper class, supposedly based on "better" bloodlines, is, in fact, a matter of completely superficial factors such as accent and clothing. With a little coaching, anybody could become a lady.

Shaw also satirizes the uselessness of the British lady, showing that once she becomes one, Eliza, who once worked for a living, is fit for nothing but marriage. Shaw thus questions a society in which upperclass women are reduced to uselessness. Eliza says

Oh! if I only COULD go back to my flower basket! I should be independent of both you and father and all the world! Why did you take my independence from me? Why did I give it up? I’m a slave now, for all my fine clothes.

Finally, in having Eliza's father Alfred, the dustman, receive 3,000 a year from the Pre-digested Cheese Trust that elevates him suddenly to the middle class, Shaw satirizes middle-class life. Alfred is made miserable, not happy, by his supposed good fortune. Suddenly, to be respectable, Mr. Doolittle has to marry his partner, and he finds himself beset by people who pay attention to him for his money, such as relatives he never knew he had and doctors who are suddenly concerned with his health. As Alfred puts it:

In the house I’m not let do a hand’s turn for myself: somebody else must do it and touch me for it. A year ago I hadn’t a relative in the world except two or three that wouldn’t speak to me. Now I’ve fifty, and not a decent week’s wages among the lot of them. I have to live for others and not for myself: that’s middle class morality. 

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

As a Socialist, George Bernard Shaw was acutely displeased with what he perceived as the flaws of the British class system.  In his play, Pygmalion, he incisively lampoons the rigid British class system of his time; for, by taking the lowest class person and using the ruse of the classic myth of Pygmalion as his title, Shaw satirizes the superficiality of the British upper class, who readily accept the beautifully transformed cockney flower peddler, Eliza Doolittle, once she learns to sound like a lady.  

With its ending, too, Shaw clearly satirizes the British society, particularly the role of women in society as his very independent character leaves Dr. Higgins, who has virtually recreated her.  She explains this rejection by saying that to Dr. Higgins she will always be a flower girl.  But, Eliza contends, being a lady depends more upon internal behavior and goodness than upon speech and social class. As she departs from Dr. Higgins, she says,

"It's not because you paid for my dresses....But it was you that I learned really nice manners; and that is what makes one a lady, isn't it?"

Having successfully made one transformation, Eliza considers the possibility of another transfromation as an independent person.  This idea, too, is in sharp contrast to the fixed social strata of British society.  With Eliza's character, Shaw satirizes the British concept of social graces and class as being the measure of a person's worth.

 

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team