How does Shaw satirize society in Pygmalion?

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teachersage eNotes educator| Certified Educator

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. 

mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

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.