What impression do the readers get of the flower girl in act one of Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw?

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Lori Steinbach | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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We meet the central character in Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw early in the first act; however, she is known to us only as "The Flower Girl." The setting for this act is the covered portico of St. John's church in Covent Garden on a very stormy, wet night. This storm has driven people of all social positions into the same place at the same time, and of course this makes for a very interesting scene.

We meet the Flower Girl as she is rushing, with her basket of flower, into the shelter and is bumped by an aristocratic young man named Freddy. He does not stop to help her pick up the dropped flowers, and she is not shy about expressing her belief that if his mother had raised him better he would have done so. She is not cruel, but she is direct. Shaw gives us quite a detailed description of the girl, an indication that her appearance really matters to this story. Oh yes, and he does not mince words:

She is not at all an attractive person. She is perhaps eighteen, hardly older. She wears a little sailor hat of black straw that has long been exposed to the dust and soot of London and has seldom if ever been brished. Her hair needs washing rather badly; its mousy color can hardly be natural. She wears a shoddy black coat that reaches nearly to her knees and is shaped to her waist. She has a brown skirt with a coarse apron. Her boots are much the worse for wear. She is no doubt as clean as she can afford to be; but compared to the ladies she is very dirty. Her features are worse than theirs; but their condition leaves something to be desired; and she needs the services of a dentist. 

As the scene progresses, we see many aspects of the Flower Girl's behavior. While she is deferential to the men and ladies when trying to get them to buy her flowers, once she has been denied she is not afraid to speak her mind. She is not particularly ugly or unkind, but she bluntly says what she thinks.

In the episode with the Note Taker (who we learn is Henry Higgins), when he is studiously identifying everyone's origins by their speech and dialect, we see a fear of the authorities in the Flower Girl and others of her class. It is clear that they distrust official authorities, and perhaps with good reason, given their work and their class.

When the Flower Girl feels insulted, she wails annoyingly; but she also speaks up for herself when Higgins tries to bully her. She has all the disadvantages of her social and economic standing, but it is clear she has the potential to be more than she is if she were given the opportunity. When Higgins casually makes the claim that 

in three months I could pass that girl off as a duchess at an ambassador's garden party. I could even get her a place as a lady's maid or shop assistant, which requires better English,

he is just bragging. We get a sense, however, that this Flower Girl could be quite a lady, given her grand and glorious (and ladylike, she thinks) exit in a taxi. 

The Flower Girl does not have much to recommend her; in fact, according to Higgins, the way she speaks is enough to offend God. One line in Shaw's description of her, however, suggests that she is redeemable:

She is no doubt as clean as she can afford to be.

This girl does the best she can for herself with what she has been given and what she has done for herself. It will be interesting to see if she will always be a flower girl or if she will make something of herself. 

   
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