What is the significance of Pygmalion's title?

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The origin of the Pygmalion story lies in ancient Greek myth. Ovid's Metamorphosis continued its fame (Ovid being one of the more important Classical writers in the English Renaissance). The Pygmalion myth has elements of male fantasy, as the sculptor creates a "perfect" woman after becoming disenchanted with real women (most notably prostitutes). The perfect woman, in this sense, is a beautiful creature with no artifices to challenge male security. Pygmalion remains frustrated that he cannot possess his Galatea statue as a woman utterly under his control, subject to his desire.

Elements of this art-becoming-life story can be found in Pinocchio as well as in Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale. In Othello, at the end of the play, Othello makes a reverse wish, wanting Desdemona to be an alabaster statue that he can love without fear of her disloyalty. In these stories, we find fodder for psychological interpretations of wish fulfillment and control.

When Shaw picks up the myth and its traditions, he offers a distinctly social satire. Higgins reforms Eliza through speech and demeanor, polishing her as a sculptor would his creation. The point is to show the excellence of his art. Eliza's own living self chafes at the uselessness of her training in a world that insists on class structure rather than personal ability. After some resistance regarding a less expected happy ending (Higgins and Eliza marrying), Shaw persists in the value of his own ending, where Eliza marries Freddie:

When Eliza emancipates herself—when Galatea comes to life—she must not relapse. She must retain her pride and triumph to the end. When Higgins takes your arm on 'consort battleship' you must instantly throw him off with implacable pride; and this is the note until the final 'Buy them yourself.' He will go out on the balcony to watch your departure; come back triumphantly into the room; exclaim 'Galatea!' (meaning that the statue has come to life at last); and—curtain. Thus he gets the last word; and you get it too (Letter from Shaw to actress playing Eliza, cited below, page 43).

Underscoring Eliza as a living Galatea who can take full independence from her creator, Shaw offers an inversion of Victorian sentimentality, which he stubbornly satirized.

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There are several different versions of the Pygmalion story in Greek and Roman mythology, but the essential tale is that of a sculptor who creates a statue of a woman so beautiful and perfectly rendered that it comes to life as a real woman. In Shaw's Pygmalion, Eliza Doolittle is the poor, working class woman who is "sculpted" (educated) by Henry Higgins into passing as a "real" lady after he dresses her properly, teaches her how to speak with an upper class accent, and coaches her in upper class manners. He makes a bet with a friend that he will be able to pass her off as a lady in the highest echelons of society, and he wins. By the end of the play, the "fake" lady Eliza has transformed into a real lady with self-confidence and a mind of her own, similar to how the statue transformed into a real human being.

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In ancient Greek mythology, Pygmalion was a Cyprian sculptor who created a statue of a woman and subsequently fell in love with it. In Ovid's Metamorphoses, Pygmalion is shown as an uptight artist who is judgmental about the way women in his town conduct themselves (he blames Aphrodite, the goddess of love). However, he ends up falling in love with his own creation because it seems so realistic and beautiful. In the end, the statue woman (named Galatea) comes to life after an offering to Aphrodite. The parallels are clear: uptight scholar Henry Higgins transforms a woman into someone she isn't originally. The themes of transformation and desire are evident.

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