What are the social implications of Professor Higgins's experiment with Eliza?

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Pygmalion is a withering critique of Victorian society and its class structure. The upper-class professor of phonetics, Henry Higgins, sets out to transform a humble Cockney sparrow into a lady of quality, whom he will then introduce to high society. Higgins's behavior exemplifies the general level of contempt displayed by the upper-classes toward those they regarded as their social inferiors. He doesn't value Eliza Dolittle or accept her for who she is; he sees her as a problem to be solved by means that are both manipulative and exploitative in equal measure.

At the same time, the artificial methods used by Higgins to transform Eliza into a high-class social butterfly expose the artificiality of the class structure that existed at the time. If someone of Eliza's humble social origins could be passed off as a refined upper-class lady after a relatively short program of instruction and training, then that would seem to suggest that so-called good breeding is ultimately irrelevant, not just in terms of one's worth as an individual, but also in relation to how one is judged and evaluated by society.

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Professor Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle are the main characters in George Bernard Shaw's classic play Pygmalion. The story involves the attempt by Higgins, a professor of phonetics and language, to transform the poor Cockney girl Eliza into a properly-spoken English gentlewoman. The project begins as a bet with another man, Colonel Pickering, who believes the transformation is impossible.

Higgins and Eliza clash throughout the play, but the professor initially has some success improving Eliza's diction and comportment. She manages to "pass" as a proper lady at a ball and even attracts the attention of a gentleman. But underneath the veneer of more "proper" speech patterns and behavior, she is still a Cockney girl, although with greater confidence.

Perhaps the most powerful social implication of the play is the deeply embedded nature of class and socialization. While some of the initial influences of upbringing can be modified, the dynamic between Professor Higgins and Eliza suggests that it is very difficult for people to change and that the social differences between them can be major barriers to understanding.

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