In George Bernard Shaw's play Pygmalion, who is Eliza Doolittle?

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kipling2448 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In George Bernard Shaw’s 1912 play Pygmalion, the character of Eliza Doolittle is described by the playwright as a destitute, clearly uneducated flower girl plying her trade on the rainy sidewalks of upper class London.  When Eliza is introduced, it is in the midst of a collision with a doorman frantically attempting to locate a cab for an exceedingly unreasonable woman and her daughter.  Cast once more into the torrential downpour, the hapless doorman collides with Eliza, described as follows:

“She is not at all an attractive person. She is perhaps eighteen, perhaps twenty, 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 brushed. 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 no worse than theirs; but their condition leaves something to be desired; and she needs the services of a dentist].” 

Putting aside the irony of any citizen of England commenting negatively on another citizen of England’s dental situation, Shaw clearly intends Eliza to represent a suitable project for which the play’s other protagonist, Henry Higgins, can indulge in a wager regarding his ability to transform his human subject into a representative of London’s elite.  Eliza is desperately poor, and the contrasts among England’s social classes was notoriously dramatic.  That within that course exterior lied the heart of a lovely young woman was Pygmalion’s point.  The old adage of not judging on the basis of outward appearances found its ultimate manifestation in Shaw’s play, since renamed My Fair Lady and a regular source of material for stage and film productions.  “Eliza Doolittle” has become synonymous with the potential within an individual otherwise rejected for his or her appearance.