George Bernard Shaw

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Emil Roy (essay date spring 1970)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4282

SOURCE: Roy, Emil. “Pygmalion Revisited.” Ball State University Forum 11, no. 2 (spring 1970): 38-46.

[In the following essay, Roy analyzes the relationship between Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion.]

The structure of Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion1 is perfectly conventional, juxtaposing the personal comedy of Eliza Doolittle's evolution into true independence with the social comedy of her father's sudden rise into middle-class affluence. However, Shaw's denial of a match between Eliza and her mentor Henry Higgins created legendary difficulties which have surrounded the ending for over half a century. The author's inability to create an artist-philosopher who is both constructive and dramatically compelling, thus reconciling his own repressed alienation with social ameliorism, seems to have elicited a corresponding sense of uneasiness in his audiences and their agents in the theatrical establishment. By such devices as Beerbohm Tree's gestural wooing of Eliza and the casting of Leslie Howard as Higgins in the Gabriel Pascal movie version, the possibility of marriage between Higgins and Eliza was at least hinted at. The crusty old bachelor would thereby “dwindle” into a husband as Eliza “expanded” into a wife, confirming a bourgeois audience's faith in marriage as the foundation of morality and society.

However, in Pygmalion as Robert Brustein suggests, Shaw is not only creating a tougher and subtler version of the romantic comedies he had been writing since the nineties. He is dramatizing his own inner conflicts: the Platonist versus the Aristotelian, the revolutionary idealist versus the pragmatic realist, the Socialist versus the Vitalist, the Romantic versus the Classicist.2 These contradictions, bothersome to an ideologist, are made to order for the drama. Therefore, the problem of the ending is symptomatic of a deep ambivalence pervading the entire play.

In the first act prologue where Eliza and Higgins first encounter each other, Shaw invokes a microcosm of random London society. The clash of disparate accents and types is not only designed “to show class antagonisms and personal idiosyncrasies at their sharpest,” as Louis Crompton points out.3 The group also establishes a sense of the social norms to which more gifted individuals may either become subject or rise above. Higgins' presence in the crowd is ostensibly motivated by scientific purposes: gathering phonetic evidence in a “living laboratory.” Although Eliza is literally incorrect in assuming he is a “copper's nark” or policeman's informer, her intuition into his motivation is a shrewd one, fixing the pattern their future association will follow. He has no official function at all, but he refuses to identify himself to the restive crowd and persists in unmasking their pretensions rather provocatively. The malicious enjoyment he gains from ridiculing their discomfiture reveals a certain hauteur and contempt of ordinary mortals he does little to conceal. His upper-class credentials are established by his manner, his shoes, and his sporting whistle. But they are apparently displayed in order for him to act as he pleases without the risk of retaliation from others.

By sustaining the mysterious menace of his demeanor for as long as possible, Higgins exercises over others a power and influence (however trivial) to which he has no actual right. Possibly, he remains anonymous because any credible response would be greeted by indifference or rejection, reflecting social attitudes toward the intellectual which Shaw was quite sensitized toward: “… us losing our time listening to your silliness!. … You come from Anwell [a large insane asylum]. Go back there.” (pp. 204-05) On the psychological level, Higgins may simply lack a satisfying identity or “self” apart from that others grant him, especially if he is regarded with some fear and awe. Esse est percipi, for him: “To be seen is to exist.”

Eliza's appearance at Higgins' home in the second act to negotiate her transformation from flower girl to duchess reverses the grounds of the action. This time a frightened but determined neophyte enters a baffling but highly stable social situation. The attempts by both Higgins and Eliza to impose their differing views of life on one another are hilariously comic. Eliza champions prudery, ambition, and business sense as firmly as Higgins stands by Milton and the Universal Alphabet. And although Eliza's hysteria and vulgarity distance her socially from Higgins' firm if petulant sense of proprieties, they both exhibit a piercing scepticism toward appearances. While enforcing conformity to their own values upon others, both of them invoke social norms largely so they themselves may violate decorum with impunity. The unerring accuracy of Higgins' perceptions is often belied by childish egotism, and Eliza wants prosperity not only for comfort but for snobbery, wishing “to take a taxi to the corner of Tottenham Court Road and get out there and tell it to wait for me, just to put the girls in their place a bit.” (p. 234) Shakespeare's Malvolio provides the archetype for their behavior, suggesting that inflated self-concepts ultimately spring from repressed feelings of aggression and insecurity. For as he fantasies himself married to Olivia in Twelfth Night, improving his social status immeasurably, Malvolio contemplates sadistic rather than sexual pleasures: humiliating and expelling his old tormentor Toby Belch.

Although Shaw customarily denigrates the world of private imagination, Eliza and Higgins are totally, farcically incapable of interacting effectively with one another in the real world. Even after Col. Pickering proposes a wager whereby Higgins will train Eliza to impersonate a duchess at the ambassador's garden party, the scheme nearly founders on Eliza's confused suspicions. Not until Higgins creates a mutually congenial never-never land is she won over. His invocation of a folkloric realm where obedience is rewarded with food, song, and adulation but the slightest infraction brings instant retribution and shame is patently mythic, with subtleties ruled out:

If youre good and do whatever youre told, you shall sleep in a proper bedroom, and have lots to eat, and money to buy chocolates and take rides in taxis. If youre naughty and idle you will sleep in the back kitchen among the black beetles, and be walloped by Mrs. Pearce with a broomstick.

(p. 220)

In order for their experiment to proceed, Higgins must play the congenial role of an “arbitrary overbearing bossing” (p. 224) but somewhat distant Prospero to Eliza's impressionable and naive Miranda. She will accept his commands so he and Pickering would “thank her, or pet her, or admire her, or tell her how splendid she'd been.” (p. 267) Her conception of Higgins' mansion as a kind of idyllic island-paradise conforms quite naturally to her fantasies. For as Shaw explains in the epilogue, Eliza “has even secret mischievous moments in which she wishes she could get [Higgins] alone, on a desert island, away from all ties and with nobody else in the world to consider.” (p. 295) In this scheme Pickering plays a benevolent Gonzalo whose crucial plan for Eliza's transformation confirms his paternal solicitude. Within their relationship, Eliza comes to “love … the Colonel as if she were his favorite daughter.” (p. 294)

Alfred Doolittle's appearance, setting the play's social comedy in motion, parodies the conventions of melodrama. In the comic bargaining he initiates with Higgins over the price of his daughter's virtue, he combines in a single character the ineffectual parent and “villainous” interloper. On a deeper level, the tacit agreements which all the principals reach on Eliza's future begin the process of supplying her not only with new manners but with new “parentage.” As she moves in the last three acts through clearly marked stages of development, she also magnifies into recognizable roles or moods the dominant traits of Doolittle, Higgins, and Pickering. This complex interplay between her own inventive and imitative tendencies is part of a mechanism which Ernest Jones, in his book Hamlet and Oedipus, calls “decomposition.”4 In decomposition, attributes of one individual are disunited and several individuals are invented, each endowed with one group of the original attributes. The opposite mechanism is “condensation,” which involves the fusing of attributes of several people to form one composite figure. Shaw's awareness of these complementary devices, if not the theory itself, emerges in the part song which Higgins and Pickering mockingly sing about Eliza:

Eliza, Elizabeth, Betsy and Bess,
They went to the woods to get a bird's nes':
They found a nest with four eggs in it:
They took one apiece, and left three in it.

(p. 213)

The paternal figures who appear in the play are about the same age, even though Eliza, in giving some thought to marriage, considers Higgins more eligible than Pickering since Higgins is “nearer my age than what he is.” (p. 277) But they all function in some protecting or conserving capacity toward her which could be described, at least metaphorically, as “life giving.” Eliza's fate is or has been in their hands. She has relied on their “helping” or “rescuing” functions much as a child depends on her father's, even though both of Doolittle's appearances parody the protective role chiefly for his own gain. To characterize Higgins as fatherly may seem forced, especially since Shaw and his audiences have considered him “the hero” of “a romance” (p. 282). However, he and Eliza quickly adopt the dominance-submission roles typical of the relationship. Obeying his command to sit she complains, “One would think you was my father,” and he responds, “If I decide to teach you, I'll be worse than two fathers to you.” (p. 214)

Eliza has obviously derived her native guile, energetic directness, and “affectionate … very tender-hearted nature” (p. 266) from her natural father, along with his startling frankness and gift of mimicry. From Pickering she has “learnt really nice manners, and that is what makes one a lady.” (p. 269) But whenever she clashes with Higgins, her own brash hypersensitivity resembles his characteristic manner, and she finds herself becoming “jealous, exacting, suspicious, and a damned nuisance.” (p. 221) It is typical of the child's ambivalence toward a parent that Eliza should struggle with Doolittle, Higgins, and even Pickering (over the operation of her flower shop in the epilogue) for her physical, emotional, and economic independence. At the same time, even when she learns “that Higgins does not need her, just as her father did not need her” (p. 294), she continues to maintain a powerful bond between herself and all of them.

In Act III, set during Mrs. Higgins' at-home day, Eliza marvelously caricatures the life-giving process with her fine diction and devastating tales of low-life conspiracy, as Eric Bentley5 points out. But her mechanical recitations derive their humor as much from the contrast between her artless poise and Higgins' incredible awkwardness as from the contrast between her puppet-like actions and the vitality which we glimpse beneath. In part Higgins adopts the role of good bad boy whose standard repertory of childish indiscretions—consisting mostly of language fit for “a canal barge” (p. 247)—displays a measure of masculinity. His “badness” is feigned, however, designed as much to gain his mother's undivided attention as to confirm her moral authority which he only pretends to breach.

In a broader sense, however, Higgins seems incapable of interacting with other people on any interpersonal, intimate basis at all. He fears his unconscious yearnings but even more, the very anxieties they arouse as they threaten to break through his inadequate defenses: “Do you suppose it would be really agreeable if I were to come out now with what I really think? … It wouldn't be decent.” (p. 241) Unable to shift easily from mere separateness to relaxed relatedness, he seems torn between total engulfment (by mother, phonetics, and Milton) and absolute isolation, as in his repeated attacks on the stupidity of mankind, partly a reflection of self-contempt: “We're all savages, more or less.” (p. 241)

To minimize the dangers of relatedness, Higgins denigrates ordinariness and pursues scientific and artistic excellence. On the one hand, he adopts his pose of socratic questioner to avoid being subject to others' examination of his inner conflicts, a defense Col. Pickering mistakes for a lack of self-knowledge: “Come, Higgins: you must learn to know yourself. I havent heard such language as yours since we used to review the volunteers in Hyde Park twenty years ago.” (p. 247) On the other hand, Milton and phonetics are ideal kinds of psychological defenses apart from their undeniable intrinsic merits. They are difficult to master and involve symbol manipulation, making Higgins a bona fide intellectual, “the life and soul of the Royal Society's soirées.” (p. 241) They also provide something of the rich texture and variety of life, while being at the same time safely deodorized and desexualized.

As Eliza's instant but lasting friendship with Mrs. Higgins indicates, she is not competing as much with Henry's mother, his interest in phonetics, or Milton as with his oedipal problems, which he discusses without reticence. He tells his mother that “my idea of a lovable woman is something as like you as possible” (p. 237), and Shaw amplifies:

If an imaginative boy has a sufficiently rich mother who has intelligence, personal grace, dignity of character without brashness, and a cultivated sense of the best art of her time to enable her to make her house beautiful, she sets a standard for him against which very few women can struggle.

(p. 283)

As a result, Higgins displays the kind of sublimation Shaw describes admiringly as “a disengagement of his affections, his sense of beauty, and his idealism from his specifically sexual impulses.” (p. 283) Critics such as Myron Matlaw have concluded that he is therefore Shaw's ideal hero, another protagonist of the élan vital best described in Lilith's speech concluding Back to Methuselah: “Redemption from the flesh, to the vortex freed from matter, to the whirlpool in pure intelligence.”6 In this view, through his study of phonetics Higgins functions as a superman transforming subhumans into humans. However, “subhuman” is a strong indictment of the nouveau riche who seek out Higgins' services. And he hardly accepts them for altruistic reasons even though, overlooking Col. Pickering's sponsorship, he justifies his success with Eliza as “filling up the deepest gulf that separates class from class and soul from soul.” (p. 248) Not only does he earn “quite a fat” living by training “upstarts” to alter their accents, but his study of phonetics is ideally suited to gratify his private fantasies. Most of his clients are attractive women, it seems: “I've taught scores of American millionairesses how to speak English: the best looking women in the world.” (p. 222) Most of them are unsure of their own femininity, it could be speculated, willing to accept Higgins' claims at face value if he will reassure them by his interest. Higgins, for his part, is most comfortable with an older, not very aggressive paternal figure like Col. Pickering because he is unsure of his masculinity: “Here I am, a shy, diffident sort of man. I've never been able to feel really grown-up and tremendous, like other chaps.” (p. 224)

By training female students to improve their accents, Higgins gains license to observe and manipulate what he views as the essential thing in woman, “watching her lips and her teeth and her tongue, not to mention her soul” (p. 248), as he says of Eliza. His obsessive fixation is a displaced version of the mythic Actaeon's curiosity to view the unveiled female, particularly the mother. Despite the marvelous range and variety of sounds he has trained himself to distinguish, his search for the ideal, complex female has fixed his attention on her voice, embodied in a parody of the mythic Galatea as “a life-size image of half a human head, shewing in section the vocal organs.” (p. 209) Despite his attempts to reduce everyone involved to unthreatening objects—“They might as well be blocks of wood. I might as well be a block of wood” (p. 222)—his clients quickly sense the erotic basis of their association and become troublesome. Since dealing with real people becomes both frightening and exhausting, Higgins attacks women in general both for arousing his anxieties and for not being the woman: “Women upset everything.” (p. 221) Higgins is never conscious that,

Even the most austerely factual and scientific estimate of reality is inflexible and quite unable to improve its acquaintance with reality unless it is continually supplied with wishes—indeed with fantasy, scientific hypotheses being nothing but fantastic fictions of a particular kind.7

He needs living, breathing pupils because rationality alone, in George Santayana's words, “collapses for sheer emptiness” unless “irrational impulses and fancies are kept alive.”8 The transformation Higgins brings about in his clients, like Pygmalion or Frankenstein, is ironically epitomized by the life he breathes into mechanical and inert objects in his laboratory, where he himself incarnates in fantasy the god of science. He is no Nietzschean superman but rather an alazon or imposter, a type of comic pedant posing as “plain dealer.” He is continually talking, like John Tanner in Man and Superman, about his moral superiority to society. However, his rigid and deathly resistance to the true vitality of self-knowledge is only another aspect of an “artificial system's” shortcomings, if not evil.

The last two acts of the play intertwine Eliza's and her father's metamorphoses with a final, searching dissection of Higgins' character, his “shewing up” as it were. In the scene following the offstage garden party, Eliza's pent up exasperation quickly drives her and Higgins into ad hominem verbal swordplay. As Bentley comments, while Eliza talks to free herself, Higgins talks to keep his domination over her, crystallizing Eliza's crucial grasp on independence. Their “discussion” is evasive and euphemistic on the literal level, but intensely fraught with conflict on the level of fantasy. Both more and less related to one another than they pretend to be, Higgins and Eliza experience each other as closed up, cold, and forbidding. But Higgins begins to crack first. Desperately sensing his defenses crumbling, he loses the initiative. He begins to open up like helpless flower to murderous bee as he loses his temper, an image Shaw suggests in a stage direction for the exultant Eliza. She enjoys his discomfiture by “drinking in his emotion like nectar and nagging him to provoke a further supply.” (pp. 258-59) The breaching of his “character armor,” Higgins seems to feel, would subject him to a flood of overwhelming anxiety, his loss of self-control driving him into unconsidered violence as in the next act: “rising in a fury. … He lays hands on her. … He lets her go, stamping with rage.” (p. 280) The result of such tantrums, Eliza reminds him, is invariably the feelings of overpowering guilt, rage, and insufficiency he experiences in retreat as Act IV ends.

In the last act, Eliza's growth into an independent person is ironically parodied by her father's sudden rise from cheeky dustman to intimidated gentleman. Although Crompton believes that the imposition of minimum standards of decency on Doolittle is a clear gain, he is measuring behavior in relation to “artificial” middle-class morality rather than to true vitality. Doolittle may seem moral, but “cabin'd, cribb'd, confin'd” as he is, the old irresponsibility remains. The stories of Eliza and her father are linked not only as human and social comedy, but as parallel results of Higgins' machinations. The unforeseen bestowal of wealth on Doolittle, through Higgins' suggested provision in the eccentric Ezra Wannafeller's will, was as impetuous as his wager with Pickering. Doolittle's agreement that Higgins' suggestion was just a “silly joke” identifies the phoneticist as an inveterate practical joker. Practical jokes are not always immoral. Just as Higgins used his keen ear to strip onlookers of their social pretensions in Act I, his experiment with Eliza will ostensibly separate her from illusions hindering her adjustment to real community. By desiring self-sufficiency, she is committing “middle class blasphemy. We are all dependent on one another, every soul of us on earth.” (p. 279) But in the cases of both Doolittle and Eliza, Higgins has functioned like an irresponsible, capricious, and clumsy deity, bestowing gifts upon their unsuspecting recipients like a blight. Like even the most harmless practical joke, Higgins' plan of action springs not from concern but contempt, a disdain which emerges most visibly in unflattering epithets for Eliza: “Draggletailed guttersnipe” or “squashed cabbage leaf” with “no right to be anywhere—no right to live” (p. 206). “Cowards,” he will later comment, “are always all shrieking to have troublesome people killed.” (p. 276) Discarding all feelings as a human being, he has reduced himself to a disembodied and passionless observer of events for which he takes no responsibility. Yet having no emotions he can call his own, he had undertaken Eliza's training, like that of so many predecessors, to experience vicariously their very real though deluded desires.

In its literal outlines, the play's action conforms to the outlines of the Pygmalion myth and Cinderella fairy tale. The implications Shaw only hints at are fully exposed in Bertolt Brecht's Good Woman of Setzuan, where the heroine Shen Te is unbearably burdened by the largesse bestowed upon her by a set of well-meaning Asiatic deities. Ironically, Higgins has repeatedly committed the “blasphemy” he attributed to Eliza. In a vain act of comic hubris, he implicitly compares himself to the Deity of Milton's Paradise Lost: “Would the world ever have been made if its maker had been afraid of making trouble? Making life means making trouble.” (p. 276) While a perfectly valid analogy can be drawn between the artist as maker and God as creator, Higgins demands the kind of identity that supplants rather than resembles the Divine Maker. As a result, he forces a consideration of the diabolical aspects of his character which emerge, only half in jest, in Eliza's response, “Oh, you are a devil” (p. 275) to his threat to “see you damned” (p. 271). Although Higgins prides himself on his role as devil's advocate toward society, he has also attained for better or worse Satan's mastery of techniques which in Luther's view provided a fallen world with its material culture. Unlike Prospero at the end of The Tempest, he cannot abandon his book and staff and return to ordinary humanity. His strictly literary “soul” is not worth his “every third thought,” and society at large would never grant him the unhampered exercise of his undeniably great powers. He will continue to possess charm and witty intelligence but no real grace either in Castiglione's or the Christian's sense of the word.

The crux of the ending is, of course, Eliza's choice of Freddy Eynsford Hill for a husband rather than Henry Higgins, a man “who is so little interested in marriage that a determined woman might capture him if she set herself resolutely to do it.” (p. 282) While critics may argue that in marrying Freddy, “Eliza will lead an admirable if circumscribed middle-class existence,”9 whatever the outward appearances, Eliza's character will remain very much in flux. In contemplating an end to her single state, Eliza is faced with no final transfiguration but adjustment to a riven society in an era manifesting Toynbee's “Schism in the State and Schism in the soul.” In terms of class conflict, Eliza has come to share Higgins' despisal of a lower-class society which brutalizes and degrades its members even though it fills their lives with rich and sensate emotion: “Oh, it's a fine life, the life of the gutter. It's real: it's warm: it's violent: you can feel it through the thickest skin: you can taste it and smell it without any training or work.” (pp. 278-79) The upper class with its refined and powerful energies, standing as undisputed guardian of the cultural treasures of the past, provides her an alternative. Such a class, however, is forced into the cold petrification of “living for others” and the sterile cultivation of the successful gesture. Its members remain deeply suspicious and resentful of impetuous, spontaneous, but genuine emotions.

In ruling out Higgins as a matrimonial prospect, Eliza rejects a Strindbergian contest between strong wills: “Girls like me can drag gentlemen down to make love to them easy enough. And they wish each other dead the next minute.” (p. 278) She is already immune to the erotic thrill of apparent badness, telling Higgins, “I've seen more of some things than you, for all your learning.” (p. 278) Without the pride of Shaw's Cleopatra, the bustle of Lady Cicely of Captain Brassbound's Conversion, or the naïveté of Judith in The Devil's Disciple, her will appears settled. However, she intends to “bridge” somehow the gulf between sensation and sensibility by marrying her benevolent, giving, and receptive “self” to Freddy, a younger but poorer version of Col. Pickering. In this way she would gratify “every girl's … right to be loved.” (p. 277) To keep alive her aggressive, witty, and acquisitive side, she will continue her newfound role as “friendly adversary” to Higgins, her “habit of nagging” him “that was established on the fatal night when she won his bet for him.” (p. 294) Her hold on Freddy will be sustained by his dependent and unquestioning love for her while she senses that Higgins' “indifference is deeper than the infatuation of commoner souls.” (p. 294) Thus, Eliza's life-style would permanently crystallize the temporary, sublimated ménage à trois Candida creates with an older husband and younger poetic outsider. If she cannot have her ideal man, whole and in one bodily unity, she will take create page from Higgins' book. She will create that man, using Freddy as her biological and Higgins as her intellectual instruments. In an ironic way, Pygmalion is its own sequel. Instead of replacing Higgins' mother, Eliza will imitate her and create her own artist-philosopher.


  1. Quotations are taken from the play as printed in the Selected Works (New York, 1948).

  2. “Bernard Shaw,” The Theatre of Revolt (Boston, 1964), pp. 212-13.

  3. “Improving Pygmalion,” Prairie Schooner, XLI (1966), 74.

  4. (New York, 1955), pp. 149-50.

  5. Bernard Shaw (New York, 1957), p. 119.

  6. “The Denouement of Pygmalion,Modern Drama, 1 (1958), 32.

  7. Brigid Brophy, Black Ship to Hell (New York, 1962), p. 359.

  8. “The Comic Mask and Carnival” in R. W. Corrigan (ed.), Comedy: Meaning and Form (San Francisco, 1965), p. 75.

  9. Matlaw, p. 33.

Jean Reynolds (essay date 1994)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3840

SOURCE: Reynolds, Jean. “Deconstructing Henry Higgins, or Eliza as Derridean ‘Text.’” In Shaw: The Annual of Bernard Shaw Studies 14 (1994): 209-17.

[In the following essay, Reynolds deems the power of language to be the main theme in Pygmalion and links the ideas of Shaw and the French linguist Jacques Derrida.]

Language is central to Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion: scarcely a minute of the play is without some reference to words. The plot is built around a phonetics experiment, and two of the main characters are language experts. Act II takes place amid speech paraphernalia—a phonograph and wax cylinders, a laryngoscope, and a life-size diagram of the vocal organs. The characters themselves are preoccupied with words: both Mrs. Pearce and Mrs. Higgins complain about Higgins's bad language, and Eliza insists that she cannot talk to him at all. The Eynsford-Hills are both appalled and fascinated by Eliza's “new small talk,” and Alfred P. Doolittle worries that he will “have to learn to speak middle class language … instead of speaking proper English.”1 And there is an abiding interest in the stage, itself a world of words. Higgins, Pickering, the Eynsford-Hills, and Eliza enjoy the theater—just as we in Shaw's audience do.

But actors and directors often miss the language emphasis in Pygmalion, preferring to make the play into a conventional love story between Higgins and Eliza—a problem that plagued Shaw from the first British production in 1914. Fortunately, Shavian scholars have been more open to the deeper issues in the play. Eric Bentley has described Pygmalion as a “battle of wills and words.”2 Daniel Dervin observes, “So powerful is the word for Shaw that Henry Higgins can create practically ex nihilo a living person through speech exercises. The word made flesh is Liza. …”3 And Timothy G. Vesonder has declared, “Even a superficial examination of Pygmalion will show that the main focus of the play is not erotic involvement but the power of language. …”4

In the relatively recent part of the last hundred years, French philosopher Jacques Derrida (born 1930) has analyzed language in ways congruent with the insights of these three critics. If Dervin is correct in calling Eliza “the word made flesh,” we can also say that she is a Derridean “text.” And if Bentley and Vesonder are correct in making language the main focus of the play, we are not far from Derrida's assertion that “the problem of language has never been simply one problem among others.”5 This suggestion of a link between Shaw and Derrida is not new: Richard F. Dietrich has convincingly argued that Shaw anticipated deconstruction in The Quintessence of Ibsenism and elsewhere.6

Derrida investigated language issues most extensively in Of Grammatology, where he “deconstructed” the Platonic hierarchy of values that favors naturalness over performance, reality over representation, and speech over writing. Platonists ascribe to speakers the advantage of presence, arguing that speech is trustworthy because it seems to come straight from the heart. Writing, by contrast, connotes absence: it is unnatural and unreal, voiceless and inert, lacking the warm breath of a living speaker. The biggest obstacle between Higgins and Eliza is neither his attachment to his mother nor his obsession with the Universal Alphabet, but this Platonic philosophy, which Derrida calls “the metaphysics of presence.”7

For Higgins, Eliza exemplifies all the negative features that Platonists ascribe to writing. As we have already seen, she is a “text” that Higgins has created through the medium of language. Eliza tells Higgins, “I have forgotten my own language, and can speak nothing but yours” (770). Higgins, too, recognizes her origins in language: “[You] have no idea,” he excitedly tells his mother, “how frightfully interesting it is to take a human being and change her into a quite different human being by creating a new speech for her” (734). But although he boasts to his mother about his linguistic creation, fashioned from “the squashed cabbage leaves of Covent Garden” (767), Eliza will never be anything to him but an “artificial duchess” who “pretends to play the fine lady” (767). Despite her dazzling performance at the embassy reception, Higgins calls her a “heartless guttersnipe” (753). When his mother insists that Eliza deserves better treatment, he sulkily submits: “Let us put on our best Sunday manners for this creature that we picked up out of the mud” (765-66). Because Eliza lacks the living aristocratic core that would validate her elegant speech and manners, Higgins regards her as “absent” and deficient.

But Eliza also exemplifies the Derridean arguments against the Platonic “metaphysics of presence.” Having put Lisson Grove behind her, she has little use for pure essences and much appreciation for artifice and performance. Take away Miss Doolittle's articulate and elegant speech, and little is left of the dazzling apparition at the embassy reception. As Derrida says, “There is nothing outside of the text.”8 Lacking an authentic, inborn essence of her own, Miss Doolittle is a supplement, in Derridean terminology, to Higgins's original. Derrida uses this term to explain both the advantages and disadvantages of writing.

In its negative aspect, a supplement is an inferior copy, a superfluous addition, or an afterthought. “Inferior” is how Higgins sees his pupil, and he rejects Eliza as a second-rate imitation of himself. When she tries to charm him in his mother's drawing room, he reprimands her: “Dont you dare try this game on me. I taught it to you; and it doesnt take me in” (767). To his mother, he says, “You will jolly soon see whether [Eliza] has an idea that I havnt put into her head or a word that I havnt put into her mouth” (767). Eliza's dependency reinforces his disdain: she tells him, “You know I cant go back to the gutter, as you call it, and that I have no real friends in the world but you and the Colonel” (779).

But Derrida argues that a supplement can also be an improvement upon the original. Even enemies of writing, including Rousseau and Plato, have found writing indispensable for expressing and disseminating their ideas. In his Confessions, Rousseau admitted that he preferred writing to speech as a mode of self-expression: “The part that I have taken of writing and hiding myself is precisely the one that suits me. If I were present, one would never know what I was worth.”9 Similarly, Eliza cannot show her true worth until she hides her cockney origins beneath the artificiality of cultured speech. Only in “absence” can she truly be “present.” Her mature and articulate speeches in Act V demonstrate that her “supplemental” relationship with Higgins is positive as well as negative. Evaluating her own accomplishments, she tells him: “You cant take away the knowledge you gave me. You said I had a finer ear than you. And I can be civil and kind to people, which is more than you can” (780).

A more conventional playwright than Shaw might have been satisfied to pit Eliza and Higgins against each other in this way throughout the play. But Shaw, interested in the ambiguities of their relationship, makes Eliza herself ambivalent about her “supplemental” status. Having jettisoned her Lisson Grove identity, she feels like an exile. As she tells Higgins, “I am a child in your country” (770). We get a glimpse of her inner emptiness when she wistfully says, “I only want to be natural” (778). That heartfelt wish can never be granted, for Eliza—with no past and no peers—will never again feel the naturalness and belonging that Higgins finds among the moneyed classes. His is the favored position, for he is the source rather than the supplement in their relationship.

But Shaw, still exploring ambiguities, placed negatives as well as positives on Higgins's side. In a reversal of Platonic values, “presence” is a disadvantage to Higgins, for his habitual mode of self-expression is inferior to Eliza's artificial speech: “You damned impudent slut, you!” he shouts in one of the last speeches of the play (781). Even worse, Higgins believes himself incapable of improvement. His language habits are not much different from Eliza's Lisson Grove speech, as she observes: “I was brought up to be just like him, unable to control myself, and using bad language on the slightest provocation” (768). But while Eliza undergoes a powerful transformation, Higgins stubbornly clings to his Platonic belief in unalterable essences: “I cant change my nature; and I dont intend to change my manners” (773). He has freed Eliza from the prison of her former existence, but he refuses to do the same for himself.

And so, at the end of the play, the student surpasses her teacher, and writing—the living text named Eliza—triumphs over speech. Or so it seems. Actually, Eliza's victory is only part of Shaw's purpose. Similarly, Derrida never intended to “reconstruct” the speech-versus-writing hierarchy with writing on top. Derridean deconstruction aims instead to dismantle the hierarchy altogether by uniting speech and writing. (We have already seen that Eliza's “new speech” has two characteristics of writing: absence and artifice.) In the same way, Shaw's artistic intention is to unite Higgins and Eliza, although not in the wedding ceremony that many theatergoers have wished for. Having unwittingly declared war on the “old speech” at the foundation of British class structure, the two are co-conspirators in an assault upon the British establishment.

Eliza is unworthy to enter the upper class because she is illegitimate both socially and linguistically. Her lack of legitimate parentage is first hinted at in Act II, when Eliza says, “I aint got no parents. They told me I was big enough to earn my own living and turned me out” (694). Even as a child, she received little parental care. Her father tells Higgins, “I never brought her up at all, except to give her a lick of a strap now and again” (715). And in Act V, we learn from Doolittle that he never married Eliza's mother although he has avoided telling Eliza the truth: “She dont know: I always had a delicacy about telling her” (772).

But Eliza's illegitimacy is linguistic as well. Plato, notes Derrida, “assigns the origin and power of speech … to the paternal position.”10 Writing, by contrast, is “fatherless,” for writers express ideas they would not ordinarily speak and invent experiences they have not themselves had. When language breaks away from its rightful origins—as it does with Eliza's “new speech”—it subverts the authority that engendered it. Derrida explains that Platonists see writing as “the orphan [that] is already half dead.”11 Eliza is fatherless in more ways than one.

Although Derrida's analysis sounds theoretical and abstract, Eliza's linguistic illegitimacy causes serious difficulties for her. Lacking a “father”—an aristocratic origin—she shocks the guests in Mrs. Higgins's drawing room with her unorthodox “new small talk”: “Not bloody likely!” she blurts when Freddy proposes a walk through the park (730). Even though Higgins has provided two safe topics for her—the weather and everyone's health—Eliza's attempts at conversation miss their mark. Higgins promised that “the streets will be strewn with the bodies of men shooting themselves for [her] sake” (693) and boasted that he had made her “a consort for a king” (780). But even when her verbal skills match Higgins's, “a flower girl who had become disclassed,” as Shaw described her in his sequel (787), is too “notorious” for proper British society.

Higgins, by contrast, basks in all the benefits of the “paternal position” described by Derrida. He is powerful enough to legitimize Eliza's status: “I'll adopt you as my daughter and settle money on you if you like”—an offer she refuses, preferring her independence (777). But if Higgins's social position is above reproach, his profession is not, for the upper-class speech and manners that he teaches are the rightful possessions of a privileged minority, not the “upstarts” (679) he accepts as pupils. In effect, Higgins is a thief, and his whole teaching enterprise is a questionable one.

Even Higgins's passion for phonetics separates him from his moneyed peers, who regard speech as little more than a device for sorting out class differences. Colonel Pickering's denunciation of the aristocracy after the embassy reception reflects Higgins's attitude as well:

I was quite frightened once or twice because Eliza was doing it so well. You see, lots of the real people cant do it at all: theyre such fools that they think style comes by nature to people in their position; and so they never learn. Theres always something professional about doing a thing superlatively well.


In his reply, Higgins affirms Pickering's judgment: “Yes: thats what drives me mad: the silly people dont know their own silly business” (746-47). It is here that Higgins most powerfully distances himself from his wealthy counterparts, but without renouncing his membership in their moneyed class, so that he subjects himself to the charge of hypocrisy.

And it is here that Higgins decisively, if unconsciously, departs from his Platonism. Like Plato, Higgins claims to value speech only as a signifier of a deeper truth beyond—“written on the soul.”12 Higgins proudly tells his mother, “I know I have no small talk” (721), and he does not waste words on obvious facts. When Mrs. Higgins reproaches him for not congratulating Eliza on her success at the embassy reception, Higgins is nonplussed: “But she knew all about that” (765).

Yet Higgins also departs from this Platonism to savor effective speech for its own sake. With his professional appreciation for compelling discourse, Higgins is not only a phonetician, but a rhetorician—anathema to Platonists. Compounding the offense, he is also a sophist, skilled at twisting arguments to suit himself. Eliza complains to him, “I cant talk to you: you turn everything against me: I'm always in the wrong” (779). So we must add the charge of self-deception to Higgins's other failings. If Eliza is a pretender, so is he.

But monism so shapes Higgins's thinking that he cannot recognize any such contradictions within himself. Believing himself to be “a shy, diffident sort of man” (705), he is incapable of hearing his own outbursts of bad temper. He wonders where Mrs. Pearce got the idea that he is “an arbitrary overbearing bossing kind of person” (705). And he is genuinely amazed when she confronts him about his swearing. “I detest the habit,” he tells her; “What the devil do you mean?” (703).

More seriously, Higgins cannot see that he is an artist as well as a scientist. Bragging about his “Miltonic mind” (776), he clearly harbors aesthetic sympathies beneath his practical outlook. Near the end of the play, he boasts about his “creation of a Duchess Eliza” (776). But in Act II, he saw Eliza's education only as an exhilarating game: “What is life but a series of inspired follies? The difficulty is to find them to do. Never lose a chance: it doesnt come every day” (691). And in Act V, when Eliza asks why he accepted her as a pupil, he answers, surprised, “because it was my job” (776).

Because he is unaware of the artist within his breast, he fails to see how often he leaves Platonic “seriousness” to enter the realm of creativity and play. “You certainly are a pretty pair of babies, playing with your live doll,” says Mrs. Higgins to him and Pickering (734). But Higgins argues with her: “Playing! The hardest job I ever tackled: make no mistake about that” (734). The result of this self-deception—as any psychologist could tell us—is a loss of control, for human will governs only those inner forces that are allowed to come to consciousness. Thus, Higgins fails to acknowledge the negative side of the games he is playing—the hoax at the embassy reception and his scornful treatment of Eliza. “Does it occur to you, Higgins, that the girl has some feelings?” Pickering asks. Higgins's reply is disdainful: “Oh no, I dont think so. Not any feelings that we need bother about” (694-95).

If Higgins acknowledged these complexities and contradictions, the Life Force could accomplish much with the vital energy that flashes between him and his pupil. Eliza, who knows firsthand how it feels to be an “upstart,” would make a valuable teaching assistant for Higgins. Working together, they could challenge Britain's outmoded class structure.

But Higgins is incapable of these changes. Besides, any alteration in the ending would violate Shaw's purpose. In a sense, he indeed intended for Eliza to serve “as a warning to other presumptuous flower girls” (697). As its mythical name suggests, Pygmalion is about the chaos that inevitably follows any attempt to create “a quite different human being” through education, social reform, or self-improvement. Looking back on the change that Higgins wrought in her, Eliza feels anger rather than gratitude: “You never thought of the trouble it would make for me,” she tells him (776). Higgins, too, feels abused: “I waste the treasures of my Miltonic mind by spreading them before you” (776). Not surprisingly, the two finally separate.

But the matter does not end there, for others are capable of greater vision—ourselves, the audience. The first people on stage in Act I of Pygmalion are theatergoers, suggesting that we onlookers are also participants in the play. And as we ponder the different Elizas we see in Act I and Act V, the distinction between “natural” and “unnatural” begins to break down. What we learn from Eliza is that all language is invented and acquired. Despite Higgins's pride in his authenticity—“I cant change my nature” (773)—Eliza shows us that his crude speech is as much an affectation as the evening clothes he wears to the theater and the embassy reception. “I was brought up to be just like him,” she says, “using bad language on the slightest provocation” (768). Unlike Higgins, Eliza recognizes that “bad” and “good” language are acquired in the same ways.

Speech, as Derrida has insisted, is neither instinctive, simple, lucid, nor pure. Rather, it is complex, obscure, equivocal, and performative—like writing. Eliza wants “only to be natural” (778), but there is nothing admirable about her inarticulate “ah-ah-ah-ow-ow-ow-ow-oos” and “garns” in Act I. Her father has “a certain natural gift of rhetoric” that Henry Higgins appreciates, but Doolittle's character is also marred by “mendacity and dishonesty” (707). Both Eliza and her father refute the widespread belief that humans have a pure, predestined identity within themselves. And Eliza's transformation demonstrates the futility of seeking a mystical language “written in the soul”: human nature is complex, offering us a multitude of potential personalities rather than a singular soul.

As Barbara Johnson has said, “To mean … is automatically not to be.” Yet we always yearn for what Johnson calls “self-presentation”—a system of symbols so perfectly attuned to the purer self within that manipulation and deception are impossible.13 Our Platonic tradition teaches us to expect that perfection from speech—a hope that will never be satisfied. But, throughout our lives, we struggle against these half-understood, never-fulfilled longings, just as Eliza and Higgins do in their relationship.

Although they share the same confusion, Eliza and Higgins vent their frustrations differently. Eliza is wistful—“I only want to be natural”—while Higgins prefers cynicism: “Lord forbid!” he responds when Clara Eynsford-Hill sighs, “If people would only be frank and say what they really think!” (726).

In spite of his cynicism, however, Higgins believes that he has discovered a magic formula for “natural” speech: rudeness. But Eliza hears rejection rather than authenticity when he raves at her: “damn my own folly in having lavished my hard-earned knowledge and the treasure of my regard and intimacy on a heartless guttersnipe” (753). Although Higgins may well have “regard and intimacy” for Eliza, his boorish language does not communicate his feelings. And Eliza is just as unsuccessful in her attempts to talk to him, for Higgins rejects both her “Lisson Grove lingo” (687) and her elegant “new speech”: the first is uncivilized, the second is fake. Instead of drawing them closer, words trigger tantrums and blame.

This stormy relationship confirms Derrida's assertion that “the problem of language has never been simply one problem among others.” Language is central, engendering all the rest. But if words create difficulties for Shaw's characters (and us), they are also instruments of empowerment. As Jane Tompkins has said, “the world itself is discourse.”14 Eliza, the “quite different human being” created in Higgins's laboratory, is a kind of social revolutionary—a pioneering member of the rising British middle class. Having mastered the art of self-expression, Eliza is ready to leave 27A Wimpole Street to take her place in society.

But here she again clashes with her teacher. She rejects Higgins's lighthearted offer to stay on “For the fun of it” (777), feeling compelled to acquire a husband and find a means of supporting herself. Although Higgins professes a philosophy of Platonic seriousness, it is Eliza, not he, who takes life seriously—and she, rather than he, intuitively grasps the complexity of the world around her. Higgins's worldview is egalitarian but simplistic: heaven is a place “where there are no third-class carriages, and one soul is as good as another” (774). His high-minded appreciation for the human race is admirable, but it impedes any meaningful connection to the individuals around him. “I care for life, for humanity,” he tells Eliza, “and you are a part of it that has come my way and been built into my house. What more can you or anyone ask?” (775).

To his surprise, Eliza indeed asks for more—an acknowledgment that he recognizes her uniqueness and cares for her in a special way. But as before, Higgins cannot—or will not—free himself from the limitations of his belief system. His view is logocentric rather than phenomenological, unable to perceive reality through the shifting similarities and distinctions that Derrida calls differance. Higgins sees people as he thinks they should be, not as they are, and he uses that discrepancy as a pretext for rejecting them.

Shaw being Shaw, however, the tables are turned at the end. Higgins, having repudiated the “quite different human being” he created, is finally rejected himself. But somewhere a new set of theatergoers is waiting to discover him behind the classical pillars of St. Paul's Church, Platonism intact, ready to flex his phonetic muscles for them. Perhaps life as a text—for Higgins, too, is a creation of language, as are we in the audience—has its compensations after all.


  1. Bernard Shaw, Collected Plays with Their Prefaces, ed. Dan H. Laurence (London: Reinhardt, 1970-74), 4:730, 762. Subsequent Pygmalion quotations are from this edition, and references to page numbers appear in the text.

  2. Eric Bentley, Bernard Shaw (New York: Limelight-Proscenium, 1985), p. 87.

  3. Daniel Dervin, Bernard Shaw: A Psychological Study (Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1975), pp. 86-87.

  4. Timothy G. Vesonder, “Eliza's Choice: Transformation Myth and the Ending of Pygmalion,” in Fabian Feminist, ed. Rodelle Weintraub (University Park: Penn State University Press, 1977), p. 42.

  5. Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974), p. 6.

  6. Richard F. Dietrich, “Deconstruction as Devil's Advocacy: A Shavian Alternative,” Modern Drama 29 (1986): 431-51.

  7. Of Grammatology, p. 309.

  8. Ibid., p. 158.

  9. Quoted in ibid., p. 142.

  10. Jacques Derrida, Dissemination, trans. Barbara Johnson (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), p. 76.

  11. Dissemination, p. 77.

  12. Quoted in ibid., p. 148.

  13. Barbara Johnson, “Translator's Introduction,” ibid., p. ix.

  14. Jane Tompkins, “A Short Course in Post-Structuralism,” College English 50 (1988): 744.

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