Like The Doctor’s Dilemma (pr. 1906, pb. 1911), Pygmalion is a problem play that examines a social issue. Shaw deals here with the assumptions of social superiority and inferiority that underlie the class system. He demonstrates how speech and etiquette preserve class distinctions. As he wrote in the play’s preface, “It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him.” Pygmalion therefore tries to illustrate the arbitrariness of basing a person’s worth on his or her pronunciation.
The phonetics professor Henry Higgins is an expert in dialects and accents. At Covent Garden he phonetically transcribes all that the innocent flower girl Eliza Doolittle says. Since he boasted of his successes in educating social climbers in speech, Eliza comes to Higgins’s house the next day, asking to be taught to speak like a lady so that she might be employed in a classy flower store. A fellow phonetics professor, Colonel Pickering, offers to cover the expenses of the experiment if Higgins can pass Eliza off as a duchess at a garden party six months later. Sure of his abilities, the tyrannical and condescending Higgins is enticed by the Frankensteinian challenge “to take a human being and change her into a quite different human being by creating a new speech for her.”
While Higgins is successful in transforming Eliza in terms of speech, his rough manners, rudeness, and swearing do not teach her the accompanying social etiquette. Eliza betrays her lack of refinement at a parlor party not through her pronunciation but through what she says. The comic climax is reached when she uses the vulgar expression “Not bloody likely,” although she pronounces it in a ladylike manner.
Higgins and Pickering seem unaware that their experiment has transformed Eliza not only in terms of her speech. Even after she has successfully passed for a lady at a garden party, Higgins still does not treat her like a lady. Higgins’s excuse is that while Pickering may treat a flower girl like a duchess, he would also treat a duchess like a flower girl, since he believes in treating everyone equally, regardless of his or her social class. Feeling disappointed and humiliated, Eliza leaves Higgins by night, no longer willing to be treated like a servant. She believes that she has risen to a higher social class and claims that social class is not determined by one’s pronunciation but by the respect with which one is treated.
In the meantime, money has been left to Eliza’s father by a rich American. This unexpected wealth has transformed him from an alcoholic dustman into a middle-class man in terms of behavior and ideology, although not in terms of pronunciation. Since it is based on money and not on accent, his character transformation seems more secure than his daughter’s, although both seem ambivalent about their new status.
Although the play leaves Eliza and Higgins’s future open, Shaw wrote in his afterword that she will marry the petit bourgeois Freddy and open a flower and vegetable shop with him instead of continuing to endure Higgins’s unrefinement and rudeness. She has been struggling throughout the play to liberate herself from the professor’s tyranny.
In Pygmalion, Shaw links the Cinderella story of a transformation from rags to riches with a Frankensteinian creation of a new life. Underneath the play’s comedy, questions are raised about the justifiability of social distinction and the role of women in a patriarchal society. Although Shaw felt ambivalent about the feminist movement of the early twentieth century, he presents Eliza as suffering degradation and escaping from it with the help of Pickering’s civility, Mrs. Higgins’s understanding, and her own awakened self-reliance. Pygmalion was later made into the popular musical comedy My Fair Lady (1956).