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).
Late one evening in the Covent Garden theater district of London, playgoers are attempting to summon taxicabs in the rain when a crowd gathers around an unkempt young woman selling flowers. The flower girl has been speaking in a very strong Cockney dialect, and a distinguished gentleman has been transcribing her speech into a notebook. The gentleman, Henry Higgins, is a professional phonetician who earns a handsome income teaching people how to change their lower- and middle-class accents so that they can pass as members of the upper class. Higgins amazes the crowd by using his analysis of individuals’ accents to pinpoint where each of them lives. Appalled by the flower girl’s lower-class dialect, Higgins boasts that in a matter of months he could teach her how to speak properly and pass as a duchess at an ambassador’s garden party.
The next morning, in the drawing room and laboratory of Higgins’s Wimpole Street residence, Higgins is showing Colonel Pickering his elaborate equipment for recording speech when the housekeeper, Mrs. Pearce, announces the arrival of the flower girl, Eliza Doolittle. Eliza wants to take lessons from Higgins so she can improve her speech and get a job as a clerk in a proper flower shop. Higgins is impressed by the percentage of her meager wealth that Eliza is willing to pay and accepts her as a student, making a wager with Pickering that in six months he can pass Eliza off as a duchess. Mrs. Pearce asks what is to become of Eliza when Higgins has finished his teaching, but Higgins dismisses the question as trivial. After Mrs. Pearce takes Eliza away so that the young woman can bathe, Pickering asks Higgins if his intentions toward Eliza are honorable; Higgins assures Pickering that he is a confirmed bachelor, determined not to let women into his life.
After helping Eliza into the bath, Mrs. Pearce reenters the drawing room to set down rules for Higgins’s behavior while Eliza is staying in the house—proper dress and table manners and no swearing. Eliza’s father, Alfred Doolittle, a dustman, or trash collector, arrives and attempts to extort money from Higgins. When Higgins insists that Doolittle take his daughter back immediately, he drives down Doolittle’s price to a five-pound note. Higgins offers Doolittle ten pounds, but Doolittle refuses the extra five because he does not want to be tempted to save money. On his way out, Doolittle sees his daughter but does not immediately recognize her, as Eliza is clean and well dressed.
After a few months, the training has gone so well that Higgins decides to test Eliza by taking her to his mother’s flat for a formal visit. He arrives first to prepare his mother, informing her that Eliza can converse on only two topics—the weather and everyone’s health. Unfortunately, as Higgins is explaining the situation, three unexpected visitors are announced: Mrs. Eynsford Hill, her daughter Clara, and her son Freddy. Initially, Higgins is upset with the intrusion of the Eynsford Hills, but then he welcomes them as a greater challenge for Eliza’s performance. When Eliza arrives she is exquisitely dressed and produces an impression of remarkable distinction and beauty. She begins conversing quite adeptly, but as she becomes more engaged in the conversation she slips back into some of her lower-class speech patterns. Higgins, however, is able to convince the Eynsford Hills that her speech is a new and fashionable way of speaking, the “new small talk,” and they are convinced that she is a lady of high society; by the time Eliza leaves, Freddy has obviously fallen in love with her. After the Eynsford Hills leave, Higgins is exultant, but his mother asks him what is to be done with Eliza after the lessons are completed.
When the time comes for Eliza’s performance at the ambassador’s garden party, she succeeds splendidly. Afterward, Higgins and Pickering celebrate their triumph, talking of how glad they are that their work is over and complaining that they had ultimately become bored by the whole affair. Eliza, on the other hand, is brooding and silent. Higgins wonders out loud where his slippers are, and Eliza leaves the room and fetches them for him. Higgins and Pickering talk of the evening as if Eliza were not there, and as they are leaving for bed, Eliza throws Higgins’s slippers after him, calling him a selfish brute. Now Eliza asks the question, “What’s to become of me?”
That evening, Eliza leaves Higgins’s flat to walk the streets of London, and by morning she has gone to stay with Higgins’s mother. Later that morning, Higgins and Pickering, bewildered and worried about Eliza’s disappearance, arrive at the mother’s home. They are shortly followed by Eliza’s father, who enters dressed like a gentleman, complaining that his life has been ruined because of Higgins. Higgins had written a joking letter to an American millionaire, and that letter has led to Alfred Doolittle’s inheriting a huge sum of money. Now, Doolittle complains, everyone is begging money from him. His life is no longer impoverished, free, and simple.
Higgins’s mother reveals that Eliza is upstairs, angered by the insensitivity and indifference Higgins has shown her. Mrs. Higgins asks Doolittle to step outside so that Eliza will not be shocked by his appearance when she comes downstairs. Eliza then enters and meets Higgins and Pickering as a refined lady, the transformation complete. Eliza explains that she has learned her nice manners from Pickering and that the real difference between a lady and a flower girl is not in how she behaves but in how she is treated.
Eliza’s father reenters the room, and Eliza is surprised at how he looks. Doolittle reports that he is now a victim of middle-class morality and is on his way to his wedding. He invites everyone to come to the wedding, and Pickering and Mrs. Higgins leave to get ready, leaving Eliza and Higgins behind. Pickering has urged Eliza to return to live with him and Higgins, but in her last conversation with Higgins, Eliza has decided to leave Higgins forever. She claims that she is only looking for a little kindness and that she will marry Freddy Eynsford Hill. She will earn her living as a teacher of phonetics, teaching others as she has been taught. Higgins is incensed but impressed with Eliza’s spirit, and finally he sees her as more of an equal. As Eliza leaves, vowing never to see Higgins again, Higgins asserts confidently that she will return.