Act 3 Summary

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Last Reviewed on March 10, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 913

It is between four and five o’clock, and Mrs. Higgins, Henry Higgins’s mother, is at home to visitors (ladies at this time would have had regular weekly hours when their friends could be sure of finding them “at home” and dispensing tea and cake). She is in her drawing room, which is tastefully decorated in the style of Morris and Burne Jones, when Higgins enters with his hat on. Mrs. Higgins promptly takes it off as he bends down to kiss her, telling him to go home at once. She has friends coming to visit, she says, and Higgins always offends her friends so that they never come again.

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Higgins explains, in a roundabout and rather unhelpful way, that he has a job for his mother. He has invited Eliza to her “at home” day as part of his experiment, to see whether she will pass for an upper-class woman among Mrs. Higgins’s friends. His hasty explanations are interrupted by the arrival of Mrs. Eynsford Hill and her daughter, Clara. Higgins is reluctant to meet them but cannot escape and is offhand and distant, proving his mother’s point about his lack of social graces. They are soon joined by Colonel Pickering, then Freddy Eynsford Hill, whereupon Higgins abruptly decides that the Eynsford Hills will do as well as anyone else for his experiment, though he still refuses to preoccupy himself with small talk and audibly wonders, “what the devil are we going to talk about until Eliza comes?”

Eliza enters, exquisitely dressed and looking beautiful. Her pronunciation is pedantically correct, but she has little to say. When she talks about the weather, she sounds like a meteorological report. Mrs. Eynsford Hill’s mention of influenza then leads her to tell a story about the death of her aunt which, though perfectly pronounced, is wildly inappropriate in both vocabulary and content: it includes theft, drunkenness, and possible murder. She then proceeds to discuss her father’s bouts of drunkenness. Freddy finds her conversation immensely amusing, while Mrs. Eynsford Hill is rather shocked. Higgins decides that they should leave, and Freddy, who is already smitten with Eliza, asks her to walk across the park with him. This gives rise to Eliza’s parting line: “Walk! Not bloody likely. I am going in a taxi.” The word “bloody” was regarded as quite shocking at the time and would never have been used in polite society. Its use created a sensation among audiences of the play, as it does in Mrs. Higgins’s drawing room. The consternation of Mrs. Eynsford Hill in particular sets the seal on the failure of this section of Higgins’s experiment.

The Eynsford Hills leave soon after Eliza. Clara imitates her by using the word “bloody,” which she thinks is a mark of fashionable society, but Mrs. Eynsford Hill apologizes to Mrs. Higgins, saying that Clara does not get out in society much and does not know any better. As soon as they have gone, Mrs. Higgins informs her son of the utter failure of his experiment, telling him that Eliza betrays her lowly origins “in every sentence she utters.” 

Like Mrs. Pearce, Mrs. Higgins wants to know what Eliza’s status is within Higgins’s household. She accuses Higgins and Pickering of behaving like children, playing with a live doll. They brush off her concerns in a way that only serves to exacerbate them and demonstrate the justice of her accusation. The two men then leave, deciding impulsively to take Eliza to the Shakespeare exhibition at Earls Court, where “her remarks will be delicious,” according to Pickering. After their departure, Mrs. Higgins exclaims in exasperation, “Oh, men! men! men!!!”

An abbreviated version of the play, which is sometimes used in stage performances and often appears in online versions, concludes act 3 at this point. However, Shaw wrote another scene and placed it at the end of act 3, allowing the audience to witness Eliza’s triumph at first hand.

The setting is a grand reception at an embassy in London. It is after dark, and everyone is in full evening dress. Higgins, Pickering, and Eliza enter, whereupon Higgins is immediately accosted by a voluble Hungarian with an enormous moustache. This is Nepommuck, a former phonetics student of Higgins’s. He describes himself as Higgins’s first and greatest pupil, though Higgins does not appear to be at all pleased to see him or to rate his intelligence highly.

Nepommuck prides himself on his skill in detecting linguistic impostors, whom he blackmails in return for his silence and complicity. He speaks to Eliza to try to discover who she is and later, when he joins the group of people in which Higgins is standing, dramatically announces that she is a fraud. When pressed for further details, Nepommuck explains that Eliza speaks English too perfectly for her to be a native. She is clearly a foreigner, as he is. Moreover, he announces, she is clearly a Hungarian of royal blood. When Higgins disagrees and suggests that Eliza might be “an ordinary London girl out of the gutter and taught to speak by an expert,” everyone, including Nepommuck, laughs at this preposterous suggestion. When Eliza comes and tells Higgins that she cannot bear much more of this society and apologizes for losing his bet for him, Higgins responds that she has not lost it; She has “won it ten times over.” Tired but triumphant, they leave the embassy to have supper.

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