The main characters in Pygmalion are Eliza Doolittle, Henry Higgins, and Colonel Pickering.
- Eliza Doolittle is a flower seller with a lower-class accent. She learns to speak standard English, passes for a member of the social elite, and grows angry when her efforts are unacknowledged.
- Henry Higgins is a linguistics expert who makes a bet that he can teach Eliza to speak standard English so that she passes for an upper-class woman. He treats Eliza with little respect and ignores her efforts.
- Colonel Pickering becomes friends with Higgins and makes the bet with him regarding Eliza. He treats everyone, including Eliza, with respect.
Henry Higgins is a character who clearly demonstrates the influence of Nietzsche on Shaw. A brilliant, energetic “Superman” figure, he is rather similar in character and outlook to many other Shavian heroes, such as Andrew Undershaft in Major Barbara or Jack Tanner in Man and Superman. He is described as “a robust, vital, appetizing sort of man of forty or thereabouts.”
Higgins is irascible and arrogant but also good-humored and companionable. He takes an instant liking to Pickering, and the two become close friends almost as soon as they meet. He is also absolutely devoted to his mother, despite the fact that each exasperates the other all too frequently. His temperament is mercurial, and he is restless and easily bored, impatient with conventions and formalities. Although he is highly emotional, often given to sulking and fits of temper, he likes to think of himself as purely scientific and cerebral in his approach to life. He has a particular affinity for Milton and a tendency to philosophize. His work is of overriding importance to him, and he finds phonetics to be a never-ending source of fascination.
Eliza Doolittle is a young woman who has endured a hard life of poverty and neglect. At the beginning of the play, she has the modest ambition to work in a florist’s shop rather than selling flowers from a basket in the street. However, she quickly adapts to her new social position. Her achievement in learning to speak standard English, though treated by Higgins solely as a triumph for his teaching, clearly takes high intelligence and dedication, and she is furious when Higgins fails to give her any credit. By the end of the play, she is talking to and arguing with Higgins on equal terms, having quickly cast off her status as his pupil or even his creation.
Eliza is a strong character, and Shaw depicts her in the sequel to the play as coping well with her ambiguous situation as a poor flower girl who has suddenly acquired the manners and deportment of a duchess.
Alfred Doolittle is a dustman and Eliza’s father. He is lazy and mendacious and has been a negligent and thoughtless father, though not a cruel one. Despite his humble origins and lack of education, Doolittle has a marvellous gift for rhetoric. He describes himself as a member of “the undeserving poor” and treats middle-class moral codes with contempt and hostility. Ironically, he becomes a well-paid lecturer on moral philosophy when Higgins makes a joke to an American philanthropist that Doolittle is the most original moralist in England. The philanthropist then dies, leaving Doolittle three thousand pounds a year (a very substantial income in 1913) to lecture for his Moral Reform League. Doolittle is unhappy with his newfound wealth, since his old, carefree life of poverty was better suited to his irresponsible nature.
Colonel Pickering is a benevolent, generous gentleman who is interested in phonetics and has studied Higgins’s work; he has written about Indian dialects himself. He and Higgins quickly become friends, and it is Pickering who suggests the experiment to teach Eliza to speak like a lady. Pickering always treats Eliza (and everyone else) with great kindness and courtesy, and he is altogether a much more approachable figure than Higgins. He is still capable of insensitivity, however, as when he fails to appreciate how much work Eliza herself has put into making Higgins’s experiment a success.
Mrs. Higgins is the mother of Henry Higgins. Higgins adores her, though they often spar and exasperate one another. Higgins...
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tells her that his “idea of a loveable woman is something as like [her] as possible,” and it is clear that the perfection of her example has led him to expect too much from women in general. Mrs. Higgins is gracious and elegant, furnishing her house and conducting her life with excellent taste. She is a strong character and has no difficulty standing up to her son’s outbursts. She is also kind and highly intelligent, showing greater understanding of Eliza than anyone else in the play.
Mrs. Eynsford Hill
Mrs. Eynsford Hill is an upper-class woman who has lost money and is now struggling to keep up appearances on a greatly reduced income. She is a friend of Mrs. Higgins and is one of the first people to encounter Eliza socially after her linguistic transformation. Being from an upper-class background, she does not know what to make of Eliza and is mortified when her daughter, Clara, decides to imitate her.
Freddy Eynsford Hill
Freddy is Mrs. Eynsford Hill’s son. Although Shaw writes that he was educated at a “cheap, pretentious, and thoroughly inefficient” school, he seems to have been less affected than his sister by the family’s lack of money and still behaves like a member of the upper classes. He finds Eliza’s conversation very amusing when they first meet, and he quickly falls in love with her, though he failed to notice her at all when he encountered her in act 1, before her transformation. Shaw does not make much of their relationship in the play, but he tells the reader in the epilogue, or “sequel,” that Freddy and Eliza will marry.
Clara Eynsford Hill
Clara Eynsford Hill is an awkward girl who is painfully aware of the discrepancy between her position as a member of the upper classes and the relative poverty of her family. She attempts to cover her insecurity with a false bravado which is rarely convincing and leads her mother to apologize to Mrs. Higgins for her gaucheness, saying that she “doesn’t quite know” how to behave.
Mrs. Pearce is Higgins’s long-suffering housekeeper. She is against the idea of Eliza joining the household but treats her kindly when she does. Mrs. Pearce admonishes Higgins for his offhand treatment of Eliza and for the bad example he sets in terms of manners and deportment.
Nepommuck is a former pupil of Higgins’s and a Hungarian. He is a brilliant linguist who speaks thirty-two languages, but Higgins regards him as intellectually negligible in every other way. He is, however, an expert at detecting linguistic frauds, whom he blackmails. Nepommuck realizes that Eliza’s English is too perfect to be natural, but he fails to identify her as a woman of the lower class, believing her instead to be a princess from his native Hungary.