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...
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