Pygmalion Reading Pointers for Sharper Insights
by George Bernard Shaw

Pygmalion book cover
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Reading Pointers for Sharper Insights

As you read through Pygmalion, consider the following points:

  1. The English language:

  2. Gender and class roles in Victorian England were rigidly defined. Audiences were not used to seeing these values questioned. Shaw, though, examined and rejected the idea of each person being trapped in his or her role. Toward the end of the play, Eliza claims that “the difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves, but how she's treated.”

  3. The concept that appearance differs from reality is another of Shaw's targets. Although Eliza is the same person from the beginning of the play until the end, Freddie ignores her when she is a lowly flower seller and yet is completely enraptured by her when he views her as a member of high society.

  4. What does Eliza actually learn and accomplish? Readers should be aware that the most important change she undergoes is one of self-realization. She learns that accent, vocabulary, and pronunciation are not the measure of a human being; by the end of the play, Eliza is aware that she can function independently of Higgins.

  5. Pygmalion is modeled after the Greek myth of Pygmalion and Galatea. Shaw did not, however, restrict himself to simply modernizing the plot. The following elements of the myth are similar to parts of the play, although they are merely points on which Shaw hung the story of Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle:

    • Pygmalion, a young sculptor in Cyprus, hates women and resolves never to marry.

    • The sculptor, however, creates a beautiful female statue, with which he falls deeply in love.

    • Because the statue is the perfection of the female form, he dresses it in fine clothing and jewelry.

    • Pygmalion prays to Aphrodite to bring the statue to life, and she does.

    • Galatea (the now-alive statue) and Pygmalion marry.

  6. The contrast between the ending Shaw wrote and the desires of readers' expectations of a happy ending (or, at least, a resolution) is explained in his own comments after the conclusion of the play. He claims that the “rest of the story need not be shown” and criticizes those readers who lack imaginations. (Henry and Eliza do end up together in “My Fair Lady,” the musical based on the play.)