Student Question

How does Shaw express his socialist ideas through Mr. Doolittle in Pygmalion?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Shaw was a Fabian, part of a group that believed socialism could be achieved peacefully, without a revolution, putting him at odds with the Marxists. But both groups shared the belief that economics, not inborn "character" or "nationality," determines social behavior. Shaw shows this through Alfred. 

For example, while Higgins attributes Alfred's dishonesty to being "Welsh," and asks if he has any (middle class) moral values, Alfred explains why he doesn't: "Can't afford them, Governor. Neither could you if you was as poor as me. Not that I mean any harm, you know."

Alfred, when pressed on his morality in wanting to sell Eliza for gain, goes on to say:

I'm one of the undeserving poor: that's what I am. Think of what that means to a man. It means that he's up agen middle class morality all the time. If there's anything going, and I put in for a bit of it, it's always the same story: "You're undeserving; so you can't have it." But my needs is as great as the most deserving widow's that ever got money out of six different charities in one week ... What is middle class morality? Just an excuse for never giving me anything. 

In this statement, Alfred exposes the hypocrisy of middle-class "morality": it is simply the way those with more money hold down those with less, an ideology or false consciousness that says the middle class "deserve" their wealth. This morality is self-serving to the core, a way to uphold a class structure the socialists wish to abolish.

Later, when Alfred is left 3,000 pounds a year from the Predigested Cheese Trust, he exposes how the money changes the way people treat him: he hasn't changed a bit, but now is kept longer at the hospital if he's ill because he has money to pay, has to have servants to keep his house clean, and has 50 relatives where he once had none. He hasn't changed, but money changes how he is perceived. In Alfred, as in Eliza, Shaw punctures the myth that middle-class people are somehow different from and more deserving than the poor. Alfred thus stands as an argument for the more equitable distribution of wealth desired by the socialists.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

How does Shaw express his socialist position through the character of Alfred Doolittle in Pygmalion?

Shaw was actually a Fabian, a member of a group that believed socialism could be brought to England without the violent revolution Marx thought was a prerequisite to change.

In Pygmalion, Shaw is attacking the class system, especially the idea that the middle and upper classes are innately "better" than the working classes. Many people in England of that period felt, first, that the working classes (what we would call the poor or the working poor in the US) were genetically inferior to the higher classes. They did not attribute working class deficits to environmental factors such as lack of nutrition, education, and health care, but to inborn problems that no amount of education or resources could help. Second, many middle-class people thought that every working-class person, though unworthy, must aspire to be part of the middle class, as it was, to them, enviable and innately superior.

As an aside, when we talk about the "middle class" in England in the pre–World War I period (Pygmalion was written in 1913), this term has a slightly different connotation than in the US: it means people who are affluent or wealthy and educated, but not aristocratic or royal—these are, generally, far richer people than the term "middle class" might imply to us.

Through Alfred Doolittle, Shaw attacks the class system, which the socialists wanted to abolish. First, even though he is a poor dustman or garbageman, Alfred is a very smart person—he knows how to strike a bargain, and he can see through pretension. He hasn't been born with a lack of brains anymore than Eliza has, only a lack of opportunity. Second, when he rises to the middle class through a very generous stipend from a wealthy American, he punctures the pretension that it is "better" to be middle class. Doolittle puts his finger on all the problems with having money—you are expected to behave in a certain upright way morally (Alfred, for example, is suddenly forced to marry his lover to remain respectable) and people are constantly after you for money, from doctors who are suddenly concerned about your health to relatives who want to be remembered in your will—or sooner. Alfred, comically, misses his days as a poor nobody who was invisible to others and thus free to do his own thing.

This relates to socialism because, first, Shaw show that there is no reason not to educate and help the working classes—they can benefit from having access to same resources as the rich. Second, as said above, socialists wanted to do away with the class system so that everyone could be equal. By showing how uncomfortable many aspects of being in a wealthier class are, Alfred makes an argument for this kind of leveling: if a small group of people who are now rich suddenly are the same as everyone, much pressure is taken from them.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Last Updated on