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The themes and messages of Shaw's Pygmalion

Summary:

The themes and messages of Shaw's Pygmalion include social class distinctions, transformation, and the power of language. The play critiques the rigid British class system and explores how external changes, such as speech and manners, can influence one's social standing. It also delves into issues of identity and independence, particularly through Eliza's journey of self-discovery and empowerment.

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What is the message of Shaw's Pygmalion?

Shaw's socialism is also relevant here. In the figure of Eliza Dolittle, he wants us to see how the working classes are so often cynically exploited by the social elite, as exemplified by the manipulative Sir Henry Higgins. The likes of Higgins don't see the lower orders as real people in their own right. They're little more than objects, who, if they're not being exploited economically, are used as guinea pigs in social science experiments.

However, Eliza is able to break free from this cycle of exploitation and assert herself as the dignified human being she always was, which she was never given the chance to do by a society in which wealth and appearance are everything. Indeed, it says a lot about this society, which Shaw so witheringly critiques in Pygmalion, that it can only accept Eliza once she's been outwardly transformed into a lady of quality.

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What is the message of Shaw's Pygmalion?

Shaw's Pygmalion is a comedy. To a certain degree, Shaw's purpose in writing it was to entertain people. Shaw, however, even at his most entertaining, does have a polemical streak and tends to return to certain central ideas and themes across all his plays. Shaw's ideas are clearly expressed in the Prefaces to his plays, which are well worth reading carefully. 

First, Shaw was very concerned about reforming and simplifying English spelling. As you read the play, you will note several idiosyncratic elements in spelling and word usage; these are not accidental but part of Shaw's theory of language. The sheer importance of language as a tool of reasoning is also a consistent theme of the play. Shaw argues that if you cannot express yourself adequately, you cannot think rationally. That reforming the study of language and the way it was intertwined with the English class system, was the main point of the play is stated at the beginning of the Preface:

The English have no respect for their language, and will not teach their children to speak it. They spell it so abominably that no man can teach himself what it sounds like. It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him.

Next, as is discussed in the afterword, Shaw argues for his own rather peculiar form of feminism in his portrayal of the character of Eliza and his insistence that, irrespective of gender, strong people seek weaker mates and that strong women, rather than wishing to be dominated, choose weak husbands.

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What is the message of Shaw's Pygmalion?

Pygmalion offers a critique of the Victorian English society, specifically the distinction between the upper and lower classes. Though English society of the time had a rigid social structure, Shaw demonstrates the foolishness in upper-class feelings of superiority: for one thing, Eliza Doolittle, a flower girl, is able to perfectly imitate and pass for a member of the wealthy elite. For another, some members of the upper classes, such as Higgins, are shown to be lacking in morality. Estimations of a person, Shaw implies, should be based not on money or clothing—or even accent, as Higgins seems to believe—but on kindness and goodness.

Another important message of the play is actually more psychological and has to do with the Pygmalion effect. The Pygmalion effect is a psychological phenomenon that explains how one's expectations can influence one's performance. Eliza says to Pickering that she's thankful to him for always treating her like a lady, even when she clearly wasn't, because that was the main reason why she began to respect herself and have more confidence. In fact, his belief in her was what motivated her to really learn how to behave and how to properly express herself.

But do you know what began my real education? ...Your calling me Miss Doolittle that day when I first came to Wimpole Street. That was the beginning of self-respect for me. And there were a hundred little things you never noticed, because they came naturally to you. Things about standing up and taking off your hat and opening doors ...

You see, really and truly, apart from the things anyone can pick up (the dressing and the proper way of speaking, and so on), the difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves, but how she's treated. I shall always be a flower girl to Professor Higgins, because he always treats me as a flower girl, and always will; but I know I can be a lady to you, because you always treat me as a lady, and always will.

Thus, Shaw reminds the readers to always give people a chance and to believe in their potential to become someone better, as this will help them achieve their goals.

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How is the idea of making the best of life portrayed in Shaw's Pygmalion?

Shaw loved to poke fun at society and its prejudices. Pygmalion, loosely based on the myth of Pygmalion (Book Ten of Ovid's Metamorphosis), demonstrates that social class is not necessarily permanent, and that rich or poor, people are people.

The idea that individuals have to just accept their lots in life is opposite of Shaw's theme. Eliza was a poor flower-girl whose accent kept her from getting a proper education and a real job. British society would keep her there, saying that she must make the best of her circumstances, but there is no way to break out of that class. Professor Higgins proved otherwise by teaching Eliza a more upper class way of speaking--and she was accepted by the upper class as one of their own. Eliza was not "stuck" in the lower classes of London, but could (and did) work her way up.

The same is true in modern culture. Just because someone is born into bad circumstances does not mean that he or she has to stay that way. Hard work and commitment can give any individual the possibility of great success.

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