Discussion Topic

Themes of Pygmalion

Summary:

Pygmalion explores themes such as social class and transformation. It critiques the rigid British class system by showing how superficial changes can alter perceptions of identity. The play also delves into the idea of self-improvement and personal transformation, suggesting that external changes can lead to internal growth and self-awareness.

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What are the themes of Pygmalion?

One of the themes you might like to consider is the fluidity of identity. On the face of it, it would appear that Eliza Dolittle's identity is fixed. She's a humble Cockney flower seller who looks set to remain in this lowly condition for the rest of her days. And yet Eliza, as a result of Higgins's experiment, is able to morph into a lady of quality and is able to take her place among the upper echelons of society without arousing the least soupçon of suspicion.

This stunning transformation would appear to suggest that identity is anything but fixed. On the contrary, Eliza's experience shows how it's possible for someone to put on a new identity and leave behind one's former self in the past. It's by no means an easy task, to be sure, and there are lots of bumps in the road along the way. But the very fact that someone from Eliza's humble background can become, to the outside world, a lady of refinement, bears eloquent testimony to the fluidity of identity in a society where appearance is everything.

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What are the themes of Pygmalion?

I have linked below to the many themes of Pygmalion discussed on eNotes, including beauty, identity, appearance versus reality, and sexism. I will, however, talk about class, since that seems to me the most important theme of this play. Shaw was a Fabian, a kind of socialist who thought socialism could be brought about through reform, not by revolution. In the play, he attacks the British class system, in which the opportunities people had were based primarily on who their parents were—in other words, on the accident of birth. A class ideology or belief system insisted that people of higher class parents were genetically or innately superior to those of the lower classes, who were often thought to be born inferior or with a genetic predisposition to crime or immorality. In Pygmalion, Shaw explodes this myth of class by showing that Eliza, an impoverished flower seller, could, with a little training in how to speak and act like a lady, outshine the born aristocrats and become fit to marry a Duke (though she doesn't). Shaw also shows, in the depiction of Eliza's father, Mr. Doolittle, who comes into money, that it is economics, not birth, that determines who behaves morally according to middle-class norms.

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Discuss the themes of social snobbery, transformation, creation, education, and appearance versus reality in Pygmalion.

Since you mention several themes, you might want to point out that some of them are interrelated and can be discussed together. For example, the theme of social snobbery is tied in with the theme of "appearance versus reality." Social snobbery usually refers to the way society looks down on people due to the circumstances beyond their control—how much money they have, their looks, their background. In other words, social snobbery is all about appearance rather than reality. There are many incidents in Pygmalion where people are judged solely upon their appearance.

The theme of social transformation is likewise related to the theme of education and the theme of creation. Higgins sets out originally to merely "educate" Eliza. (He does have some social transformation in mind, but he thinks it will be merely superfluous and temporary.) However, due to the process of education, Eliza actually becomes someone else—she is unable to go back to her old self and old life—and Higgins, in essence, has created a new person. It is important to mention here the transformation and education of Higgins himself (has he learned from the experience?) along with the experience of the other characters, namely, Alfred Doolittle, Eliza's father. 

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Discuss the themes of social snobbery, transformation, creation, education, and appearance versus reality in Pygmalion.

The first thing you should probably do is to remember that this play originally comes from the ancient world. The fullest rendering of the poem comes from Ovid. So, if you look at Ovid's take on the myth and compare it with Shaw's version, then there would be great room for discussion. Second, the whole story is about transformation. So, you can take this theme and talk about the internal transformation of Pygmalion or even the transformation of the reader as he or she reads the story. Remember Orpheus, the greatest bard, is telling the story in Ovid. His music is supposed to transform people! You can also talk about what "seems to be" and "is." this is a classic discussion among the ancients. What is the difference? What are the similarities? What role does art play into this discussion, especially as art seeks to imitate nature?

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