What is the Pygmalion myth?

Expert Answers

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

The original Pygmalion myth derives from Ancient Greece. The most famous version is told by the Roman poet Ovid in his Metamorphoses.

In Ovid's story, the sculptor Pygmalion creates a statue of woman that is so beautiful he wishes it would come to life so he could marry it. He prays to Aphrodite, the goddess of love, to give him a living woman as a wife who is just like his beautiful statue. When he arrives back home, he kisses the statue and realizes it has come to life. Aphrodite has answered his prayer, and he is able to marry the statue-turned-woman, which he does. The statue/woman is named Galatea.

If the story seems to reduce a woman to the status of an object—a statue come to life—that would be a valid observation and one Shaw perhaps had in mind when he wrote his play, as Henry Higgins regards Eliza as little more than a "thing" he can experiment with and treat however badly he wishes.

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

The myth of Pygmalion is from ancient classical times, the most well-known version being that of the Latin writer Ovid. Pygmalion was a sculptor who fell in love with the beautiful statue of a woman that he carved, and which came to life. The myth has been the subject of several literary adaptations but Shaw's play remains the most famous. In this play the role of Pygmalion is assumed by Professor Henry Higgins. He does not create a statue but he does attempt to create an idealised figure of womanhood in Eliza Doolittle, as he sets out to transfer her from a bedraggled Cockney flower girl into a perfectly-spoken lady. It is questionable whether he entirely succeeds in this, but he does change her life, giving her higher social prospects than she would otherwise have had. There is also a hint that he starts to be attracted to her, as Pygmalion was attracted to his creation, but this romantic element is not developed in the play (however it was added in later film adaptations of Shaw's work). Eliza, unlike the statue in the original myth, is not a static, passive figure; she has a mind of her own from beginning to end.

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

What is the myth behind Pygmalion?

Another myth that exists in Pygmalion, in the figurative sense, at least, is Professor Higgins belief that appearance can create a reality.  That is, he is convinced that he can "make a duchess of this draggle-tailed guttersnipe," he can transform Eliza Dootlittle into a lady.  Unfortunately, Higgins does not realize what another Englishman, W. Somerset Maugham did,

....men and women are not only themselves, they are also the region in which they are born, ...the games they played as children, the old wives' tales they overheard,...and the God in Whom they believe.

For, once the transformation of appearance has been made in Eliza and she can speak well and has the necessary manners for higher society, she is yet displaced. Being not clearly a part of any particular class, Eliza no longer knows who she truly is.  Therefore, despite the belief of one of the characters of Dean Koontz, who declares, "Perception is reality," Eliza finds no reality in her reflection that presents her with what appears to be a lady--only myth.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What is the myth behind Pygmalion?

In classical mythology, particularly in Ovid's Metamorphoses, Pygmalion was a sculptor who, viewing most women as corrupt and insufficiently pure, crafted a statue of a woman out of ivory. The statue was so beautiful that he fell in love with it, and prayed to the goddess of love, Venus, that the statue might become a real woman. This prayer came true, and Pygmalion married the woman, with whom he had several children. In George Bernard Shaw's play entitled Pygmalion, Henry Higgins, a linguistics scholar, "gives life" to Eliza Doolittle by teaching her to act and speak in a manner consistent with refined society. The theme of Pygmalion was actually a common one in Victorian society, as well as Western literature as a whole, with Shaw's version being a particularly enduring and famous variant. 

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