Pygmalion Themes

The main themes in Pygmalion include social class and accent, manners and etiquette, and subversion of conventional romance.

  • Social class and accent: Shaw demonstrates the extent to which accent reflected social class and determined respectability in England in the early twentieth century.
  • Manners and etiquette: Higgins is able to teach Eliza etiquette, but as he is self-centered, he cannot teach her manners: she learns manners from those who treat her with respect.
  • Subversion of conventional romance: Though Higgins and Eliza are attracted to each other, Shaw implies that they will not end up together, as he disliked those sorts of endings.


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Social Class and Accent

Although all countries have social classes and divisions between rich and poor, England is unusual in the degree to which accent and vocabulary are correlated with class. Bernard Shaw points out in the preface that

It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him.

Higgins is a professor of phonetics and conducts serious scientific research, but he makes his money by using his knowledge of phonetics to help people whose origins lie in the lower classes to pretend that they are part of the upper class. No matter how much money they have or how much they achieve, they will never be accepted in aristocratic or even middle-class society unless they have the right sort of accent.

Although this linguistic phenomenon was well-established by 1913, it was actually of comparatively recent origin, as Shaw was well aware. By the middle of the nineteenth century, it had become established practice for rich families to send their sons to public schools (which were called “public” because they were famous, not because they were open to the general public). Higgins immediately recognizes that Colonel Pickering attended Harrow, one of the best-known of these schools. At these public schools, the pupils all learned to speak in the same way, giving rise to a single “received pronunciation,” which had not existed before. In 1750, an aristocrat from Yorkshire would have spoken approximately the same sort of English as the men who worked on his estate. By 1850, he would have barely been able to understand their dialect. 

Shaw had lived in England for a long time when he wrote Pygmalion, but he remained an observer and an outsider. In the play, he is constantly commenting on the extreme importance of accent in English social life. For Higgins, correct and articulate speech is so central to identity that he imagines (quite wrongly) that he can remake Eliza into a completely different person simply by changing the way she speaks. It is Colonel Pickering and Mrs. Higgins who teach Eliza what it really means to be a lady, and they begin by treating her like one, which Higgins never does. They demonstrate to Eliza and to the audience the fallacy of Higgins’s view that accent is synonymous with class. In this respect, Higgins is guilty of the same mistake as the social snobs he describes with such scorn at the beginning of act 4.

Manners and Etiquette

Etiquette is a matter of correct form, whereas manners involve considering the feelings of others. A man who holds his knife and fork incorrectly commits a breach of etiquette, while those who sneer at him for it exhibit bad manners. The distinction between manners and etiquette is central to the play.

While Eliza is taking a bath in act 2, Mrs. Pearce returns to warn Higgins that he will have to alter his own behavior if he is to set a good example for his new pupil. Higgins is prone to cursing at the slightest provocation, and his personal habits, such as wiping his fingers on his dressing gown, leave much to be desired.

Higgins has been well brought-up. His mother is a lady who has elegance, good taste, and irreproachable manners. However, though Higgins knows the correct way to behave, he is often too impatient and preoccupied with other matters to pay attention to his conduct or to the effect that he creates in polite society. Both his manners and his etiquette are at fault, but he is aware of the latter when he makes the effort to remember it. His manners are bad because he is self-centered. This is why Eliza says that if she had only had the example of Higgins before her, she would never have learned to be a lady. Higgins retorts that it is not important how one treats people as long as one treats them all the same. He tells Eliza,

The great secret, Eliza, is not having bad manners or good manners or any other particular sort of manners, but having the same manner for all human souls: in short, behaving as if you were in Heaven, where there are no third-class carriages, and one soul is as good as another.

Eliza, however, dismisses this as preaching.

The debate about what it means to have good manners and the connection between manners and etiquette are both important themes in the play. Higgins teaches Eliza etiquette, which is correct form, but he cannot teach her manners, since good manners involve caring about the feelings of others, as Colonel Pickering and Mrs. Higgins do. It is only when Eliza has learned to speak like a lady that Higgins shows any interest in her as a human being, which suggests that his claim to treat everyone equally is not well-founded. The etiquette of others has an effect on him, whether he admits it or not.

Subversion of Conventional Romance

Higgins and Eliza are clearly the two major figures in the play, which explores their feelings for each other in some depth. These are not conventionally romantic feelings, however, and the play does not not have a conventional happy ending—or even a conclusive one. Shaw objected to plots where the hero marries the heroine and tended to avoid them in all his plays. He wrote a long epilogue or “sequel” to Pygmalion at least partly to make it clear that Eliza will not marry or have a conventional romantic relationship with Higgins. In the last paragraph, he says that she sometimes longs to “drag him off his pedestal and see him making love like any common man,” but she will never do so. She finds Higgins immensely interesting. There is a sense in which she loves him, but she does not like him as she likes Freddy, for “his relation to her is too godlike to be altogether agreeable.”

Shaw states it as a simple fact that in real life, Eliza would marry Freddy, a man close to her own age whom she likes and who makes her feel comfortable, rather than have a passionate but probably dysfunctional relationship with Higgins. In addition, he regards Eliza’s choice as perfectly sensible. Her strong personality is more compatible with Freddy’s weak one than it is with Higgins’s equally strong character. It is for the best that Eliza’s fantasies about Higgins should remain fantasies. Higgins himself certainly has feelings for Eliza, but he is too devoted to his work—and perhaps to his mother—to make a good husband. The complexities of Higgins and Eliza’s feelings for one another do not allow a simple solution, such as marriage or even a love affair. They are not shoehorned into any type of conventional arrangement but remain complex and difficult to define. The “sequel” describes Eliza and Freddy’s marriage in realistic terms: not unhappy, but far from a fairy tale or even a traditional comedy.

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