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.
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...
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