Pygmalion Summary

Pygmalion is a play by George Bernard Shaw in which linguistics expert Henry Higgins teaches flower seller Eliza Doolittle to speak the dialect of upper-class English society.

  • After hearing Eliza's thick accent, Higgins remarks to his friend Colonel Pickering that he could teach Eliza to speak standard English and “pass her off” as a member of the social elite.
  • Pickering, intrigued, makes a bet with Higgins, which Higgins wins after giving Eliza lessons in elocution and etiquette. However, he fails to acknowledge Eliza’s part in his triumph.
  • Eliza, infuriated, leaves Higgins; but Higgins realizes he will miss her and asks her to return.

Summary

George Bernard Shaw’s prefaces are usually long, complex works, often printed in a separate volume alongside the plays. The preface to Pygmalion is brief by Shavian standards, though Shaw begins by writing, “[this play] needs, not a preface, but a sequel, which I have supplied in its due place.” The preface deals mainly with phonetics and suggests various models for Henry Higgins, particularly the phonetician and grammarian Henry Sweet.

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The first act begins at 11:15 p.m. on a rainy summer’s night in Covent Garden. Freddy Eynsford Hill is attempting to hail a cab when he bumps into flower seller Eliza Doolittle, spilling the contents of her basket on the street. As she remonstrates with him, a bystander points out that a man with a notebook is writing down everything they say. A crowd begins to assemble, and there is a general assumption that the notetaker is a police agent. However, he soon distracts them by telling all who address him what part of London they come from. When challenged to perform the same feat with a gentleman who is standing nearby, he promptly identifies the man’s hometown, school, university, and most recent residence with the words “Cheltenham, Harrow, Cambridge, and India.”

The gentleman is impressed by this accuracy and identifies himself as Colonel Pickering. The notetaker is Professor Henry Higgins. Both have published books on phonetics and are familiar with the other’s work. Higgins reveals that he makes his living by teaching rich people with low social origins to speak upper-class English, boasting that he could even teach Eliza, “with her kerbstone English,” to speak so perfectly that in three months, people would mistake her for a duchess. Higgins and Pickering then decide to have dinner together and leave. Eliza tries to sell a flower to Pickering as they go, saying that she has no money for her lodging. Higgins rebukes her for lying but then, hearing a church clock strike, impulsively throws a handful of money into her basket. This is far more money than Eliza was expecting to make from selling her flowers. Elated, she returns home in a taxi.

The second act opens the next day at eleven o’clock in the morning in Higgins’s laboratory in Wimpole Street. Higgins has been giving Pickering a tour when Mrs. Pearce, his housekeeper, announces that he has a visitor, who turns out to be Eliza. Higgins tries to send her away, but Eliza announces that she has come for lessons in English. Pickering reminds Higgins of his boast that he could pass Eliza off as a duchess after teaching her for three months, betting him the costs of the experiment that he will not be able to do it.

Higgins accepts the wager and instructs Mrs. Pearce to wash Eliza, burn her clothes, and order some more. While Eliza is bathing, her father, Alfred Doolittle, arrives, announcing that he has come to take Eliza away. Higgins correctly assumes that he would rather have money and gives him five pounds, assuring both Doolittle and Pickering that his intentions are strictly honorable and his only interest in Eliza lies in the phonetic experiment he is to conduct. As Doolittle leaves, Eliza reenters, freshly bathed and dressed in a kimono. Doolittle at first fails to recognize her. When he has left, Eliza remarks that she hopes he will not be back.

The third act begins...

(The entire section is 1,309 words.)