George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion was first published in 1912 and presented on stage to the public in 1913. The title of the play is based on the story of Pygmalion, who was a character in Greek mythology who fell in love with a beautiful statue he had created. This statue eventually transformed into a living person called Galatea. However, Shaw adapted this myth to tell the story of a lower-class, flower girl, Eliza Doolittle who meets the phonetics professor Henry Higgins. On a dare, this professor endeavours to transform Eliza into an upper-class lady through adapting the way she speaks. Ultimately, Professor Higgins successfully changes the way Eliza behaves and speaks and transforms her into becoming a member of the aristocratic class.
Firstly, through Higgins and Eliza and their teacher-student relationship Shaw highlights the inherent problems within the British Society of the Early Twentieth Century. It raises awareness towards the rigid gender roles where high power and gender inequality was valued. Consequently, it is no surprise to the reader that the one in power, with education is the upper-class white male whereas Eliza, the lower-class flower-girl is subordinate to him and other men within the play.
However, despite the presentation of gender inequality being prevalent in this play, the issues that stem from this are much more important to discuss. By focusing on speech and accent Shaw comments on the capacity for the individual to overcome the boundaries established by the patriarchal ideology and to expose the absurdities of this class-based society.
We begin to see that pronunciation is a social determiner whilst also being a social determinant, one that can enforce admiration and/or contempt. For example, when Higgins states ‘a woman who utters such depressing and disgusting sounds has no right to be anywhere – no right to live’ he is highlighting not only the social prejudices of the upper class but the condemnation of and the perceived inferiority of those who were/are unable to speak in an accent accepted by the upper echelons of society. A social prejudice I can’t help but feel still exists within our society today. Consequently, we can observe that pronunciation is one of the biggest gulfs that separate us from each other, that Eliza’s grammatical divergences make her a symbol of a social outcast.
Additionally, this allows Shaw to reflect upon the pretences surrounding the question of social acceptability and worth. When Eliza acquires the right accent she becomes a figurehead of society. Higgins mother and her friends all believe Eliza to have been born into their societal standing, most evident when Freddy (Mrs Higgins friends son) begins a fantasy of marrying Eliza; someone he would never have considered initially, as she was one who according to Higgins looked and spoke like ‘garbage’. As a result, her linguistic inequality that rendered her socially inferior is eradicated, thus changing her societal position and her past, present and future life.
However, the ending reminds us that no matter how one artificially changes themselves, Eliza and the reader, live in a capitalist society — one that makes the acceptance of social mobility almost impossible. When Eliza’s father comes into money at the end, his original lower-class status shines through his posh clothing and money when he addresses himself to ‘Enry Iggns’ instead of ‘Henry Higgins’. However, this grammatical blunder is overlooked and reminds us that although accent operates as a social determiner, money and wealth will always work better because class is and always will be based primarily on the divisions of socio-economic status, on money. Consequently, Shaw is stating that money will always have the ability to break down the barriers of class and make those inferior and unacceptable to the aristocracy, acceptable and welcome.
These gender and class issues are highlighted and at times undermined by the witty comedy throughout the play – one of the things that make it so brilliant. This also serves as a device to make Shaw’s criticism on society – on its artificiality and pretences – so prominent in the text. If you’re someone, who like me advocates for equality, then this play will infuriate you and be a pleasure to read. Even if you’re not one for equality this play in its humour is still a pleasure to read.