George Bernard Shaw’s Emphasis on Change in Pygmalion

March 7, 2019 by Essay Writer

George Bernard Shaw wrote Pygmalion in hopes that people would see what change can happen in an individual person. While reading this play it is easy to see it as being focused on Eliza Doolittle. However, it is important to understand and observe how Eliza also changes Henry Higgins in some way. In Pygmalion, George Bernard Shaw clearly shows the different ways that Eliza changes but also subtly and possibly more importantly Shaw shows how the interpersonal relationship between Eliza and Henry Higgins also changes some aspects of Henry.

In the beginning of the play, Henry is an arrogant and rude, but an intellectual person who has a hard time socializing appropriately. Eliza has similarities such as her poor manners but also had differences to Henry because she is uneducated. Shaw is intentional about how he depicts these characters because he wants them to be different enough that Henry has someone to teach, yet similar enough that it causes them to have conflicts. There are many examples throughout the play of how Eliza changes starting with her phonetics which is of course Henrys area of expertise. However, it is ironic that even though he knows how to make Eliza behave properly, he himself does not know how to behave to society’s standards. This is something that Shaw does on purpose, so that eventually Eliza changing to realize that she deserves better will be the first thing that has ever affected Henry.

Henry and Eliza’s story starts when they meet on the streets, Henry is fascinated by Eliza’s dialect and he decides that he is going to observe her from a far. People see him and find it odd that he is taking notes on a flower girl’s actions. After he must explain himself Henry says something that sticks with Eliza, he says, “Well sir, in three months I could pass that girl off as a duchess at an ambassador’s garden party. I could even get her a place as a lady’s maid or shop assistant, which requires better English.” (1.220-223). This is something that Eliza did not really comment on at the time but would find his house and beg him to take her on as a student. Shaw wanted their story to start here to see how good his skills were by guessing where random bystanders were from. Eliza plays it off as if she is not interested in him “bettering” her, until she obviously thinks it over and decides to see if he wants her to be his student.

At first Henry barely even sees Eliza as a human being, let alone a bright young lady. When she first comes over to receive help from him, Henry talks at her instead of to her. He communicates what he wants by ordering around his house maid, Mrs. Pearce. Shaw wants their relationship to start this way so that the transition in their relationships is so apparent. As soon as he decides to take her case, he says, “Yes: in six months – in three if she has a good ear and a quick tongue – I’ll take her anywhere and pass her off as anything. We’ll start today: now! This moment! Take her away and clean her, Mrs. Pearce. Monkey Brand, if it won’t come off any other way. Is there a good fire in the kitchen?” (2.144-148)In these lines he refers to Eliza as her, not asking for anyone’s opinions or permission to make all of the decisions that he wants. He impulsively and immediately starts making decisions giving so many orders that nobody else can get a word in. He does not see her as a person, but as a project or code that he wants to solve.

After Eliza’s first “test” with Mrs. Higgins and her friends over tea we get to see the first time that Henry admits that he enjoys having Eliza around. He is offended when his mother asks if she is a servant and defends what Eliza is to him. Saying, “Well dash me if I do! Ive had to work at the girl every day for months to get her to her present pitch. Besides, she’s useful. She knows where my things are, and remembers my appointments and so forth.” (Shaw 294-296). Although he is still talking about her as if she were a project he is finally defending her and recognizing her worth. This is a big step that he is taking in realizing that she is useful for more than one thing and that she is doing well so far on her journey to changing. Shaw writes this conversation the way that he does so that people can see that he wants his mother to know that she is just a project and that he has no real feelings for her. But at the same time he wants her to know that he does not just keep her around as a project without putting her to work. She is of great use to him besides the fact that she is just there to be trained on her speech and manners.

As readers we get to see Henry giving his real opinion about women in a conversation of just him and Pickering. It is interesting to see his thoughts on relationships and the excuse of why he has never thought about getting into a relationship. In confidence Henry tells him, “I suppose the woman wants to live her own life; and the man wants to live his; and each tries to drag the other on to the wrong track…So here I am, a confirmed old bachelor, and likely to remain so.” (2.318-320, 2.322-323). This is an insight about why he wants to remain a bachelor because he has this idea that being with a woman means that you will be forced to compromise which is something that he is not good at. Shaw wants readers to be able to see this selfish mannerisms of Henry so that people understand what his thought process is. He is too selfish to be with someone in fear that he will have to compromise on something that he wants his way on. It is important to understand this before he starts a professional relationship with Eliza so that readers know why Henry never sees Eliza as a woman he would be interested in marrying. He is not interested in marrying anyone especially Eliza because he knows how independent and stubborn, she is and would be too scared that he would never get his way with such an independent woman.

There is another scene where readers really see Henry unraveling completely in fear that he has really lost Eliza. He rushes over to his mother’s house where it is said that he is in a “state”. He informs his mother that Eliza has packed up everything and left without telling anyone besides Mrs. Pearce who also kept this secret from Henry. Henry, in a frantic state says, “But I can’t find anything. I don’t know what appointments I’ve got.” (5. 27-28). Shaw wants people to see a different side of Henry, he is franticly panicking and has actually also called the police trying to find her. It seems as if Henry says that he needs her to keep his appointments in order when really this is a cover up for him actually being interested and caring about her. He says that he needs her for a lesser meaning because he does not want people to see him as someone who is dependent on having this woman in his life.

One of the most important scenes of the play is where Henry almost explains himself to Eliza, Shaw included this to show that he is not treating Eliza this way because he does not respect her. He treats her this way because this is how he treats every one of every status. While this may be frowned upon, at least this means that he is not treating Eliza this way because that is how he truly views her. Talking about Colonel Pickering, Eliza says, “That is not true. He treats a flower girl as if she was a duchess. Then Henry responds, “And I treat a duchess as if she was a flower girl” (5. 396-397). Shaw is explaining that this is just his nature, this is how he is with everyone and that he does that so that he can humble people and make everyone feel like they are all on the same plane regardless of their status. While this is not really respectful this is something that a lot of people struggle with, treating people all the same regardless of their status. Everyone should do this but treat people like a normal person, people should treat others with the same respect whether they are a flower girl or a duchess. Henry has the right idea of this concept he just has it a little backwards.

This is an aspect of him that Henry changes throughout the play, at some point he eventually starts to see Eliza not only as a human being but as an equal. In Act 4 Eliza threatens to start a business just like Henry’s to take away all Henry’s business and become his rival. Liza: I’ll let you see whether I’m dependent on you. If you can preach, I can teach. I’ll go and be a teacher. Higgins: What’ll you teach, in heaven’s name? Liza: What you taught me. I’ll teach phonetics. (5. 560-563) Liza states that she will be Professor Nepean’s assistant and that they will steal all of Henry’s clients. This is the first time that Henry finally sees Eliza as an intellectual being who will be able to be independent in the world on her own. Even though this is towards the end of the play Shaw wants viewers to understand how Henry has changed and now he is almost jealous that she thinks that she will be able to take his job. She is so confident in her new self that she thinks that she will be able to teach people what she was taught.

There is another way that Henry shows that he has not changed but also changed in a certain aspect at the end of their journey together. Shaw wants to show these last scenes as Henry unraveling because Eliza is ready to be independent. After they have the argument about her leaving and marrying Freddy, Henry starts to break down. He says to Eliza, “You damned impudent slut, you! But it’s better than sniveling; better than fetching slippers and finding spectacles, isn’t it? By George, Eliza, I said I’d make a woman of you; and I have. I like you like this.” (5. 582-585). At the beginning of this quote readers think that he is going to continue to be negative about Eliza. However, towards the end he says that he has in fact grown fond of the woman that he has made out of her. Shaw deliberately chose the words for these lines because he wants readers to see in just a few lines how he is still the same but is at least now realizing that his view of Eliza as a woman has changed.

This play can be misinterpreted as a crude intelligent man using his skills to change a flower girl into a civilized person. However, it is not just that, it is a play about change and how one person can change another person to someone that they never imagined that they could be. Henry meets Eliza by coincidence, and she ends up being the person that brings out personalities of him that he never even knew existed. Of course he will always be the same Henry that we know on the outside but from his experiences of changing Eliza she has changed Henry deep down bringing out sides of him that he did not even know that he had.

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