Nurture or Nature: The Gentleman Versus the Guttersnipe

July 23, 2019 by Essay Writer

Many individuals are adept at recognizing changes in their environment, others, and themselves. To these people, whatever the “change” might be-a new hairstyle, a new article of clothing, or an affected spoken dialect-rarely goes unnoticed. Sometimes, however, even these keen and perceptive individuals fail to recognize a most conspicuous and striking transformation. In George Bernard Shaw’s play, Pygmalion, the protagonist, Henry Higgins, a noted master of language, fails to recognize a dramatic, emotional change in one of his “creations,” the flower girl of Covent Garden Market. The conflict that exists between these characters is that the impregnable façade of social distinction and personal appearance masks the true reality of their natures; this classic man-versus- man conflict is the basis of the play. An English gentleman of the Victorian period was supposed to be polite, patient, helpful, and above all, compassionate. None of these words describe the highly respected scholar and “gentleman,” Henry Higgins. The eccentric, energetic, and short-tempered Professor Higgins dominates any situation in which he participates due to the directness of his barked commands. The perceptive reader understands that none of these traits should be used to identify an English gentleman of the nineteenth century. For example, when Higgins terrifies a flower girl, Eliza Doolittle, under the portico of Saint Paul’s Church in Covent Garden by writing down her every word, Eliza desperately pleads with the onlookers not to allow this “copper’s nark” to arrest her. Higgins brusquely denies any association with the police saying, “Oh, shut up, shut up. Do I look like a policeman?” (7). Higgins’ abrupt entrance and boorish response to Eliza’s expressed fears portray his callous lack of regard for other people’s feelings. Likewise, when Eliza appears at Higgins’ door to accept his challenge to teach her proper English and to make her a lady, he insults her. Higgins does not demonstrate even a hint of courtesy towards Eliza and openly calls her “dirty” and “deliciously low”; he treats her as if she were a muddy dog that has been let loose in the living room as he shouts orders such as “Sit down” and “Hold your tongue.” After Colonel Pickering reminds Higgins of his boast to transform this “squashed cabbage leaf” and bets that Higgins cannot accomplish such a feat, Higgins tramples over all opposition. He ignores Eliza’s ignorant terror and Mrs. Pearce’s matronly disapproval. He harshly demands that Eliza be scrubbed, dressed in clean clothing, and taught the niceties of social etiquette. Higgins becomes absorbed in her as an experiment since she has been reduced to an object that it pleases him to study. Thus, the reader recognizes that the short-tempered, insensitive, and disrespectful Henry Higgins, while highly respected by the bon ton, possesses only the superficial characteristics of a gentleman. Wealthy, educated Londoners, such as Henry Higgins, often viewed the many poor and uneducated citizens of their city as crass, vulgar, and committed to corruption and immorality. While Eliza Doolittle is certainly a member of the poor, uneducated class, she possesses none of the characteristics associated with them. Having been turned out of her home by her father and stepmother because she was capable of looking after herself, Eliza manages to stay alive by selling flowers on various London street corners. Eliza’s admirable efforts to remain a “good girl” prove that she is a young woman who possesses exceptional qualities of mind and heart and a definite standard of proper behavior. Thus, although Eliza needs much refinement concerning the social etiquette and proper conduct of the aristocratic upper class, she already possesses a solid foundation of integrity and principle, the internal qualities of a true lady. The reader’s respect for Eliza’s character deepens after she meets Henry Higgins who is determined to transform her into a “duchess.” Because Eliza is clear in her own mind concerning her goals in life, she sees Professor Higgins’ challenge as an opportunity to better herself through hard work rather than a “handout” or a “free lunch.” Eliza’s potential to evolve externally into a genteel lady is astounding. After a bath, Eliza is attractive. Dressed in decent clothing, Eliza is stylish and eye-catching. Finally, after much hard work with Higgins, Eliza’s quick ear for sounds enables her to speak “the language of Shakespeare and Milton” better than most scholars. In each of these situations, Eliza’s physical change mirrors one of her positive character traits. Eliza’s newfound cleanliness reflects her inward purity; her fashionable dress parallels her inward beauty; and her newly acquired manners and speech represent her willingness to work for what she wants. Consequently, the reader realizes that while this “creature” already possesses the necessary character traits of a genuine lady, Eliza Doolittle’s external appearance now corresponds to the beauty of her soul. During the progress of Eliza’s transformation, a profound human relationship begins to develop, partly unnoticed, but in conflict with the original arrangement of teacher and pupil. When Eliza and Higgins initially meet, Higgins bullies and orders the unsuspecting Eliza to change so that the poor flower girl, who was once “condemned to the gutter,” manages to acquire new manners, new speech, and a new sense of self. Combined with her former independence, self-sufficiency, and virtue, Eliza’s new talents and fresh outlook on her position in the world form a being who is beautiful in all aspects. Despite having such beauty in his presence daily, Higgins ignores it and continues to focus on Eliza as an object, an experiment, or a challenge. Higgins refuses to recognize Eliza’s individuality and her status as an equal so much so that he calls her a “thing” that he has molded from squashed cabbage leaves. Higgins is perfectly content with Eliza’s remaining in his household as a servant, someone to fetch and carry his slippers, run errands, and remember his scheduled appointments. While Eliza does not mind these duties, she does resent being a “thing” of convenience. Thus, the climax of the conflict occurs after Higgins and Eliza, joined by Colonel Pickering, return to Wimpole Street from the royal reception ball and the men totally ignore Eliza. Higgins states that “the experiment” is possibly his greatest achievement; ironically, however, Higgins’ greatest failure is not realizing that Eliza is a young women of kind heart, gentle nature, and a willing spirit who wonders “whats to become of me? Whats to become of me?” (72). Even Pickering, the ever-courteous and polite gentleman, fails to acknowledge Eliza’s role in the success of the “bet.” When Higgins states, “Thank God it’s over!” (70), he fails to realize the meaning his statement holds for Eliza. Continuing his selfish soliloquy, Higgins comforts himself by saying he will never try such an undertaking again; “the whole thing [experiment of making Eliza a lady] has been simple purgatory” (71). With these words, Higgins shatters Eliza’s hopes for a future for herself. She believes that as an “experiment” she will be dismantled of disposed. Thus, when Higgins has the temerity to give Eliza his breakfast order, Eliza overreacts so much so that she declares, “Oh God! I wish I was dead” (73). Having been greatly wounded by Higgins’ unemotional attitude towards her, Eliza, in turn, reduces him to a state of helpless fury by addressing him with great propriety as “sir” to underscore the servility of her situation. She “rubs salt in the wounds” when she inquires if she will be permitted to keep her clothing when she leaves his residence. While “the experiment” is still dressed in her regal finery, Eliza manages to cause Higgins to lose his temper while she reclaims some of her independence. Each of these individuals has lost a valuable part of his/her independence over the course of their working relationship; each of them causes the other great pain rather than the joy that should come from the accomplishment of their undertaking. The resolution of their situation is unsatisfying to the reader’s heart but acceptable because of the reality of who each person is; Higgins is too set in his ways to realize that his callous attitude toward others adversely affects all of his human relationships. Similarly, Eliza is too uncertain of her new status to feel comfortable in the presence of members of Victorian high society and to refined to return to Covent Garden as a flower girl. The conflict of Pygmalion resides in the fact that social distinction and personal appearance often mask the true reality of an individual’s character. Henry Higgins, while possessing the title of a gentleman, fails to live up to the chivalrous standards of his social class. Eliza Doolittle, while possessing a kind, virtuous nature befitting a lady, lacks social stature and refinement. At the climax of the conflict, the reader recognizes that although Eliza Doolittle’s outer appearance has changed to mirror her inner nature, Henry Higgins’ social class still offers a front for his ungentlemanly character. Higgins’ remark, “I said I’d make a woman of you; and I have,” has become true to some extent; as a lady, however, Eliza has surpassed Higgins’ ability to “create.” The lingering hope in the reader’s mind is that he will always encourage every person to cherish and become their geniune selves.

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