The Insecurity of Mister Higgins: A Close Reading of a Multi-Sided Character
In the play Pygmalion, we get to know Mister Higgins as a man who knows what he wants, he is not afraid to say what he thinks and he acts like nobody can tell him what to do. But even though he looks a bit arrogant, self-assured and bossy, he is actually quite insecure. When the situation gets tough; he makes jokes so that people leave him alone and when he lets certain people overrule him, he does not admit it; he tries to overrule people with actions so he avoids directly answering them and he knows how to play people so they will do what he wants them to do. So I will elaborate on the ways Mister Higgins tries to avoid showing his insecurity throughout the play.
When the girl Eliza accepts to become Higgins’s trainee, the housekeeper Mrs. Pearce, takes her upstairs for a bath and some new clothes. Mrs. Pearce reappears before Eliza does, to speak to Mister Higgins about the high amount of swearwords he uses in his speech and if he wants to be careful not to use gutter language in front of Eliza. Mister Higgins replies: ‘I swear! I never swear. I detest the habit. What the devil do you mean?’ Then Mrs. Pearce replies: ‘That’s why I mean, sir. You swear a great deal too much. I don’t mind your damming and blasting, and what the devil and where the devil and who the devil -’. Finally Mister Higgins interrupts Mrs. Pearce: ‘Mrs. Pearce: this language from your lips! Really!’ (Quotes from: Pygmalion, Act II). As you can see, Mrs. Pearce speaks to Mister Higgins to show him that he does something wrong. She asks him to change that and rather than agreeing with her or telling her off for speaking to him like that, he listens to her and then makes a joke about her language. This means that the spotlight is not on him anymore and that it does not seem all that big of a deal. But the fact that Mister Higgins does not accept Mrs. Pearce’s advice right away shows that Mister Higgins is not accustomed admitting his faults because he never makes them, in his work that is. In his social life he apparently makes mistakes but he does not admit it. So when the situation gets tough, he can make a joke so that people will be put off by it and stop commenting on him. At another time, Mister Pickering asks Mister Higgins something about women, how he thinks about them and how he acts among them. Mister Pickering does so since Mister Higgins is a bachelor and he now has a girl, Eliza, staying in his house for three months to improve her accent. This might raise a question or two with the people in the street and with Mister Pickering himself since he also feels responsible for the project and the girl. Mister Higgins probably has been asked a lot of questions about women and why he still is a bachelor.
At the start of the 20th century it was unheard of to be a bachelor for such a long time as Mister Higgins is. His exact age is not mentioned in the play but he does pronounce the following sentence: ‘So here I am, a confirmed old bachelor, and likely to remain so.’ (Pygmalion, Act II). This sentence insinuates that he has not had a woman, at least for a long time, and he is of a respectable age. So when Mister Pickering asks him about how respectable he is with women, Mister Higgins replies with a monologue about what he hates about women and being with them. But Mister Pickering is not easily put off, and he asks for an example so that Mister Higgins has to explain himself, which he does again in monologue style, trying to express his feelings against women as clearly as possible to Mister Pickering. Mister Higgins mentions things as: ‘I find that the moment I let a woman make friends with me, she becomes jealous, exacting, suspicious and a damned nuisance. (…) Women upset everything. When you let a woman in your life, you find that the woman is driving at one thing and you’re driving at another.’ (Pygmalion, Act II). When Mister Higgins and Mister Pickering visit Mister Higgins’s mother; Mrs. Higgins, they tell her about Eliza. Mrs. Higgins wants to know straight away if her son fell in love with the girl because she wants him to marry.
Mrs. Higgins takes her son out of his comfort zone and he answers her, but he immediately shows his uncertainty: ‘Oh, I can’t be bothered with young women. My idea of a loveable woman is something as like you as possible. I shall never get into the way of seriously liking young women: some habits lie too deep to be changed. [Rising abruptly and walking about, jingling his money and his keys in his trouser pockets]’ (Pygmalion, Act III). Mister Higgins wants to switch subjects quickly so he starts talking about Eliza again, because he has planned to let her come over to his mother’s house without her knowing, Mister Higgins knows this troubles his mother a great deal so she won’t ask him difficult questions anymore. The reason why Mister Higgins reacts like this is to make clear what he thinks about women, or what he wants people to believe he thinks about women, so that they stop asking difficult questions which might bring him into a tough situation. To prevent becoming insecure in front of people he tries to overrule people by giving them enough reasons to make his point and leave him alone. When Mister Higgins arrives at a new situation, he wants to have the upper hand to stay in his comfort zone and to chase his opponent out of his comfort zone. He forces him to the place where Mister Higgins wants him to be, so that he cannot only win the argument, but also to let his opponent feel inferior to him. The father of Eliza is one of his opponents in a new situation. Mister Higgins never had a girl in his house for such an experiment. The father probably never entered a house of a rich person as Mister Higgins’s and has never given his daughter for an experiment.
When Mister Doolittle, Eliza’s father, visits Mister Higgins, he wants to receive money for his daughter because he is actually giving her away. Mister Higgins assumes that money is the reason why the father has paid him a visit, but Mister Higgins does not want to give him too much and preferably as little as possible. So he decides to be unpredictable so he can get Mister Doolittle in the place he wants. Without Mister Doolittle mentioning a thing about money, Mister Higgins tells him to take his daughter home because he probably has set her up to come to Mister Higgins’s house for the experiment, and he threatens to call the police. Mister Doolittle is flabbergasted with the situation and he changes his attitude towards Mister Higgins. Mister Higgins says to the father: ‘You’re going to take her away, double quick. [He crosses to the hearth and rings the bell]’ Mister Doolittle replies: ‘No Governor. Don’t say that. I’m not the man to stand in my girl’s light. Here’s a career opening for her, as you might say; and-’. Mister Higgins presses the father rather hard, but he is willing to see how far he can go with this. When Mrs. Pearce answers the bell and enters the room, he says: ‘Mrs. Pearce: this is Eliza’s father. He has come to take her away. Give her to him.’ Mister Doolittle is completely taken aback with this and when Mrs. Pearce is taking him to the door he says to Mister Higgins: ‘Listen here, Governor. You and me are men of the world ain’t we?’ Mister Higgins replies: ‘Oh! Men of the world, are we? You’d better go, Mrs Pearce. (…) The floor is yours Mister Doolittle.’ (Pygmalion, Act II). Mister Higgins makes Mister Doolittle think that he is winning him over. But the fact of the matter is that Mister Higgins has pressed the father so hard that he is cautious what he says to Mister Higgins and that he cannot ask too much for his daughter, otherwise he will be thrown out and then he has nothing at all. This exactly what Mister Higgins wants; he has the upper hand and he has made sure that the father, his opponent, thinks that he cannot be trifled with.
Mister Higgins knows what it is like to feel uncomfortable, so he wants his opponent to feel that way, and he himself feels superior to his opponent. Mister Higgins is quite a clever man when it comes to phonetics. But when it comes to being sociable, he lacks the actual skills to admit his fault and he switches topics to let himself enter his comfort zone again. He acts rather bossy and arrogant to his opponents so he can overrule them, like he did with Mister Doolittle. When somebody has a higher intellect, his mother or Mister Pickering, or when somebody knows him quite well, as Mrs. Pearce does, he changes the subject. He does this by talking about something that might occupy the opponent’s mind more or makes a joke so does not have to accept his faults that are being described. This way he seems arrogant, bossy and very strong, but he actually is as insecure as a secondary school pupil.
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In the play Pygmalion, we get to know Mister Higgins as a man who knows what he wants, he is not afraid to say what he thinks and he acts […]