Pygmalion Annotations

British Drama MEG02

Pygmalion

He's no right to take away my character. My character is the same to me as any lady's.

Eliza is an unnamed flower girl among a group of pedestrians taking shelter from the rain. She objects to a well-dressed note taker (Higgins) writing down her words as she sells flowers, as if she's doing something improper. Though a dirty, shabbily dressed member of the working-class poor, she nevertheless exhibits spirited pride in speaking up to the gentleman and defending her reputation. Victorian society takes respectability very seriously, and Eliza is not going to let someone rob her of the thing she values as much as any lady.


A woman who utters such depressing and disgusting sounds has no right to be anywhere—no right to live. Remember that you are a human being with a soul and the divine gift of articulate speech: that your native language is the language of Shakespeare and Milton and The Bible; and don't sit there crooning like a bilious pigeon.

Upset that Higgins—a professor of phonetics—has been copying down her speech, the flower girl persists in protesting her innocence and her right to share the street with him. Impatient with her whining and appalled by her awful English, Higgins scolds her for sounding like a sick pigeon. He reveals his deep respect for the English language and his passion to hear it spoken correctly. In this passage, Shaw speaks through the character of Higgins and lays out his personal complaint about the English people and their native language: They "have no respect for their language, and will not teach their children to speak it." It would be an exaggeration, however, to assume that Shaw believed that a woman, or anyone else who spoke poor English, "has no right to live." This attitude is purely in the mind of Higgins.


You see this creature with her kerbstone English: the English that will keep her in the gutter to the end of her days. 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 lady's maid or shop assistant, which requires better English.

Referring to the flower girl, Higgins is speaking to Pickering, a gentleman who shares his interest in language. Higgins's offhand remarks sow the seeds of future events and will bring the flower girl (Eliza) to his laboratory at 27A Wimpole Street.


I want to be a lady in a flower shop stead of selling at the corner of Tottenham Court Road. But they won't take me unless I can talk more genteel. He said he could teach me.

The flower girl Eliza has come to Higgins's laboratory on Wimpole Street. Pickering is also present as an invited guest. To counterbalance Higgins's rude treatment of the girl, Pickering kindly asks her what she wants. In light of the situation, her response demonstrates courage, because she—a nobody in society—is laying out her dream before these gentlemen. There is every chance one or both could crush it.


I'm interested. What about the ambassador's garden party? I'll say you're the greatest teacher alive if you can make that good. I'll bet you all the expenses of the experiment you can't do it. And I'll pay for the lessons.

Higgins is considering the idea of teaching Eliza to speak properly. Intrigued by the challenge it will pose, Pickering takes the idea a step further and sets up terms for the experiment. The ultimate test will be the ambassador's party, where Eliza will mingle with members of the highest-ranking social class. With her speech and manners on full display, she will either pass the test or be revealed as a fraud.


What is life but a series of inspired follies? The difficulty is to find them to do. Never lose a chance: it doesn't come every day. I shall make a duchess of this draggletailed guttersnipe.

Mrs. Pearce entreats Pickering to discourage Higgins from acting foolishly with regard to teaching Eliza. She is too late. Boldly, Higgins embraces the challenge as one of life's chances that should not be missed. At the same time, he shows his self-absorbed insensitivity by referring to Eliza—in her presence—as a "draggletailed guttersnipe." The term paints the image of a woman who wears a skirt dirtied by being dragged through damp muck while she hunts the gutters for usable things.


Well, the matter is, sir, that you can't take a girl up like that as if you were picking up a pebble on the beach.

With a burst of orders for Mrs. Pearce to bathe Eliza, burn her rags, and wrap her in brown paper until new clothes arrive, Higgins launches the transformation of Eliza. Mrs. Pearce chides him for not considering the girl or her feelings as he plans, for handling her like an object without a life—like a pebble on the beach. Throughout the play, Mrs. Pearce is the voice of caution, frequently asking Higgins what is to become of Eliza once he's finished his teaching. She knows that where language is concerned, Higgins is prone to charging ahead with a plan without thought to the aftereffects.


Excuse the straight question, Higgins. Are you a man of good character where women are concerned?

While Mrs. Pearce takes Eliza away for a bath, Pickering and Higgins discuss the experiment they are about to begin. In this question, Pickering confirms his nature as a gentleman and his genuine concern for Eliza's well-being. Throughout the play, he is a foil or contrast for Higgins, especially in the kindness and respect with which he treats Eliza. While tactless, insensitive Higgins sees her as a creature to be molded, Pickering treats her like a lady before she takes the first step in that direction.


I've taught scores of American millionairesses how to speak English: the best looking women in the world. I'm seasoned. They might as well be blocks of wood. I might as well be a block of wood.

Pickering has bluntly asked Higgins if his intentions toward Eliza are honorable. While reassuring the colonel that Eliza will be quite safe in his care, Higgins also reveals his indifference to pupils as people and underscores a general disregard for women. Eliza is nothing more than a block of wood to be carved, like the American millionairesses. In this, Higgins parallels the mythic sculptor Pygmalion, whose utter disdain for females of his day leads him to carve the perfect woman from ivory.



All I ask is my rights as a father; and you're the last man alive to expect me to let her go for nothing; for I can see you're one of the straight sort, Governor. Well, what's a five pound note to you? And what's Eliza to me?


Eliza's father, Alfred Doolittle, learns that Eliza is moving into Higgins's home. Her reasons for doing so do not concern him much, but he sees an opportunity to "touch" the professor for money. From his point of view, his "rights" as a father amount to nothing more than the money he can get for Eliza. Through Doolittle's morally corrupt attitude, Shaw shines a light on the dark side of the Victorian Era, where society turned a blind eye on prostitution and child trafficking.


Walk! Not bloody likely. I am going in a taxi.

Eliza's first foray into upper-class society at the home of Mrs. Higgins ends with this line. Freddy Eynsford Hill, who is smitten by the lovely Miss Doolittle, escorts her to the door and inquires if she will be walking home. Among theater audiences in 1914, the use of the word bloody in the response caused quite a stir. It was a word forbidden by the censors, and there had been a great deal of speculation as to whether the word would be uttered during the opening performance. However, to Shaw's dismay, the audience reacted with uproarious laughter instead of the shock he had desired.




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