Pygmalion Eliza is termed as feminist

Can Eliza in Pygmalion be termed as feminist? Elaborate.



Ans. The relationship between men and women, and how they interact, is often the basis of many novels and plays. Struggle and conflict between them is very evident, yet the meaning and reason for the conflict are sometimes deeper than what is on the outside.

Bernard Shaw uses the play Pygmalion to also comment upon the conflict which exists between the sexes. This conflict is most clearly brought out through the relationship between Eliza and Henry Higgins. Higgins is a polished teacher of phonetics and is introduced as a person who is ‘of the energetic, scientific type, heartily, even violently interested in everything that can be studied as a scientific subject and careless about himself and other people, including their feelings. These traits of character are bound to lead to conflict with Eliza Doolittle, a common flower girl who, by a contrivance of plot, brings her to learn to speak like a lady in a flower shop from Henry Higgins. Eliza has ambition and dignity and resents being bullied by Higgins, a social superior. From the beginning of the play we notice an element of conflict which characterises their entire relationship. At their first meeting she rebukes him when he insults her by calling her ‘a squashed cabbage leaf’ and an ‘incarnate


insult to the English language.’ Even when she comes to Wimpole Street to ask to be taught, she does not beg but uses an attitude of defiance telling him: ‘If my money is not good enough, I can go elsewhere. She speaks back to him when he doesn’t ‘speak sensible’ to her and calls him a ‘great bully’.

Higgins continues to bully her. This is done even as he is ‘free of malice’. He is attracted by the challenge which teaching Eliza presents: ‘It’s almost irresistible. She’s so deliciously low, so horribly dirty. He vows to make ‘a Duchess out of this draggle-tailed guttersnipe’ and imperiously dismisses all criticism and advice when he is asked, ‘what is to become of her’? The stage is set for conflict from the time Eliza enters Wimpole Street. This is reflected of Shaw’s philosophy regarding the conflict of the sexes. Since neither party is willing to submit to the domination of the other, challenge, confrontation and petty revenge is bound to follow. Eliza accepts Higgins superiority as a teacher, but not without challenge. It is not the conventional teacher-taught relationship. On being told to say her alphabet she shoots back with ‘I know my alphabet. Do you think I know nothing?’ Unable to break her spirit, Higgins threatens to drag her around the room three times by her hair.

Their relationship is one of inequality. Higgins has status, education, confidence, self-reliance and all that goes into making a mature gentleman. Eliza, due to her background, has no culture, polished speech, education or money to make her, in any way, an equal to Higgins. Yet, due to her personal dignity and confidence in herself, she is able to ward off all attempts by Higgins to dominate her.

It is an irony in the play that while Shaw studiously tried to avoid the suggestion that Higgins and Eliza were in love, the general audience prefers to see a happy ending to their relationship. Shaw twisted the principles of drama by not allowing a natural ending. When the theatre-going public mistook a romantic ending to the play, he was incensed enough to write a ‘sequel’ to explain that their relationship was not one of love.

Eliza realizes that she is only as important to Higgins as ‘them slippers’ as Higgins will never be able to make Eliza the first and most important thing in life. On the other hand, Higgins with his individuality would never submit to being a women’s plaything. With the recent social conquest that Eliza made at the Embassy Ball, Eliza realizes that it would not be worth marrying someone in whose she would not be the first priority when she could get any other suitable gentleman who would be devoted to her.

The conflict therefore continues. Eliza rejects Higgins while Higgins is always conscious that he never loved Eliza but learned to respect her as a person and become ‘accustomed to her voice, her face, her soul’. He tells her to come back to Wimpole Street the morning after she left throwing the slippers at him. He tells her to come back ‘for the fun of it’ and significantly compares their living together to being like ‘three old bachelors’ rather than ‘two men and a silly girl’. Through this statement he expresses that his regard for Eliza is not on account of her being attractive woman, but because he has learned to respect her individuality in the same way as he respects Pickering.

There is no doubt that the relationship between Eliza and Higgins at the end of the play is very different to their relationship at the beginning. Higgins as ‘Pygmalion’ has brought his ‘Galatea’ to life out of stone. We see the way in which this is accomplished by Higgins. Higgins first provides her with a unique social privilege which is superior speech. This gives Eliza upward social mobility which she would otherwise never be able to achieve. Eliza then becomes a puppet, programmed to carry out Higgins ‘instructions at Mrs Higgins’ At Home and later when she is a brilliant success at the Embassy Ball. It is at this time that Eliza undergoes another metamorphosis. The Galatea walks out of stone. Ironically this Galatea does not love her Pygmalion, her Creator, but instead rebels against him, throwing his slippers in his face. It is only later that she matures into an elegant sophisticated woman fit to be ‘a consort for a King’.


Eliza becomes conscious of her new-found equality and refuses to be treated like dirt under Higgins’ feet. She is justly upset at not being given credit for winning Higgins’ bet and complains ‘I don’t matter I suppose’. She sees Higgins in the role of an exploiter who has used her to win his bet while studiously ignoring her future. She wounds him deeply by suggesting that he might accuse her of stealing and ‘drinks in his emotion like nectar and nags him to provoke a further supply’.

Eliza is now in a position of advantage to bargain with Higgins. She appears at Mrs Higgins’ home in Act V as ‘sunny, self-possessed and giving a staggeringly convincing exhibition of ease of manner’. She can now tell Higgins where he has been wrong and prove he is no gentleman. Clearly the tables have been reversed. Speaking about their relationship Eliza says, ‘the difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves, but how she is treated’.

Shaw shows us how the conflict between the sexes can be resolved if both recognize the dignity of the other individual. Higgins resents Eliza trying to possess him and vehemently tell her: ‘get out of my way; for I won’t stop for you’. On the other hand Eliza’s complaint is ‘I won’t be passed over’. The question is not whether I treat you rudely but whether you have ever heard me treat anyone else better’. To this she tells him ‘I want a little kindness…I’m not dirt under your feet…I did it because we were pleasant together…and I came to love for you, not to want you to make love to me; and not forgetting to difference between us; but more friendly like’.


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