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It's a dark and stormy night, and a crowd of people are seeking refuge from the
rain in front of a church in London's Covent Garden market.
Among them are an older woman and her daughter (both dressed up), their son
Freddy (who's been sent out into the rain to find a cab), an old, well-dressed
military man, a poor young flower girl with a thick Cockney accent, and a strange
man standing in the shadows writing down everything the flower girl says.
Trouble starts when the older woman starts asking the flower girl questions.
The girl flips out and starts telling everyone what a good girl she is.
The crowd comes to her defense and everything seems fine until some guy
informs her about the strange man taking notes. People think he's some kind of
cop, or maybe just a pervert.
She flips out again, although its pretty darn hard to understand what she's saying
through her thick accent, until the note-taker shows himself, and everybody sees
that he's not a cop or a pervert, he's just an rich guy with nice boots and a knack
for guessing where people come from, geography-wise.
People are amazed/frightened by this ability.
He tells the flower girl to, well, shut up. She whines some more. He asks her to
kindly shut up again and to please stop butchering the English language (except
he doesn't say please).
He then tells the old guy that he could pass off the crazy flower girl as royalty by
teaching her how to speak.
The two men introduce themselves turns out they're both well-respected
linguists. The note-taker is Henry Higgins, teacher of phonetics, the old guy an
expert on the dead Indian language Sanskrit.
Higgins takes pity on the flower girl and gives her a sovereign (imagine getting
tipped a hundred bucks).
The girl jumps for joy, starts howling like a banshee no, really and jumps in
the next cab.

The two men head back to Pickering's hotel for dinner, and poor old Freddy gets
left in the rain, abandoned by his mom and sis.


The next day, in Higgins's house on 10 Wimpole Street, Higgins and the Colonel
are talking shop when Mrs. Pearce, Henry's very reasonable maid, tells him that
a girl with a funny accent has come to the door.
Thinking he might get some good material from her, he decides to let her in.
The flower girl from the night before comes in wearing some (relatively) clean
clothes and what may just be the funniest hat you've ever seen. She introduces
herself as Eliza Doolittle.
Higgins is about to throw her out he already "has" her accent when she
demands to be given speaking lessons.
After some deliberation, Higgins and Pickering decide to take her on as a client,
only they treat the whole thing like a bet. They really want to see if they can pass
her off as a duchess in six months time.
Higgins tells Mrs. Pearce to go burn all of Eliza's clothes and get her clean.
While she's off in the shower, a hulking dustman that's British for garbage man
comes in and introduces himself as Alfred Doolittle, Eliza's father.
Doolittle proceeds to talk Higgins into giving him five pounds for booze in return
for leaving Eliza alone.
Higgins, amazed by his speaking ability, does give him some cash, but their
discussion is interrupted by the entrance of a "Japanese Lady."
She turns out to be Eliza in a kimono, and without all the dirt and the silly clothes,
Eliza's really pretty.
Eliza loves all the attention so much she wants to go down to where all the other
flower girls hang out and strut her stuff.
Higgins knows this is a bad idea and tells her so. Mrs. Pearce lures her away
with the promise of new clothes.

Eliza howls like a banshee again before skipping off stage.

Pickering and Higgins shake their heads in disbelief. They've got a lot of work to


Act Three finds us at the apartment of Henry Higgins's mum. Higgins, it seems,
wants to test his work at a party she'll soon be throwing.
Mrs. Higgins does not approve of the idea you get the feeling she doesn't
approve of most things Higgins does but Higgins doesn't listen. He's not one to
take no for an answer. He's also, we find out, not interested in women, really.
Except women like his dear old mother.
Higgins assures his mother that Eliza will be on her best behavior, and talk only
about the weather and other people's health.
Turns out the whole thing isn't much of a party. The only guests are the mother
and sister from the first act, Mrs. and Miss Eynsford Hill, good old Freddy,
Pickering, and, of course, Eliza.
Eliza enters the party last, looking stunning, and proceeds to ask everyone "How
do you do?" She acts a bit like a robot a beautiful robot with a perfect accent
and a very small vocabulary.
Higgins spends most of the time trying to figure out why the Eynsford Hills look
so familiar.
By the time he figures it out, Eliza has forgotten to stick to the script. She starts
talking about how her aunt was "did in" by someone. Freddy, not the sharpest
tool in the shed, is laughing like an idiot. His vocabulary seems pretty small too
(e.g., "Ha! Ha! How awfully funny!" and "Killing!" He thinks Eliza's a comedian,
not a Cockney girl). Higgins, embarrassed, gives the signal a cough and
Eliza heads off like clockwork.
After the Eynsford Hills leave, Mrs. Higgins gives Henry and Pickering a talking
to. She scolds them like they're little boys.
They assure her that they're treating Eliza well, not like a doll at all, but Mrs.
Higgins doesn't buy it. Things start to get heavy, and we're not exactly sure why.

You idiots, she says, if Eliza learns to act like a lady, she won't be able to do
anything to make a living!
Higgins and Pickering skip away, unconcerned.


Midnight at Wimpole Street, some months later. Eliza comes in, looking beautiful
but tired.
Higgins and Pickering stumble in, drunk and happy. They've just come from a
bunch of fancy parties and, well, it turns out their scheme worked. Higgins has
won the bet, and is too busy tooting his own horn to congratulate Eliza.
He and Pickering talk about the evening's events as though Eliza can't hear them
even though she's sitting right across the room.
They act like she's a kind of performing monkey, a puppet, a doll, a robot.
By now, though, she's got a much larger vocabulary, and she knows Higgins can
be a pretty miserable jerk.
Even after she brings Higgins his slippers, the two men don't pay any attention to
At this point Eliza's just about ready to pull an Incredible Hulk and strangle the
two of them.
When Higgins asks her to turn off the lights and give Mrs. Pearce his breakfast
order, she throws his slippers in his face. She even threatens to kill him.
Just as Mrs. Higgins warned, Higgins's work has left Eliza in a pickle. She
doesn't know what to do with herself now that he's won his bet, and she's mad.
Just like Mrs. Higgins said, she's learned how to act like a lady and now she's
worried she won't be able to do anything to make a living.
Higgins tries to talk her down, suggests she get married, become a florist, etc.,
but Eliza doesn't listen.
All she wants to do is get out of there, telling Higgins that he can keep all the
clothing and jewelry he bought her. This gets Higgins super angry and

now he nearly pulls an Incredible Hulk and hits Eliza. He gets so angry that he
cusses Eliza out and then storms out of the room.
Eliza smiles, for the first time, Shaw tells us, as Higgins slams the door.


The next morning, the Colonel and Higgins show up at Mrs. Higgins's place
looking for Eliza, who seems to have run away.
Higgins is acting especially whiny, like a bratty child who's lost his favorite toy.
Mrs. Higgins accuses the two men of scaring her off. Higgins can't handle the
Woe is he. He's all confused, he says. He can't find out what to do without Eliza.
Mrs. Higgins calls the men a couple of whiny kids.
Once again, their conversation is interrupted by the appearance of Mr. Doolittle.
This time, he looks more like a gentleman than a garbage man.
Turns out Higgins was right: Doolittle really did have a gift for the gab. An
American millionaire has left him a ton of money, and now he's giving lectures all
over England. Oh, and he's totally miserable. He misses taking money from
Mrs. Higgins decides that, since Mr. Doolittle is rich now, he can take care of
Eliza. Higgins objects, saying that he paid five pounds to Doolittle for Eliza. The
whole doll thing isn't sounding so silly now, is it?
When Eliza finally comes down (she's been upstairs this whole time), she gives
Higgins the cold shoulder. She tells Pickering how much he (Pickering) helped
her just by treating her like a lady.
At this point, Higgins is just about ready to through a temper tantrum. He jumps
for joy, however, after Eliza starts howling like a banshee (again) when she sees
her father all dressed up.
Doolittle announces that he's on his way to get married. Everyone files out of the
apartment except for Eliza and Higgins, who have one last climactic chat.

Higgins starts waxing poetic, talking about the soul and humanity and how much
he appreciated having his own slippers thrown at him turns out he didn't like
having them brought to him in the first place.
When Eliza accuses him of being mean and dismissive, he claims he is just
being fair; he treats everyone from duchesses to flower girls the same way.
Then he asks her to come back.
She tells him to shove it. She would rather go back to selling flowers on the
street corner.
The two bicker some more: she says she'll marry Freddy. Higgins wants no such
thing. He tells her she's a fool. She tells him he's a jerk.
Finally, Eliza tells Higgins she wants her independence, and that she'll go so far
as to steal his secrets to get it.
She threatens to use everything he taught her against him, to go into
competition. This leads Higgins to her a "damned impudent slut" and then tell
her, "I like you like this" (3.273).
He tells her she's his equal, now, but she won't have it. She turns and leaves.
Higgins calls after her, telling her to buy him some groceries and clothing. He's
sure she'll return.


We hear language in all its forms in Pygmalion: everything from slang and "small talk,"
to heartfelt pleas and big talk about soul and poverty. Depending on the situation, and
depending on whom you ask, language can separate or connect people, degrade or
elevate, transform or prevent transformation. Language, we learn, doesn't necessarily
need to be "true" to be effective; it can deceive just as easily as it can reveal the truth.
It is, ultimately, what binds Pygmalion together, and it pays to read carefully; even
something as small as a single word can define a person.

This one may seem like a no-brainer: Pygmalion's all about turning a poor girl into a
duchess, right? Well, sure, and Eliza's metamorphosis is stunning. You could even go

so far as to call it a Cinderella story. But remember: Cinderella turned back into a poor
girl before she finally found her prince. Pay attention and you'll notice that not all the
attempts at transformation here are successful. There are plenty of false starts and
false endings. By play's end, Shaw's made one thing very clear: be careful what you
wish for.
Every single day we talk about ourselves, saying "I did this," "I did that," "I am," and
"I'm not," but we don't usually think about what "I" means. InPygmalion, Shaw forces
us to think this through. Some characters want to change who they are, others don't
want to change at all. Things get even more complicated when identities are made up,
constructed. The play wants us to ask ourselves what I really means to think about
different versions of the self, and whether that self can ever really be changed.
Is beauty only skin deep? Is it in the eye of the beholder? Or is it the consequence of
social circumstances? Shaw's more interested in dealing with the big questions like
that last one than with old saws. InPygmalion, anything from a pair of boots to a bath
to an expensive dress can tell us important stuff about a character, like their place in
the world or their state of mind. They can reveal what might normally be hidden from
view, or hide that which might normally be obvious. So appearances can be deceiving,
and the trick is learning how to judge what is true and what is false. The thing is, it's not
an easy skill to pick up.

In Pygmalion, we see different types of influence and control, sometimes literal and
other times metaphorical: the teacher training his student, the artist shaping his
creation, the con artist fleecing his mark, the child playing with his toy. That said, these
roles aren't always well-defined; they can change easily, without warning. Sometimes
the master becomes the slave and the slave the master, in the blink of the eye, while
other times the two simply become equals. Shaw wants us to observe the
consequences of control, to see how these changes occur.


In Pygmalion, we observe a society divided, separated by language, education, and

wealth. Shaw gives us a chance to see how that gap can be bridged, both successfully
and unsuccessfully. As he portrays it, London society cannot simply be defined by two
terms, "rich" and "poor." Within each group there are smaller less obvious distinctions,
and it is in the middle, in that gray area between wealth and poverty that many of the
most difficult questions arise and from which the most surprising truths emerge.

A lot, as you've probably guessed, has changed in the last century. Back when Shaw
wrote Pygmalion, women could not vote in the United Kingdom; in 1918 women over
the age of 30 were given the right, and it took another ten years for all women to be
given a voice. Shaw's depiction of women and attitudes toward them is impressively
and sometimes confusingly varied. They are shown in conventional roles as mothers
and housekeepers and as strong-willed and independent. The play pays special
attention to the problem of women's "place" in society (or lack thereof), and Shaw
offers no easy answers to the tough questions that arise.


Mick Jagger is right when he sings, "You can't always get what you want." It's true,
sometimes just by trying you can get what you need, but that's not always the way it
works. What if you get what you want only to find out it isn't what you imagined it would
be? What if your dreams come true, only to turn into nightmares? They say the best
laid plans of mice and men often go astray. Well, in Pygmalion that's true. That said,
Shaw also shows us what happens after everything ends up wrong. He offers no quick
fixes, but he does leave room for hope.
Character Analysis
Higgins is what you might call a bundle of contradictions. He's a woman-hating mama's
boy; an incredibly talented, educated whiny little baby of a man; a personable
misanthrope; a loveable jerk. Shaw says it best in his initial description of Higgins:
His manner varies from genial bullying when he is in good humor to stormy petulance
when anything goes wrong; but he is so entirely frank and void of malice that he
remains likeable even in his least reasonable moments. (2.05)

The first time we meet Higgins he's acting as a combination street

magician/peacemaker. He calms down Eliza, then proceeds to show off his skills by
telling people where they're from just by listening to the sound of their voice. Oh, and
he can mimic them too. Right from the beginning we can tell he's a bit of a braggart
and a bit of a preacher he can't help but tell Pickering all about his trade, his life
philosophy, and his ability to turn flower girls into duchesses but as far as first
impressions go, he makes a pretty good one. He comes off as one heck of a cool cat.
By the end of the second act, things have become more complicated. Turns out he
treats women like trash sometimes, and his motives for taking on Pickering's bet seem
less than sincere. He begins bossing Eliza around rather quickly, telling her what to do,
manipulating her with big promises and chocolate he is quite suave, you have to give
him that. He even pays Eliza's father so that he can take her into custody. All of this
happens before he calls her an idiot and a slut and almost assaults hertwice.
Higgins's actions spring from some unexplained distaste for young women, who he
tells his mother are "all idiots" (3.23). Oh, and he has this weird thing for women that
remind him of his mom. At various points in the play he compares women to blocks of
wood, calls Eliza garbage, asks to have her wrapped in brown paper like a package,
and refers to her as "his masterpiece." Both his mother and his maid, Mrs. Pearce,
point out how unfair this all is, how, in Mrs. Pearce's words, "you can't take a girl up like
that as if you were picking up a pebble on the beach" (2.101).
Though he can be a pigheaded jerk, Higgins is definitely not a fool. Heknows he's a
jerk, and he's even come up with a justification for his behavior. After Eliza accuses
him of treating her unfairly, he tells her,
The great secret, Eliza, is not having bad manners or good manners or any other
particular sort of manners, but having the same manner for all human souls: in short,
behaving as if you were in Heaven, where there are no third-class carriages, and one
soul is as good as another. (5.197)
This is the best example of Higgins's high-minded, philosophical side. Sounds pretty
convincing, right? Thing is, sometimes it's hard to tell if he's really being sincere or if
he's just trying to get out of a tough spot. He does, however, have a penchant for
talking about the soul of man, about the importance of language, and social equality.
Given Shaw's socialist leanings (he was a member of the British socialist group, The
Fabian Society, and wrote on and debated various social issues learn more here) it's
hard to dismiss everything Higgins says as meaningless claptrap.
Higgins's fervor can get him into trouble, however. He spends so much time "inventing

new Elizas" with Pickering that he seems to sometimes forget that she's a human
being (3.230). He forgets to congratulate her for her bet-winning performance. He gets
so angry he nearly hurts her, and he ultimately puts her into a very tricky position.
Talking all this into consideration, it's hard to pass judgment on Higgins. He's always
likeable, sure. He's the play's voice of reason, the preacher and poet, but he's also a
slovenly, absent-minded troublemaker. He is the engine that drives the play. He's not
Mr. Perfect, but he has heart. He's the closest thing we get to Shaw, but don't make the
mistake of substituting one for the other. Higgins is like Shaw in some ways, but he
is not Shaw. He is Pygmalion, the character, and it's safe to say that he's
alsoPygmalion, the play. Without him, it simply couldn't be.

Character Analysis
Eliza comes very close to being a walking clich. She's the poor girl from the streets
who turns out to be a brilliant and beautiful young woman. She's smart, independent,
and feisty. This sounds like a recipe for a cookie-cutter inspirational heroine, but, man,
does Eliza have charm. For one thing, you can't hate a girl who howls every time she
gets angry. And boy does she howl. We're talking "Ah-ah-ah-ow-ow-ow-oo!" (1.127). It
should be said that a lot of the time Eliza functions as comic relief. Her howls, her
indignation, her frequent exclamations of "Garn!" and "I'm a good girl, I am," and most
notably her performance at Mrs. Higgins's party are all designed to make us laugh.
Throughout it all, however, we know that she's trying her hardest to achieve her goals.
We feel for her when we realize that Higgins and Pickering are getting a little carried
away with their experiments. By the time we get to Act 4, we're behind Eliza and, when
Higgins ignores her, man, are we angry. By then she's gotten over all the things that
made us laugh. She doesn't speak with a thick accent; her grammar is correct; she
moves with poise and confidence. We here at Shmoop don't usually condone throwing
slippers or shoes of any kind, but we understand when Eliza throws a pair at Higgins.
Over the course of the play Eliza is transformed from a poor flower girl into a
sophisticated young woman, but, perhaps more importantly, she stops being the butt of
jokes and becomes a real three-dimensional character, someone for whom we can
really feel.
Toward the end of the play we find out that she's not 100% confident she starts again
with the darn howling and that she's not all sweetness and light. She shows Higgins
that she's proud and she's shrewd, and tells him that she'd rather go into competition

with him than be married off to some rich guy. Like Higgins says, she is his equal, but
she doesn't want to go his way or live his life.
On a thematic level, Eliza serves to show us how messed up society is. Her
transformation is a testament to the power of education and language. Her difficulties
demonstrate how little "the system" appreciates her kind of intelligence. She's an
inspiration and a warning, and she's anything but a clich.


Character Analysis
Alfred Doolittle is a smooth-talking garbage man, a serial monogamist (although he's
not always really married), a drunk, and a deadbeat dad. He's got a lot to say about
"middle class morality" and complicated theories about the deserving and undeserving
poor. He has principles, too, but they're not exactly conventional: he has no trouble
milking five pounds from Higgins, but he doesn't want anymore than that. He wants
just enough money to have a few drinks and some fun.
In order to understand Doolittle, you have to understand how he speaks. This
exchange is notable:
DOOLITTLE ["most musical, most melancholy"] I'll tell you, Governor, if you'll only let
me get a word in. I'm willing to tell you. I'm wanting to tell you. I'm waiting to tell you.
HIGGINS. Pickering: this chap has a certain natural gift of rhetoric. Observe the
rhythm of his native woodnotes wild. "I'm willing to tell you: I'm wanting to tell you: I'm
waiting to tell you." Sentimental rhetoric! That's the Welsh strain in him. It also
accounts for his mendacity and dishonesty.(2.232-3)
He is the sum of his mysterious speaking ability. You can describe what Doolittle's
saying with all sorts of fancy Greek words, but it's enough to note how he repeats
those three phrases that Higgins singles out, and how his speech is sort of singsong-y.
Whether or not we believe what Doolittle's talking about doesn't matter, it sounds nice.
These skills get Doolittle into trouble when Higgins nominates him for some such
speaking positionand he gets it, along with a generous income. He can't handle all
the money; he doesn't want to be "touched" asked to spare some change in the
same way he touched Higgins.
Doolittle demonstrates how powerful and potentially dangerous words can be. Lucky

for us, his intentions are (mostly) honorable. He's the character most prone to lecturing
yes, even more so than Higgins and though his theories may not be entirely logical,
his little sermons do raise some issues regarding class relations. Think of him this way:
he's a stereotype of a drunken poor guywith an oratorical twist.

Character Analysis
Colonel Pickering is the closest thing Pygmalion has to a father figure. He's a genial
old chap, an expert in Sanskrit, and an all-around nice guy. He and Higgins hit it off
right away, and without his suggestion, the whole bet would have never happened.
Eliza credits Pickering's gentlemanly ways for starting her transformation from flower
girl to duchess, for truly making her feel like a lady. He is the good cop to Higgins's bad
cop (see "Character Roles" for more on this), the Sancho Panza to his Don Quixote.
That said, he still gets carried away sometimes: he gets all worked up about "inventing
new Elizas," he forgets to congratulate her on her achievement, and he ignores the
many warnings that he and Higgins receive.
Pickering really is the epitome of the sidekick. He serves a counterpoint for Higgins,
someone Higgins can bounce remarks off. His presence also allows for the humorous,
effusive bit of Eliza worship at the end of Act 3 (3.226-244). Ultimately, Pickering adds
a little more spirit and little more kindness into the mix.


Character Analysis
Mrs. Higgins, Henry Higgins's mother, was once a young, intelligent independent
woman with progressive ideas. When we meet her, she's older, but she's no less
intelligent, independent, or progressive well, maybe a little less progressive. In many
ways, she's a traditional mother figure: she doesn't take any of her son's nonsense,
and she does ask him why he hasn't married. At the same time, she knows a thing or
two about being a woman in turn-of-the-century London, and she fears for Eliza's fate.
After watching Eliza's performance at her little party, Mrs. Higgins tells it like it is to her
son: Eliza's certainly a fine example of your art, she says, but you're just going to leave
her in an awkward position. Eliza won't be able to support herself with the kind of skills

you're giving her.

Mrs. Higgins's primary function is to raise these big issues, and to warn Higgins of the
eventual, unavoidable consequences of his actions. By giving her a sharp wit and a bit
of a motherly streak, Shaw makes Mrs. Higgins more than simply a talking head.
There's a reason why Eliza runs off to Mrs. Higgins's place when she's had enough of
Higgins: she's just the kind of cool older lady you want to run to when you need some
good advice.


Character Analysis
Mrs. Pearce is a housekeeper. She's also, like Pickering and Mrs. Higgins, a voice of
reason. Heck, if Pickering is the play's father figure, then Mrs. Pearce is its mother
figure (which makes Mrs. Higgins the, uh, alternative mother figure, we guess). Mrs.
Pearce watches out for Eliza from the very beginning; like Mrs. Higgins, she's used to
dealing with Henry Higgins, and she knows he can get carried away with his little
projects. After she shows Eliza to the bathroom, she tells Higgins in no uncertain
terms: this scheme is ridiculous. She wants to make sure Eliza doesn't get hurt.
Now, you may be wondering why Shaw has all these so-called voices of reasons. Isn't
one enough? Well, no. Think of it this way: Pickering represents the fatherly,
gentlemanly voice. Mrs. Higgins represents the once hip young woman voice. Mrs.
Pearce represents the traditional, motherly, lower-class (we're talking socioeconomic
class, here) voice. She has another perspective on the problems of being a woman,
one more closely related to Eliza's original situation in life, and it comes as no surprise
that she wants to protect the girl.


We can cover these two women at the same time. They're always together, after all.
(You can read more about Clara in the "Character Roles" section.) And they really just
represent two stages of what Shaw calls "genteel poverty." They're a mother/daughter
team of reasonably wealthy ladies. They start the plot going when they ask Eliza if and

how she knows Freddy. They represent everything that Eliza is not: they're clean, welldressed, and well-spoken. In the third act, we find out via Mrs. Eynsford Hill that the
family isn't doing so well, and that Clara really doesn't get it. They're on the decline
while Eliza's on her way up, and they're all headed for the same, uncomfortable middle


Freddy is the Romantic Interest. In another play, he might have a big part. In this play,
he barely has a part at all. There's not much romance to be found. Freddy's not exactly
a heartthrob, though. When we first meet him he's running around looking for a cab
which he never finds. In Act 3, he mistakes Eliza's normal Cockney speech the stuff
about influenza and "doing in" for "small talk." He thinks she's the bee's knees, and
quickly falls in love with her. He wants to walk through the park with Elizabut she'll
have no such thing. Still, he leaves the party and the play in high spirits.
If anything, Freddy shows us how unconventional Pygmalion really is. There's not
much room for your standard love affair in there, not with all the heavy stuff. He's
another bit of comic relief, and, as we see in the last act, blackmail material for Eliza.

Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory
The looking-glass is only mentioned once, toward the very end of Act 2. It is involved in
what seems to be a very minor incident. Eliza, it seems, has never looked at herself in
a mirror, and she doesn't want to start making a habit of it:
LIZA. I tell you, it's easy to clean up here [] Now I know why ladies is so clean.
Washing's a treat for them. Wish they saw what it is for the like of me!
HIGGINS. I'm glad the bath-room met with your approval.
LIZA. It didn't: not all of it; and I don't care who hears me say it. Mrs. Pearce knows.
HIGGINS. What was wrong, Mrs. Pearce?
MRS. PEARCE [blandly] Oh, nothing, sir. It doesn't matter.
LIZA. I had a good mind to break it. I didn't know which way to look. But I hung a towel

over it, I did.

HIGGINS. Over what?
MRS. PEARCE. Over the looking-glass, sir. (2.303-310)
Given that Pygmalion is itself named after a character from Greek myth, it only seems
right to bring up another mythological Greek figure: Narcissus. There's a whole backstory to the thing, but here's all you need to know: Narcissus was a really hot young
man. So hot that every girl in town loved him. But Narcissus was vain, and preferred to
keep to himself. One day, a god decided to teach the boy a lesson, and led him to a
pool of water. When Narcissus saw his own reflection there he fell instantly in love
with himself. Eventually he realized his love could never be, and basically killed
Eliza's own fear of mirrors seems to spring from some fear of vanity. She certainly
doesn't want to end up like Narcissus; but it's not clear where her fear comes from. Her
father doesn't seem like the type to teach her those kind of life lessons, and we know
she never got much help from her mom. Still, she's very protective of her own identity.
Whenever anyone questions her motives like at the beginning of the play, when she's
afraid she's going to be arrested she always pleads, "I'm a good girl!" Wherever her
sense of right and wrong came from, it's clear she has one, and she doesn't want to
end up like that vain Greek guy.
It helps to begin with the looking-glass not only because it's a single incident that
raises all sorts of questions. From here we can talk about another related issue:




Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

You know how they say "The clothes make the man"? Well, in Pygmalion it holds
truefor the most part. The most striking example of this takes place just before the
discussion of the mirror. Doolittle is about to leave Higgins's house when "he is

confronted with a dainty and exquisitely clean young Japanese lady in a simple blue
cotton kimono":
DOOLITTLE: Beg pardon, miss.
THE JAPANESE LADY: Garn! Don't you recognize your own daughter?
DOOLITTLE {exclaiming Bly me! it's Eliza!
HIGGINS {simul- What's that! This!
PICKERING {taneously By Jove! (2.289-293)
When Eliza is shown to the bath by Mrs. Pearce, she's nothing more than a poor
young woman trying (and failing) to look presentable. When she comes back out, she's
been so completely transformed that even her father can't recognize her. Shaw lets us
know how drastic the change is within the text by referring to Eliza as "The Japanese
Lady." Even we're supposed to be fooled, if only until Eliza opens her mouth.
Here we can see how powerful appearance is sometimes that suit you're wearing
really can make you look like a million bucks but Shaw also lets us know how flimsy
the illusion really is. Sure, sometimes clothes can help give an accurate impression of
someone the bystander in Act 1 can tell that Higgins isn't a cop just by looking at his
expensive shoes but they can just as easily give a false one. Admit it, that whole
"Japanese Lady" bitdid trick you, right?
Using clothes, Shaw can make a point about appearances and about social
class. Pygmalion is more about language than it is about clothes; after all, Henry
Higgins isn't a tailor, he's a specialist in speech. Still, Eliza is left in pickle at the end of
the play because she can't get by simply by speaking like a rich person. She needs to
clean herself like one, to dress like one, to spend money like one. Sure, she could
marry a rich guy, but she doesn't want to; her sense of "goodness," which we see on
display in the mirror scene, prevents her from doing that.
In the end, Shaw leaves us in a pickle, too. Appearance is important he tells us again
and again. After all, Eliza can bypass any number of social barriers just by getting all
gussied up. The problem is, she, Pickering, and Higgins spend so much time getting
ready to crash the party that they don't know what to do when they get there. What can
you do when you're all dressed up with nowhere to go?


Where It All Goes Down

London, England in the early 20th century
Pygmalion takes place in London, England in the early twentieth century. At this point,
the city was the capital of the largest empire in the world. That said, we only get a very
small glimpse of it. All of the play's action is confined to three places, each located in
the very fashionable center of town: Covent Garden, the laboratory of Henry Higgins's
apartment at 27A Wimpole Street, and the "drawing room" (think living room) of Mrs.
Higgins's apartment on Chelsea embankment. You don't need to know exactly where
these places are. Just know that they're ritzy, about as far away from the poor parts of
London you could get.
The easiest way to understand the setting of the play is to look at who shows up
where, and how they're treated. This sounds pretty easy, right? Well, that's because it
is. Covent Garden was a large market on London's West End. The West End was
home to many of London's theaters, and it brought together a very diverse crowd of
people. Everyone from the rich (like Colonel Pickering), the middle class (the EynsfordHills, for instance), to the poorest of the poor who, like Eliza, were probably trying to
make some money off the richer among them. This is the only place we see a bunch of
people with (pay attention to this) a bunch of accents mingling freely.
The rest of the action is confined to a lab and a living room, and in both cases the
appearance of anyone "lower class" is met with surprise. In the second act, Eliza and
her father can't simply walk into Higgins's place: they have to be screened by Mrs.
Pearce before they can so much as get through the door. Heck, the whole play is
about going undercover, about getting your name on the guest list, as it were. Eliza
can only get into Mrs. Higgins's by pretending to be a lady; and Higgins can only win
his bet by passing her off as a duchess at fancy parties.
Is Shaw trying to tell us that all of these high society types are full of it? That their ideas
about class and sophistication are one big joke? Well, it's hard to say. He does tell
Pickering that being a "lady's maid or shop assistant [] requires better English" than
being a duchess; and the conversation at Mrs. Higgins's little soire isn't exactly
stimulating (1.121). Not until Eliza starts going off about her dead aunt, anyway. Still,
there are plenty of indications that both Higgins and his mother aren't your average,
idle rich. Everything from the scientific instruments in Higgins's lab to the art in Mrs.
Higgins's drawing room speaks to their uncommon intelligence. Once again, it's hard to
say exactly what this all means, but we can be sure that these aren't your typical
people in typical places.




Drama, Realism
Shaw has a lot to say here: heavy stuff about language, society, and thesoul. Lucky for
us, in this case he likes to show, not tell. (Well, for the most part. He usually liked
writing long introductions to his plays.) We get long speeches from Higgins about how
language is what makes us human, about the great significance of his work with Eliza,
and sometimes it seems like Shaw is simply using him as a mouthpiece. But we get
enough perspectives on other issues Alfred Doolittle on the undeserving poor, Mrs.
Higgins on the place of women in society and enough heated arguments to raise
doubts about the truth of Higgins's statements.
Until we get to the fourth act, the play seems like it's headed toward the usual sort of
Hollywood ending. Eliza's going to be transformed into an intelligent, elegant, eloquent,
and eligible young woman, grumpy old Higgins is going to learn a lesson or two about
manners and compassion, somebody will get married, blah, blah, blah. "Not so fast,"
says Shaw. Instead we get two more acts full of arguing and passive-aggressive
behavior with no real end in sight. We do get a marriage, in the end, but it's not your
neat little fairy tale kind. Doolittle's not really much for sticking with a single woman. He
wouldn't even be thinking about it if it weren't for that whole "middle class morality"
In the end, Higgins seems to be the only one who's sure how things will turn out. Eliza
will come back, he tells his mother, but we have no real way of knowing if she will. As it
turns out, the play's central question isn't, "Can you pass off a flower girl as a
duchess?" but, "What can you do with her once you do?" As attractive and, perhaps,
truthful as Higgins's talk about the soul and language is, Shaw forces us to put it to the
test. "The great secret," Higgins tells Eliza, "is not having good manners or bad
manners, but having the same manner for all human souls" (5.197). We have to
wonder, though: can this apply to the real world, or is this nothing more than a fantasy?

Take a story's temperature by studying its tone. Is it hopeful? Cynical? Snarky?
Didactic, Witty
As we've said more than once, Shaw wants to get us thinking about a lot of important
stuff. Luckily, he's not into lecturing. Think of him as a zany, loveable teacher: he wants
you to learn something and have fun doing it. (On second thought, that sounds a lot
like your friends here at Shmoop.) The play's scenario seems so simple poor girl
becomes duchess thanks to brilliant, eccentric teacher that, by the time Shaw starts
asking the Big Issues, we're so invested in the characters that resistance is futile. The
whole thing is a bit like Higgins himself. Sometimes Pygmalion can be hard to deal
with, but in the end it's so charming that you can't help but like it.




Most good stories start with a fundamental list of ingredients: the initial situation,
conflict, complication, climax, suspense, denouement, and conclusion. Great writers
sometimes shake up the recipe and add some spice.

Initial Situation
Eliza Doolittle is a poor girl with a thick accent and no prospects. Henry
Higgins and Colonel Pickering are gifted linguists. The three have a fateful
encounter one night in Covent Garden, during which Higgins reveals his
talents as a teacher.
OK, this is pretty standard. Shaw introduces us to the main characters, lets us know
that Eliza has a problem, and that Henry has the skills to fix it.
The next day, Pickering and Higgins are working in Higgins's laboratory.
Their conversation is interrupted by the entrance of Eliza. When the girl
demands to be given lessons, Higgins bets Pickering he can pass her off as
a duchess given six months. Pickering agrees.
Here we have the potential resolution. Higgins is now given the opportunity to fix
Eliza's problemsbut it's not all sunshine and rainbows. His motives for doing so
aren't exactly clear.
Alfred Doolittle, Eliza's father, shows up and blackmails Higgins into giving
him some money. Eliza is a quick study, but teaching her proper grammar
and manners proves difficult. Freddy Eynsford Hill falls head over heels for
her anyway. Higgins's mother warns him that he's only hurting Eliza by
training her.
This is where things get, well, complicated. Eliza's father threatens to end the bet
before it starts, teaching Eliza proves difficult, a romantic element is introduced, and a
warning is issued. And rest assured, that warning isn't there for nothing.
After winning the bet, Higgins acts like he was completely bored by the
whole process. He and Pickering proceed to talk about Eliza as if she hadn't
even taken part in the plan. Eliza gets angry at Higgins and throws a slipper
at him. Eliza decides to leave Higgins's home, and the two argue until
Higgins loses his cool and nearly hits Eliza.
This is where things get a little unconventional. The winning of the bet, which you
might expect to happen at the conclusion, is stuck smack dab in the middle of the play,

and not much is even made of it. That's where the conflict in the scene comes from,
and things wouldn't be nearly as exciting if Shaw didn't tinker with the formula.
Higgins shows up at his mother's house the next day looking for Eliza. She
seems to have left in the middle of the night, and Higgins can't handle his
daily affairs without her. He desperately wants to get her back, and even
thinks about calling the police in to help search.
The old runaway plot. A classic. Eliza is lost, then found. It's a perfect way to build
suspense and get us ready for the play's conclusion, but first
It turns out that Eliza has been at Mrs. Higgins's apartment the whole time.
She acts calm and collected, and gives Pickering most of the credit for her
transformation, thus infuriating Higgins. When Eliza, surprised by the
appearance of her father, howls as she used to before she was trained,
Higgins declares victory. The two proceed to have a long argument.
This isn't really a denouement in the usual sense. You could lump the events listed
about with Eliza and Higgins's final argument, but the two episodes are really distinct
episodes. Still, a lot of the plot is tied together: Doolittle is reintroduced, Eliza is
brought back into the picture, she goes on to explain how she feels, we see that her
transformation isn't quitecomplete, and we're ready for the conclusive fight.
The argument, which focuses on Eliza's future, ends after Eliza threatens to
sell Higgins's trade secrets to support herself. Higgins nearly strangles her,
before deciding that Eliza has finally established herself as his equal. He
invites her come back and live with him and Pickering again. Eliza declines
and says goodbye for the last time. Higgins feels confident she'll come back
There isn't really anything about the conclusion that's conclusive, but we do get to see
Higgins and Eliza talk about the many ways the play could have ended more
conventionally: marriage, a total reconciliation and return to Higgins, a return to her
father. Instead, we're left in the lurch. We don't know what's going to happen to her.
She declares her independence from Higgins, but we don't know if it'll last. Though
Shaw tells us what happens in his "sequel," wellgo read "What's Up with the
Ending?" to get the final verdict on that.