The Challenges Of A Rapidly Changing World In Pygmalion

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How does George Bernard Shaw use ‘Pygmalion” to explore the challenges of a rapidly changing world? In your response, you should make significant reference to concepts of language, identity, and culture.


On the death of Queen Victoria, power was transferred to her son, Edward VII marking the end of the Victorian era. Modernism challenged Victorian economic and social practices presenting them as greedy, opponents of freedom, self‐realization, and social justice. Written in 1912, Pygmalion can be seen to mark the shift from Victorianism to Modernism in its portrayal of Eliza’s transformation. Shaw challenged the Victorian concept that the human being is a stable, inherently noble, and unchanging entity. The notion of being born into one’s class through the mobility of the lower class ascending towards the upper class created conflict due to the simplistic requirements such as the adoption of proper English, development of noble mannerisms, and altering one’s idiosyncratic character in Pygmalion. The integral concepts and conflicts brought forth in the play are Eliza’s ascension from the lower class to the upper class and the simplicity of it, Doolittle’s middle-class morality, and Higgins’s cruel attitude and behavior despite being protected by the upper-class status he was born into.

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During the Victorian era, rapid change was evolving as the class distinctions were very rigid, therefore the treatment of the lower classes by the upper classes was cruel as they wanted to prevent their attempts to rise, which created challenges for those with social ambitions. Subsequently, Eliza’s transformation challenged her inner struggles as when she won the bet, she realizes the consequences of her transformation and the desperation she feels at not knowing what she will do from this point on in her life revealed through: “what am I fit for? What have you left me fit for? Where am I to go? What’s to become of me?”. The notion that becoming upper class costs an individual’s identity is deeply explored through Shaw’s use of language and Eliza’s character which later forms a dispute as she doesn’t know what to do with herself because she can’t work in a flower shop as she is too upper class. The repetition of ‘what’ in each question allows the audience to gain sympathy for her and become knowledgeable of Eliza’s distress over her uncertain future. Still carrying the financial means of the lower class, conflicts with the whole transformation of Eliza’s as she does not have any practical use for the language she developed other than faking her identity. Shaw comments on the culture of the lower class as they were being used for the upper class’s benefit of fending off them and then being left with nothing for themselves.

It becomes questionable however if language reveals or forms one’s character as Eliza lacks the education to become fully integrated. Eliza’s education has made her a lady, making it difficult for her to go back to her former environment and sell flowers as she used to do. She has been cut off from her prescribed lifestyle and became a lady that lost her identity. “You know, that when a child is brought to a foreign country, it picks up the language and forgets its own. Well, I am a child in your country. I have forgotten my own language and can speak nothing but yours”, the simile is prescribed in this quote as Eliza is comparing herself to a child. However, Shaw’s use of language creates a juxtaposing effect as he is contrasting the difference between the class differences and cultures of the upper class and the lower class. Also commenting on the fallacy of maintaining Eliza’s identity. It also proves the implications that arise as she has been alienated from her earlier social environment and her quest for identity and belongingness in the higher social environment contrasts with the way she was raised.

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Pygmalion raises the question of what really separates the classes if clothing and the way of speaking can do so much for how someone is perceived. Henry Higgins is well dressed, well-spoken and with money, however, his manners could be considered poorer than that of the lower class. Shaw questions the defining criteria of what constitutes a gentleman through the character of Higgins. He still looks at her as his ‘personal experiment’ and treats her poorly. This is proven through Eliza’s words “the difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves, but how she’s treated. I shall always be a flower girl to Professor Higgins because he always treats me as a flower girl and always will: but I know I can be a lady to you because you always treat me like a lady and always will”. Shaw demonstrates the rigid personality and cruel treatment of Eliza, which portrays the lack of empathy and intelligence Higgins truly has. Challenging the social restrictions in terms of class, Shaw perpetuates Higgins to be a rude and uncivil man despite being categorized as an upper-class man. The notion that not all characteristics of an upper-class citizen can be morphed into one person due to society’s lack of empathy of the lower class and the superficial requirements.

This is explored through Shaw’s description of Higgins and his perfection of the English language benefits him even though he lacks decent manners, he still gains respect for seeming intelligent through his language and therefore his social position remains unaffected. He is unaware of his attitude and rude behavior; a common norm for people of the upper class. This is proven through the quote “a woman who utters such depressing and disgusting 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”. Creating a humorous atmosphere for the audience, the quote involves Higgins investing speech with spiritual and cultural implications with the English language. References of biblical allusion and dramatic irony are embedded in the quote as Higgins is scolding Eliza for not being able to understand and articulate the language when he only uses it for atrocious remarks and conducts. Thus, it highlights the treatment of the upper class towards the lower class as they were able to get away with doing awful things due to the language they spoke and looking down on the lower class due to their lack of coherence in language which causes them to be taken less seriously.

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Middle-class morality during the 20th century explores the way a person is expected to act or think when they become part of the middle class. Shaw challenges the social norms that were present during the 20th century by making his audience question that if one developing a language, one already having a coherent language but using it to abuse others and another having high intelligence but not being in the best state of status, then what is the point of having social class distinctions? Shaw greatly explores the superficiality of the social class system by making it evidently outspoken through the character Alfred Doolittle. By implementing the street knowledge and intelligence in Doolittle, Shaw challenges the requirements that were supposedly needed in the 20th century to be considered upper class. Pickering- “have you no morals man?”, Doolittle- “can’t afford them governor. Neither could you if you were as poor as me”. Doolittle suggests that even something as basic as morals costs people of the lower class, it is ‘bought’ with money that only the middle class can obtain. This in itself contradicts as when Doolittle becomes part of the middle class, his manners remain the same as if he was still in the lower class, the effect of this is that it breaks social barriers. Doolittle conveys hardships for citizens of the lower class and the unlikely chances of them rising up to the middle class due to the sacrifice that comes in obtaining morals. Before he becomes rich, Doolittle defined the middle class as “an excuse for never giving me anything”. Doolittle represents a dislike for the middle class and hopes for “cheerfulness and a song” like those in the upper classes. The ambiguity present in this quote foreshadows his future as he, later on, gets all the money he could ever ask for, but it comes with a price, that is the responsibility he is forced to carry. Doolittle believes “the middle class claims its victims”. This challenges the state of Doolittle from when he was in the lower class as he, later on, becomes a ‘victim’ portraying that the citizens did not get to choose the class, they were born into or slowly and painfully made their way there.


Above all, it seems pertinent to claim that Shaw thoroughly explored the issues of the rapidly changing world during the end of the Victorian era and the emergence of the Edwardian period, by demolishing the societal norms through the characters Higgins, Eliza, and Alfred Doolittle. Shaw also effectively comments on the superficiality of the upper class through the conveyance of developing a foreign language to rise to the upper class, the attitude and etiquettes expected of the upper class, and the ascendance from the lower class to the middle class by altering one’s external identity and not their internal. Essentially, Shaw wanted to break these social barriers by not conforming through his text ‘Pygmalion’, he challenges the society at the time through the audience who were viewing the play and the political systems.  


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