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Bernard Shaw?S Pygmalion Essay, Research Paper

An interpretation of Class Relations in Pygmalion by, Bernard Shaw

In Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, there is a distinct variance in class relations and the way that early 20th century Britains were perceived as being different by their speech, money, wealth, style, manners, and appearance. Being a lady or a gentleman was an acquired status desirable among most of London’s society. However, in Pygmalion, Shaw tells a story about the transition of a homeless young woman with the aspiration to become a respected lady.

Eliza Doolittle is an 18 or 19 year-old young women, making a living from selling old flowers on the streets. When she comes across a rude Professor, named Henry Higgins, he sarcastically offers her to “learn how to speak beautifully, like a lady in a florist’s shop…..at the end of six months you shall go to Buckingham palace in a carriage, beautifully dressed.” This is what he proposes to Eliza when she comes to ask for English lessons from the Professor. He then makes a bet with another man, Colonel Pickering, who says he will pay for her new clothes and English lessons, if Higgins can make a lady out of her in six months. The deal is made, and Eliza is immediately washed up and put into new, clean clothes. The play begins like this, which sets the plot for the rest of the story.

An example of modern day class relations with speech can be described by linguistic anthropologists, and in an article called “Suite for Ebony and Phonics” by John R. Rickford. In this article, he discusses the African-American speech Ebonics, and the negative impact it has across America. Being called “lazy English,” “bastardized English,” and “poor grammar,” it seems to be the same thing that was going on in England during the time Pygmalion was written. I’m sure that if we were to ask Henry Higgins if that is what he thought about the way Eliza spoke he would whole-heartedly agree. However, the poor English that Eliza spoke was never considered as becoming a legal language in England.

The play begins off on a rainy night on the streets, with a lady and her daughter waiting for a cab. In this first act, Eliza asks them to buy a flower from her, with the response from the daughter, “Do nothing of the sort, mother. The idea!” When the mother gives her some change, the daughter again exclaims, “Make her give you the change. These things are only a penny a bunch … ……sixpence thrown away! Really, mamma, you might have spared Freddy that.” She then retreats disgusted and unable to believe that her mother had actually given in to the poor flower girl. Another example is when Eliza goes to get in the taxi and the driver is trying to keep her out, assuming that she has no money to pay for the ride.

When Higgins meets Eliza, he comes across as very rude, saying:

“Woman; cease the detestable boohooing instantly; or else seek the shelter of some other place of worship……A woman who utters such depressing and disgusting sounds has no right to be anywhere – no right to live…. this creature with her kerbstone English: the English that will keep her in the gutter till 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…..”

He then goes on to call her names like “squashed cabbage leaf” ; “disgrace to the noble architecture of these columns” and an “incarnate insult to the English language”. With obviously no respect for the poor girl, he would say anything that he wants to her, with no spare to her feelings at all.

An example related to this scenario can be compared to “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”, by Peggy McIntosh. In this article, she describes how gender, race and sexual preference are a problem in America. In this case, however, it is more a subcultural problem, but it is related to the way classes differ. She discusses how white people, males particularly, have “skin color that was an asset for any move one was educated to want to make”. In her case, she thinks that most people don’t realize that they are segregating against minorities or sex.

White people have more of an advantage in our society, but it is kept as something people do not discuss, as is male advantage, with the myth that “democratic choice is equally available to all.” Oppressiveness in the United States seems to be unconscious, therefore, it is hard to put an end to it. Like in Pygmalion, class relations were part of their culture, and poor people were always looked down upon.

Even though you may expect such a well-educated man such as Higgins to be a gentleman, he is far from it. He believes that how you treated someone is not important as long as you treat everyone equally. His great secret is not to have good or bad manners but to have the same manner as all human souls. To behave as if you were in Heaven, with no third or first class, and where one soul is as good as the next, with no recognition of any personal assets. He is consistently rude to many, but is also well mannered at parties and in good times.

Mrs. Pearce, his maid, treats the girl like scum when she first meets her, saying, “It’s no use talking to her like that, Mr. Higgins: she doesn’t understand you…. you must call me Mrs. Pearce not missus…..” Also, when Mrs. Pearce is showing her the bathroom, Eliza has no clue what the bath is for. “You know you can’t be a nice girl inside if you’re a dirty slut outside. ”

In the part of the play when Eliza, Mrs. Higgins and Henry meet with Mrs. , Mr. and Miss Eynsford Hill, Higgins is unwillingly forced to have tea with them. Even though the Eynsford Hill’s have no money left, and have nothing except their manners and appearance, they still act as if they are high class. However, Henry still rolls his eyes towards them. When Eliza meets with them, she tells stories that seem unbelievable to them, and uses language that they have never heard of. They all think she is just trendy and up to par on the new small talk, using the words “not bloody likely” which is just as bad as saying f–k in today’s modern day language. Mrs. Eynsford Hill is shocked, but her daughter, Clara thinks its modern, “delightful and quite innocent.”

Nonetheless, at this time, Mrs. Higgins decides that Eliza is still not presentable to the upper class of society to pass as a lady. She “gives herself away with every sentence that she stutters”, but after the six months of lessons, she is ready for the party, and passes as a lady with flying colors.

In the article, “Women, Minorities, and Indigenous Peoples: Universalism and Cultural Relativity” by Carole Nagengast, she discusses cultural relativity and how universalism is desired throughout the world. She describes how these three groups are deprived of civil and political rights. This relates to Pygmalion because she describes how these ‘minorities’ have less rights than white males with an education. Also, it describes how freedom among women is inappropiate to Eastern and Southern cultures.

Higgins remains to treat Eliza with no respect throughout the entire play, no matter who is around. In Act V, he “treats a flower girl as duchess”, and justifies it as “ the question is not whether I treat you rudely, but whether you ever heard me treat anyone else better.” Eliza doesn’t answer the question but we all know that he has treated others better than Eliza. At parties, for example, Higgins is a gentleman to the hosts and other guests, but still treats Eliza as his “experiment”. Higgins could never see the new Eliza, he just saw her as the dirty little flower girl, much like how an author never sees his work as finished, he could not view her as a lady or duchess. He has childish tendencies and immature actions that give him a limited outlook.

The entire play is based upon the goal to prove that upper class is only a matter of saying the right things, the right way, wearing the right clothes, and knowing the right people. If one has a flaw in any one of these areas, they would be automatically looked down upon by others. This was how early 20th century Europe was. If you didn’t have money, and did not talk right, or heaven forbid, no money at all, you were nothing but a worthless soul that could have been kept in the sewers with the rats. Aristocrats ran society, and they had no need for the homeless and poor.

In relating this subject to anthropology, there are a lot of points that can be made between the comparison of class relations and other issues similar to it. The study of Ebonics is a very good comparison to Pygmalion, and the way that someone speaks can effect how other people view them. Even though some think it is not an issue today, it can still be compared to early 20th century England and the way upper class looked down upon others. In the same way, many people do look down upon people speaking the too familiar sound of Ebonics.


McIntosh, Peggy. “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” Applying Anthropology. Aaron Podelefsky and Peter J. Brown. California: Mayfield. 217-220.

Nagengast, Carole. “Women, Minorities, and Indigenous Peoples: Universalism and Cultural Relativity.” Applying Anthropology. Aaron Podelefsky and Peter J. Brown. California: Mayfield. 340-352.

Rickford, John R.. “Suite for Ebony and Phonics.” Applying Anthropology. Aaron Podelefsky and Peter J. Brown. California: Mayfield. 176-180.

Shaw, Bernard. Pygmalion. England: Penguin, 1913.

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