Pygmalion by Shaw: Summary, Characters & Theme

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Shamekia Thomas

Shamekia has taught English at the secondary level and has her doctoral degree in clinical psychology.

'Pygmalion' is a play written by George Bernard Shaw. It tells the story of the transformation of a young girl's life. Learn more about the 'Pygmalion', the characters in the story, and themes for the story then test your knowledge with a quiz.

We also recommend watching Robinson Crusoe: Summary and Themes and Jane Eyre: Summary, Characters and Analysis

Introduction

Living in poverty and struggling from day to day can be a very difficult way to live your life. Most of us, if given the opportunity, would try to make changes to our lives and our situation if we could. The play Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw tells the story of a poor, young flower girl who has been disrespected and overlooked because of her appearance and the dialect she speaks. When given the opportunity, she decides to get language lessons in order to gain the respect of others and improve her overall status in life. The outcome of her training is not what she expected, and she is not only able to change her appearance and speech but also gain confidence in her own abilities.

Characters

  • Eliza Doolittle - the main character in the story. She is first introduced as an unpolished, foul-mouthed flower girl but is transformed into a beautiful woman.
  • Professor Higgins - a linguist who believes he can transform Eliza Doolittle into a duchess in six months. He is an intelligent man but is also disrespectful to others (despite their social class) and extremely arrogant.
  • Colonel Pickering - a linguist who challenges Professor Higgins to transform Eliza Doolittle into a duchess. Colonel Pickering funds Professor Higgins's work with Eliza and is considerate and kind to her.
  • Alfred Doolittle - Eliza's materialistic father who tries to obtain money when he learns Professor Higgins is working with Eliza.
  • Mrs. Higgins - Professor Higgins's mother who disagrees with Higgins's and Pickering's plan to try to change Eliza into a duchess.
  • Freddy Eynsford Hill - Freddy first meets Eliza during a meeting with his mother and sister at Mrs. Higgins's home. He falls in love with Eliza and writes letters to woo her.

Plot Summary

Pygmalion opens with two linguists, Professor Higgins and Colonel Pickering, placing a bet on whether Professor Higgins can transform the life of flower girl Eliza Doolittle by helping her learn to speak proper English rather than her cockney dialect.

Eliza wants to learn proper English so that she can get a job in a flower shop and offers to pay Professor Higgins to teach her. Colonel Pickering decides to pay the cost for Professor Higgins to teach Eliza and challenges Professor Higgins to present Eliza as a duchess for the ambassador's garden party. Professor Higgins believes he can make Eliza a duchess in six months.

Professor Higgins cleans Eliza up and begins his transformation of her; however, her father wants his daughter back home (or he wants money from Higgins) and goes to Professor Higgins's home to get her. Eliza's father Alfred is a poor man who has been married many times and cares more about money than he about what is happening to his daughter.

Alfred leaves Professor Higgins's home, without Eliza, when given money and does not recognize his daughter when he sees her new, clean image. (After being mocked and given advice by Professor Higgins, Eliza's father later becomes rich monetarily but finds himself unhappy).

Professor Higgins spends months transforming Eliza into a respectable English woman with proper language skills. After Professor Higgins thinks Eliza is ready to start mingling with others, he takes her to his mother's home to see how well she would do in the company of high-class people. (Higgins's mother does not agree with the way her son and Pickering are playing with Eliza's life and tell them she does not think it is a good idea to treat Eliza this way).

At Higgins' mothers home is the Eynsford Hill family, a mother, son, and daughter. Eliza mingles with the family appropriately, but at times during this meeting her dialect changes and she speaks cockney. Freddy Eynsford Hill, the son, is intrigued by Eliza and her cockney dialect. Freddy is interested in a relationship with Eliza and writes letters to woo her.

Eliza's second public outing is the ambassador's party, and Eliza presents herself in a positive way and is viewed as a duchess. Professor Higgins was successful at transforming Eliza from a flower girl into a duchess. After the ambassador's party, Professor Higgins and Colonel Pickering become bored with Eliza and are no longer interested in helping her.

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