Bernard Shaw’s comedy Pygmalion presents the unlikely journey of an impoverished flower girl into London’s society of the early 20 th century. Professor Higgins proposes a wager to his friend Colonel Pickering that he can take a common peddler and transform her into royalty. Eliza Doolittle is the pawn in the wager. But little does Higgins know the change will go far beyond his expectations: Eliza transforms from a defensive insecure girl to a fully confident, strong, and independent woman.
When the audience first meets Eliza Doolittle she is a flower girl peddling at 11 PM in front of St. Paul’s Church. The audience’s first impression is one of sympathy because she is dressed in rags and pedestrians are unkind to her. Higgins calls Eliza ‘you squashed cabbage leaf, you disgrace to the noble architecture of these columns, you incarnate insult to the English language.’ (p.
21) The audience’s sympathy is intensified when we see Eliza’s wretched lodgings. These lodgings are much contrasted to those of Higgins in Wimple Street. Not only does Shaw play on the audience’s sympathy for an impoverished Eliza, but also presents her insecurity to us. In the scene with the taxi-man, she appears significantly defensive in her response concerning the cost of the cab ride. Eliza feels humiliated by the taxi-man’s sarcastic response to her. From the start of Higgins and Eliza’s relationship, Eliza is treated like a child.
The most obvious change in Eliza is her progression from being a flower girl in act 1 to a poised, well spoken lady we see in acts 4 and 5. Shaw describes Eliza as not at all a romantic figure. Perhaps eighteen, perhaps twenty, hardly older. She is loud with a strong cockney accent. Her first words are unintelligible. And to show this Shaw has written it in the phonetic alphabet, to stress that ...
Higgins says to her, ‘If your naughty and idle you will sleep in the back kitchen among the black beetles, and be walloped by Mrs. Pearce with a broomstick.’ (p. 36) Higgins treats her like this for months until the audience meets her again in London society. Eliza’s first test is at a luncheon given by Mrs. Higgins. Eliza, who is well dressed, makes a remarkable impression on the lunch guests.
They are totally taken by her, especially by her confidence, demeanor and articulation. Eliza can only carry a conversation based on two topics: weather and health. When these fail her, she slips back and appears insecure. After being presented in London society at a garden party, a dinner party, and the reception at Buckingham Palace, Eliza succeeds.
Both Pickering and Higgins agree that, ‘ Oh, she wasn’t nervous. I knew she’d be alright.’ (p. 79) As the men brag about her success, Eliza becomes angry. She snatches up Higgins ” slippers and hurls these at him with force.
‘I’m nothing to you — not so much as them slippers.’ (p. 81) Eliza then walks out on Higgins. She is now confidant and no longer acts like a child, but like a strong woman. In the final scene, Eliza asserts herself.
She says, ‘I want kindness. I know I’m a common ignorant girl, and your a book-learned gentleman; but I’m not dirt under your feet.’ (p. 107) Eliza also declares, ‘… I’m not afraid of you, and can do without you.’ (p. 110) Her closing lines, ‘ What are you to do without me I cannot imagine.’ (p.
110) The Eliza that closes the door on Higgins is vastly different from the flower girl the audience first meets at the beginning of the play. Her decision not to marry Higgins reveals a mature and independent Eliza, a person free to choose. Eliza’s transformation occurs over the six months of her living with Higgins. Their relationship can be described as father / daughter . Her evolution into a young woman is evident in her rebellion like a daughter rebels against her father. It is only through this that Eliza can become an assertive woman.
Shaw’s play Pygmalion demonstrates a girl’s rite of passage.