While reading Pygmalion, I was fascinated by the intricate details of language and how it affected the identity of Eliza. Realizing that language and identity were somehow connected in Pygmalion, I dove deeper into this issue and researched the effect of language on the social identities of Eliza and Henry Higgins. Keeping all this in mind, I came to formulate the research question “How and to what effect does the use of language empower Higgins and transform Eliza?”
Shaw felt that the only way to improve ones position in society was by improving their language. He was determined to raise the social consciousness of his audience while emphasizing the use of language. Shaw portrays this through Higgins and Eliza in Pygmalion who are at the opposite ends of society. This essay is a development of Shaw’s frame of thought.
This essay is divided into two sections where each will be analyzing an area of inequality that set back England’s progression in Shaw’s view.
The first section focuses on the social class distinction; Shaw tries to highlight the use of language. In his perception, the language that the two characters used defined their identities. I will be arguing that the language doesn’t define their identities but rather steals it away.
The second section focuses on gender inequality and how according to Shaw, the improvement of education and language would reduce the gender inequality. I would then argue that language doesn’t hold a connection to the gender inequality in the society. Rather, language is only used to demoralize Eliza. I will also be stressing the fact that as a well refined lady, Eliza faces an identity crisis and more gender inequality than she did living on the streets as a common girl.
In G.B Shaw’s comedy of purpose Pygmalion, language is seen as an effective tool of social power which imposes hierarchy on society. Shaw believed that language causes social inclusion and exclusion and this Edwardian mannerism and prejudice finds expression in the social, educational and gender injustice of his times. Shaw ridicules these aspects of the society he lived in. He felt it necessary to highlight these three aspects and awaken the social consciousness of his audiences. Vesonder rightly observes “Even a superficial examination of Pygmalion will show that the main focus of the play is not erotic involvement but the power of language…” Even though learning English for Eliza is like learning a whole new language, this education, helps in emancipating and finding a new identity for her . On the contrary, Higgins is already empowered with a strong sense of self identity due to his use of language and education. Shaw critiques how language acts as a determinant of not only social status but also social acceptability. It’s ironic how this division of social inequality is mirrored by Henry Higgins who in transforming Eliza is given great social significance. Social judgment based on linguistics is evident in the way Eliza speaks and immediately Higgins places her in a lower social position than his and considers her as an inferior. Thus we see how Shaw critiques social discourse, nature of inequality in itself and the superficial issues of his time. This essay is an attempt to discuss how on one hand the empowered use of language corrupts Higgins and on the other compromises Eliza’s identity in her journey to transform herself.
Social Class Distinction
Shaw displays disparity among people in terms of their appearance and specifically in terms of their language. In the Preface, Shaw enthusiastically applauds the new scientific approach to language by phoneticians, “if only because it raised pronunciation above the intense self-consciousness and class snobbery which had always bedeviled the subject in England” Bernard Shaw, signifies that it is language alone that makes the difference between a flower girl and a duchess, therefore endowing “this action line with a fine satiric thrust at the basic artificiality of social ranking” At the very beginning of the play, Shaw presents us with a stratified society in which linguistic competence is one of the indicators of social status.
When Mrs. Eynsford Hill asks Eliza how she knew her son Freddy, Eliza responds: “Ow, eez ye-ooa san, is e? Wal, fewd dan y’ de-ooty bawmz a mather should, eed now bettern to spawl a pore gel’s flahrzn than ran awy athaht pyin. Will ye-oo py me f’ them?” Here, with apologies, this desperate attempt to represent her dialect without a phonetic alphabet must be discarded as unintelligible outside London. Shaw tries to use this not only as an indicator of the different societies that Eliza and Mrs. Eynsoford Hill live in, but also tries to portray the changes in character when these people from different classes interact.
This non-standard and ungrammatical speech clearly manifests that Eliza lacks linguistic competence. Through Eliza’s poor articulation and social grace, Bernard Shaw also tries to criticize the vulgarity of lower class language. Shaw’s parenthetical comment on Eliza’s speech stresses his distaste for the cockney accent.
The importance of language is further brought into view when Eliza comes across Professor Higgins in the street, a proud phonetician, who can distinguish everybody’s origin from his/her accent. He tells her:
“Woman: cease this 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. Remember that you are a human being with a soul and the divine gift of articulating speech: that your native language is of Shakespeare and Milton and the Bible: and don’t sit here crooning like a bilious pig.”
The cockney accent is one of the main determiners for her class. Eliza being told that she has no right to live because of her colloquial accent shows that she doesn’t possess power of being able to feel confident and stand up for herself against such crude remarks.
Shaw cleverly uses the vulgarity of specific dialect to criticize the lower class and also the superficiality of upper class. Higgins, belonging to the higher society was an altogether diverse man. He was a “gentleman” who wore gentlemanly “be-oots” (boots). He could talk in fine, sophisticated, Standard English with clear and flawless pronunciation and was clearly very well educated. However his language sophistication altered with the class of the crowd he interacted with and felt it acceptable to act rudely with the lower classes in order to feel superior. This is clearly obvious with the number of degrading synonyms in which he can refer to Eliza such as “draggletailed guttersnipe”, “Bilious pig”, “Squashed cabbage leaf”, “A baggage”, “an impudent slut” and “Presumptuous insect” etc. His higher class status and his sex gave him the ticket to speak to Eliza in this manner.
Shaw uses Higgins’ character to evoke his own personal thoughts within the play, making other satiric comments on the place of speech in British society and on “the deplorable lack of suitable training in the phonetics of the English language”
In contrast to Higgins’ power, Dukore indicates that “a member of a particular social class is revealed not only by his speech and behavior, he is revealed also by the way in which he is treated” Higgins treats Eliza just as rudely and thoughtlessly as he treats every other character in the play, including his mother and Mrs. Pearce. MacCarthy, a critic, furthermore agrees with Dukore: “The self-absorption of Higgins’ makes his behavior as inconsiderate as lack of education makes Eliza’s, but at least he treats everyone alike. He may be rude, but his rudeness is not discriminating”
The fact that one’s articulation defines a characters position in society can be regarded as “Victorian hypocrisy.” The upper class citizens are supposed to be the role models for the lower classes to strive for. But, they obviously fail to do so because of their attitudes towards the lower classes. Higgins fails to realize something that MacArthur states: “Higgins has not the smallest inkling of what all this drilling and training has cost Eliza herself, or how hard she has tried to learn. It has been hard enough work for him chipping the statue out of the block, but the marble itself has suffered more” 
Higgins, as he boasts about in the beginning of the play, creates a brand new identity for Eliza by bridging the “gulf that separates class from class and soul from soul” and by extensively training her linguistic abilities and teaching her to dress like a lady. This arrangement of the class distinction in context to her new education questions the audiences mind about the many paradoxes and deceptions which use to surround, and till date surround the value of acceptability of society and social status.
As it is clarified by David Crystal, “More than anything else, language shows we ‘belong’, providing the most natural badge, or symbol, of public and private identity.” Eliza loses her original language from the colloquial parts of London and picks up the new and elegant style of speaking. Realizing the need for a better language in the higher societies, ever her father realizes that there is an “appropriate” language to be spoken in his new social status in the society; changing their identities in their own eyes as well as the communities. Due to such changes, as Alfred Doolittle realizes, he and Eliza are “disclassed”, and this, as a result, creates an identity crisis for both these characters. Learning the way of the upper class, they are not “fit” to belong in the classes they originated from.
Eliza does not only obtain the benefits that the society offers because of her new accent, but also with it, as Mrs. Higgins points out at the beginning of the play , “the manners and habits that disqualify a fine lady from earning her own living without giving her a fine lady’s income” . As a result, once Higgins’s wager is accomplished, Eliza is a misfit in all the strata’s of society. Without her “kerbstone English” she is incapable of returning to her life on the streets while at the same time she is also incapable of finding a place for herself in the higher strata of the society despite all her lady like traits that would presumably put her in the upper classes. Due to a lack of finances to support her dreams, she is denied of all the Luxury. Realizing this, she even states “what am I fit for? What have you left me fit for? Where am I to go? What am I to do? What’s to become of me?”
It is only possible for women to use and showcase their talents and traits when they are given the liberty to do so. Shaw tries to highlight the limitations that Victorian women faced without the liberty to have an identity. Twenty years before Pygmalion was written George Grissing voiced the opinion of most of the people about the hopelessness of social progress. He stated:
“The London work girl is rarely capable of raising herself or being raised, to a place on life above that to which she was born; she cannot learn how to stand and sit and move like a woman bred to refinement, any more than she can fashion her tongue to graceful speech.”
“Equality and inequality in social terms are thereby proven to be both extrinsic and subjective; this is clearly Shaw’s thesis from a socialist point of view”. The people, who don’t meet these criteria, have no other option but to survive in the streets such as the corner of Tottenham Court Road.
Most people unconsciously make preconceptions about a character taking into mind different attributes such as gender, age, level of education etc. Due to these preconceptions, people often assume the characters personality and class in context to their decisions. Leah Zuidema claims that “these assumptions are not inconsequential thoughts. People act on their ideas, and, as a result, prejudice becomes active discrimination” Eliza and Higgins are created to contrast each other entirely. The man is educated, and the woman is illiterate; the man is smart, and the woman is senseless; the man is reasonable, and the woman is emotional, etc.
Higgins is a naturally selfish misogynistic celibate. Exactly how Eliza accuses him as one in the beginning of the play. “Oh, you’ve no feeling heart in you; you don’t care for nothing but yourself.”
Higgins being fluent in his speech is able to make statements such “treating all people the same, as in heaven, where there are no third-class carriages” at first leaves his audiences in awe but later they realize that these are only excuses for his crude remarks towards Eliza and his careless habit of dismissing manners. Although Higgins treats everyone similarly, it is not an admirable trait because it reflects his pride as an aristocratic selfish man while demoralizing even the dignified women by treating them as flower girls. He is simply an emotionless misogynist without respect for emotions or his own.
“A woman who utters depressing and disgusting sounds 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, and don’t sit there crooning like a bilious pig.”
From this demeaning dialogue, we learn that the restructuring of society that Shaw demands is rooted upon the phonetic retraining of all the women, despite the language Higgins himself always uses brutally and dominatingly. Higgins is portrayed as someone who considers himself to be the greatest teacher in the world, not only because he was able to transform a flower girl into a duchess but because he succeeded in turning this duchess into an individual who was capable of expressing her emotions so passionately.
To make it worse, he didn’t consider Eliza as a human being in any sense. To him, she was just an object of experiment. He took Nietzsche’s saying “when you go to women, take your whip with you” literally because of the way he metaphorically “whipped” her with his words but doesn’t resort to physical exploitation of Eliza. Although he does threaten her with physical violence, he never resorts to it. Nevertheless, Eliza takes these threats quite seriously in the beginning of the play when interviewed in Act II. Higgins’ attitude to Eliza is very uncouth and insulting. In a very ungentlemanly manner he orders Eliza to sit down, and when she shows hesitation, he commands her by, “thundering” the order at her. As if to prove to everyone in his household that he is the master, he doesn’t even let Eliza interrupt him despite the price she offers for the lessons. He immediately growls at her to “hold your tongue” and as a result of his rude manner of bullying her around, she starts to cry, to which in order to show even more superiority he threatens her that “somebody is going to touch you, with a broomstick, if you don’t stop sniveling.” The decision to commence the wager to transform her changes his attitude and turns him into a dictatorial master of his house. He begins to order every member present in it whether it is the keeper, Mrs. Pearce, about giving Eliza a bath, disinfecting her, or burning all her clothes without consulting her at all, pretending as if she has no say in the matter of her own personal hygiene or will. Higgins dictatorial attitude goes to such a length that he dismisses Eliza’s protests and starts ordering Mrs. Pearce on how to treat Eliza, “If she gives you any trouble, wallop her.” The ruthless manner in which Higgins tears into Eliza continues throughout the play. Shaw tries to emphasize that although the gender inequality was the cause of the set back in his society, treating her like garbage was the only way to convert her into a woman in a short span of six months.
Post Eliza’s transformation, when she is fully trained and can speak the English language perfectly along with behaving like a true lady, her image as a flower girl doesn’t change in the mind of Higgins as he continues to treat her like his “scullery maid” and refuses to miss an opportunity to insult her. In Act V, after Pickering and Higgins file Eliza as a missing person, Mrs. Higgins says; “What right have you to go to the police and give the girl’s name as if she were a thief, or a lost umbrella, or something?” Thus yet again proving that to Higgins, Eliza in fact wasn’t a human being but rather a “thing” that could be compared to a lost umbrella. Eliza is a “nobody” in the society, but her existence is still acknowledged as “something” presumably as an experiment for Higgins. Nevertheless, unfortunately that was just the position of women in the male-dominating society that Shaw portrayed in this play.
The character of Eliza when contrasted with Higgins’ is shown as a person who in essence, is human. Although her description is a satirical comment on the reduction of the English society, she is still a conservative, naïve and innocent young girl. Despite her position in the society, she is well aware of what the higher society demands even though she has never lived a day of the free and easy lifestyle. This she easily points out in Act II when she states “if you was a gentleman youd ask me to sit down.”
She understands her situation very well. Despite her naïve-ness, she is also a realistic young woman. She understands the need for education in order to raise herself in the society and readily takes the humiliation in the process of it. She is clear that nobody that she interacts with, including her father are concerned about her well-being. She is powerless and restrained in terms of the language to express herself or to conceptualize her emotions. Taking this for granted, Higgins realizes that Eliza’s emotions have shallow significance because she is restrained in her language to express her thoughts and lacks the capability to organize her thoughts. Which is why for Eliza, every emotion whether it be terror, rebelliousness, humiliation, and anger, they are all responded to by her infamous howl, “Ah – ah – oh – own – ow – ow – oo!” Through which she echoes all her different emotions.
Eliza has a lot of trouble understanding the world she lives in. Her life is a constant struggle between the balance of being a financially independent woman and a liberal woman with a sense of self identity. To Eliza, a taxi is like a golden carriage and her shoddy old Ostrich feather hat and coat are the marks of a lady. The ignorance of the society that Eliza faces is evident in her concepts of a genteel lady and her mannerisms.
The elements that Eliza thinks will change her into a lady are her manners, money and speech. Eliza believes that by altering her linguistics and accent, she will be more acceptable in the society. It is understandable that Eliza’s social position in the lower classes also accounts for her economic position thus, creating an ill-mannered woman. A girl like Eliza can never be expected to afford a phonetic professor such as Higgins. Then how is it possible for this poor girl who has trouble affording enough money for her daily bread to be expected to act like the ideal demure Victorian lady? Eliza is from a world where she has to learn to live day by day. The weather in the opening act of a dark, cold, rainy and confusing night clearly describes Eliza as a person.
Women in Shaw’s society had to struggle in their own way against the patriarchal restrictions they faced. If women like Eliza didn’t act according to their will and ambitions, they would never move forward in their lives and the world today would also be a majorly male dominated society.
Eliza breaking free from the shackles of the male dominating world has suffered a severe amount of humiliation at the hands of Higgins. She regains some of her dignity by throwing his own slippers at his face. She metaphorically throws the societies patriarchal ideologies at the face of the man who tried to use them against her.
Despite this, a breakthrough is not enough for Eliza to be accepted in the higher society and she must be patient with him and conform to the higher society as a whole. An independent lady such as Eliza asking for help in order to raise her social standards itself shows her obeying the rules of the society to walk a different path. Realizing that in order to become a lady, she will have to bow down to the upper classes as she seeks assistance from the most brutal mentor available. “They won’t take me unless I can speak more genteel like.” Despite going against the patriarchal society, Eliza has to camouflage herself into the higher society to avoid the life of a common girl. Eliza is willing to leave her roots and forget the environment she has lived in her entire life in order to move ahead in the society.
Despite Higgins dictatorial nature, his superiority over Eliza is constantly questioned by Eliza’s wisdom and bright mind. Higgins’ ego is at the risk of being wounded when he starts to feel annoyed at the fact that Eliza, is in fact a very bright girl with many ideas of her own that he didn’t put into her head. By the end of the play, Higgins begins to realize that he is after all, not the greatest teacher in the world. He only gave Eliza the mere tools to allow her to organize her thoughts and shine through in life. At this realization, Higgins has no choice but to accept the situation as what it is. His creation is not entirely his anymore; the creation has started to create itself. And that she is, in fact probably going to be a better creator for further more pupils to come. Higgins’ has to accept Eliza as his equal or maybe more.
Although language plays a huge role in creating the identities of the two characters, in this play it does not completely overpower their identities.
In terms of social class distinction, the language used by the characters of different societies created their identities only as a use of identifying their origins. The ironical part is that the lower class characters such as Eliza are much more humane and likeable to the audiences than the higher class characters such as Higgins. The language used by Higgins throughout the play is condescending and harsh which corrupts his identity and leads him to believe in the male dominated society. Thus, he is not a character in the favor of social progression. Eliza however is the opposite because she goes against the norms of the societies and decides to educate herself and build a new identity for herself. Although, her old identity is lost in the process of acquiring the new one which she, at times, regrets losing.
A connection between the language and gender inequality creating an identity is solely based on the actions and reactions of the characters. The language aspect is only used to emphasize on their identities whereas their identities are also presumed by the characters use of language creating a paradox. Eliza, by the end of the play realizes that even though she achieves her ambitions of becoming a lady fit enough to work in a flower shop, she also has to carry the burden of a lady who is expected to be demure and innocent. The realization sets in when she realizes that as a common girl, she had more liberty to do as she wished without it being questioned whereas, as a lady, working itself is not acceptable. So does the language create the identity? Or is it the identity that reveals itself through the use of language?