Characterisation of Eliza Doolittle and Henry Higgins in Shaw's Pygmalion

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Pygmalion is written by dramatist, playwright and critic George Bernard Shaw in the year 1912 and was first published in the year 1913. The drama revolves around three main characters – Eliza Doolittle, Professor Henry Higgins and Colonel Pickering – who are all striving towards the same goal. That is, they want to be able to pass Eliza off as a Duchess rather than the flower girl from the London slums that she actually is. It starts as just a bet on the part of the Professor and the Colonel, but it is a struggle for a better, upper-middle class life on the part of Eliza. She is enticed by not only the idea of becoming part of the recognizable society of the time, but also at the prospect of having actually found a person who would ‘help’ her achieve her dreams. As the plot and the play unfolds, one can see that a relationship appears between these lead characters among each other.

The title ‘Pygmalion’ refers to the character from Greek Mythology with the same name. Pygmalion was a sculptor who hated women with a passion. However, when he created a beautiful statue of a woman made of ivory, he fell in love with it. He proceeded to pray to Aphrodite, the Greek Goddess of Love, to turn the statue to life, and the Goddess complied. Nevertheless the sub-title ‘A Romance’ is not appropriate because even though the first part of the Mythology can be paralleled with the play – where both the men created things of beauty from the very foundations – the second part of the analogy cannot be compared to each other. This is so as even though Pygmalion fell in love with Galatea (the ivory statue), there is never any direct mentioning of the fact that Professor Higgins was in fact in love with Eliza Doolittle. There is a misdirecting implying of the fact, and Higgins even goes to confess that he had ‘become used to having [Eliza] around’, it could very well be due to the fact that Eliza had started to help him in his day to day activities.

Professor Henry Higgins, forty years old, is a bundle of paradoxes. In spite of his brilliant intellectual achievements, his manners are usually those of the worst sort of petulant, whining child. He is a combination of loveable eccentricities, brilliant achievements, and devoted dedication to improving the human race. Yet he is completely socially inept; his manners are so bad that his own mother does not want him in her house when she has company, and his manners are so offensive that she will not attend the same church at the same time. Since manners have always been the subject matter of comedies, Higgins' view of manners differs greatly from his own actions. His use of phonetics to make a flower girl into a duchess does not mean that the play is about phonetics; the play concerns different definitions of manners, and thus Higgins' actions must be taken fully into account.

Henry Higgins is a confirmed bachelor. In addition, he is so set in his ways that he announces to Eliza that if someone doesn't want to get run over, they had better get out of his way. To accomplish his aims, he will trample on anyone's feelings — whether that person be a flower girl in Covent Garden or a real duchess or a lady in his mother's elaborate drawing room. Thus, one of Higgins' claims to equality is not that he doesn't have manners (it is a foregone conclusion that he has none to speak of), but that he treats all people alike. However, he only thinks that he does; he is not as egalitarian and democratic as he likes to think that he is. When Higgins first meets Eliza in Covent Garden and is taking down her vocal sounds, he is extremely clever — so clever, in fact, that his horribly bad manners are accepted by the audience as being clever. In his tirade against Eliza, when he vents his wrath against her, on first hearing his tirade, the audience can do nothing but forgive him because he has such an admirable command over the English language as he simply rips to pieces a "guttersnipe" and "a squashed cabbage...
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