The Misogynistic Henry Higgins

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The Misogynistic Henry Higgins

The key to understanding George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion lies in understanding the power struggle between the “haves” and “have-nots” – specifically the active and intentional disenfranchisement of women at the turn of the 20th century. At the core of Pygmalion there is a focus on the societal inequities of the day, with Shaw presenting society’s treatment of women as property without rights and with little understanding of their surroundings or place in society. Throughout the 19th century, and into the early 20th century, when Shaw penned Pygmalion, British laws and society actively restrained women, both politically and economically. Unlike the United States, women in England were allowed to vote prior to 1832 as long as they met the property qualifications, although this only allowed unmarried or widowed women the ability to vote as all property rights transferred to the husband at the time of marriage. Women’s ability to vote was revoked when the 1832 Reform Act passed, as it specifically used the word ‘man’ to qualify ‘persons.’ This subtle change in language allowed women to be legally disenfranchised for the first time in British history. Although many people have interpreted Pygmalion as a play discussing class issues, a closer reading presents the core struggle revolving around the lack of gender equality at the turn of the 20th century. Henry Higgins represents the societal mentality that women are objects, and nothing more. Higgins sees Eliza Doolittle as little more than a puppet to dress properly and teach to speak as he determines. To Higgins, Eliza is simply an object to mold to his will. Throughout the play, Higgins refers to Eliza as less than human, speaking about her when she is in the room as if she was not there, and as if she has no emotions. Higgins believes Eliza is incompetent and unintelligent and frequently dehumanizes her, calling her an insect and speaking down to her. From the beginning, Eliza is inhuman to Higgins and he frequently speaks poorly of her in front of her, but he does not speak to her: “HIGGINS [tempted, looking at her] It’s almost irresistible. She’s so deliciously low – so horribly dirty –” (Shaw) “HIGGINS … I shall make a duchess out of this draggletailed guttersnipe.” (Shaw)

Eliza, also believing in her inferiority, yet wanting to be treated better, travels through most of the story following Higgins every command, and waiting upon him, as if she is his servant. I believe Shaw deliberately portrays Eliza as innocent and moldable, as that is how society believed women should be. From the beginning of the play Eliza seems to be a caricature of the common British woman. Eliza is first introduced as overly emotional – several times to the point of hysterics. She is also presented as poor and dirty, with a street vernacular, which Higgins immediately keys upon. However upon close reading, Shaw also presents a side of Eliza that is intelligent and willing to work, although Higgins, again representing society, seems either incapable of seeing this side of Eliza, or merely chooses to overlook her positive qualities as they do not fit into his view of the world. Throughout most of the play, Eliza continues to bear Higgins’ insults because she believes him better than her, and she strives to attain his level in society, just as British women of the day repeatedly bore society demeaning and disenfranchising them. Higgins, representing those denying women the right to vote, dismisses Eliza’s abilities time after time and repeatedly demeans her intelligence going so far as to deny Eliza any credit for the change that has occurred with her: “LIZA [breathless] Nothing wrong –with you. Ive won your bet for you, havnt I? Thats enough for you. I dont matter, I suppose. HIGGINS. You won my bet! You! Presumptuous insect! I won it.” (Shaw)

This statement shows Higgins does not believe or understand that Eliza had any role in the work, but rather he, the...
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