Female Autonomy in Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw

Categories: Pygmalion

George Bernard Shaw wrote Pygmalion in 1912 which the title itself refers to the myth of the sculptor Pygmalion who fell in love with the beautiful statue that he created and with his love for the beautiful marble allowed it to become a live woman, Galatea. Shaw uses this primary plot line with a twist to tell about the issues of the time and makes the play, not a mediocre Cinderella story but a problem play. Shaw points out to the questions of femininity and gender by titling his play after this myth.

The play is set at the end of the Victorian period when women had not yet got many basic rights and privileges calls attention to the role of women in society. Shaw depicts a society in transition where new ideas about female autonomy conflict with the established ideas of gender stereotypes in his play.

In his play Pygmalion, Shaw deals with the problem of gender stereotypes in a society where female independence has not yet achieved.

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Gender roles in Victorian society were rigid and both men and women expected to be in certain ways. Men are expected to earn bread, sustain his family, conceal his emotions, must be intellectuals and mainly be active in the public sphere whereas women are required to do everything that includes household and domestic issues like cooking, cleaning and bring up a child. Shaw illustrates the Victorian society's strict rules of fixed gender assignments conflicting with female independence through various characters.

The character of Henry Higgins, the phonetics professor, who is in the upper class and an intellectual however has an arrogant attitude towards women expose the traditional gender stereotype by society.

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He mentions, "The girl doesn't belong to anybody is no use to anybody but me" (Shaw, Pygmalion (Webster's Thesaurus Edition) 36). This expression of Higgins suggests that a young woman should "belong" to someone which we can actually see first Eliza belonging to her father when her father, Alfred Doolittle, comes to Higgins and Colonel Pickering and asks for money because of her daughter, then Higgins remarks, "You might marry, you know" (Shaw, Pygmalion (Webster's Thesaurus Edition) 92) after Eliza completes her transformation to an elegant, proper and eligible young lady. These examples indicate that a woman's fate is to marry and start a family considering the belief of the Victorian society.

In addition to that, only men take place in society, and women even though who are in the higher class, are not being respected or seeing equals to men. To demonstrate, Clara Eynsford Hill is in a considerable status even if her family is not at the same level as the Higgins. However, when she goes to talk to Higgins with "confident familiarity" (Shaw, Pygmalion (Webster's Thesaurus Edition) 66) and Higgins responds rudely to her, and lightly says, "[staring at her] I've seen you before somewhere. I haven't the ghost of a notion where, but I've heard your voice. [Drearily] It doesn't matter. You'd better sit down" (Shaw, Pygmalion (Webster's Thesaurus Edition) 66). Clara's encounter with Higgins shows that women in higher class do not have freedom and choices as well because the only way to have a place in the community and keep that place is stick to the connections with men.

Another important point to notice is although Eliza's transformation into a lady that appears like a Cinderella tale on the surface, the situation is not like the same. Eliza recognizes that her life is not better comes to light when she finished her change to a lady from a flower girl. She frankly relates herself, "I sold flowers. I didn't sell myself. Now you've made a lady of me I'm not fit to sell anything else. I wish you'd left me where you found me" (Shaw, Pygmalion (Webster's Thesaurus Edition) 93). This newly introduced dilemma for Eliza indicates that it does not matter if she is in high class, or in this case move up the social ladder, she does not have a place in society without a relation to a man and cannot provide her own costs. Another demonstration is after Henry's "experiment" with Eliza concludes at ambassador's party and is successful. Then, Eliza understands her situation after her transition and does not know what to with herself. Higgins proposes possible solutions while mentioning Colonel Pickering, who pays "all the expenses of the experiment" (Shaw, Pygmalion (Webster's Thesaurus Edition) 32) can also afford to open her a flower shop. He suggests possible clarifications to Eliza's trouble being a lady without a place in the society:

HIGGINS. Oh, lots of things. What about your old idea of a florist's shop? Pickering could set you up in one: he's lots of money. [Chuckling] He'll have to pay for all those togs you have been wearing today; and that, with the hire of the jewelry, will make a big hole in two hundred pounds. Why, six months ago you would have thought it the millennium to have a flower shop of your own. Come! you'll be all right. I must clear off to bed: I'm devilish sleepy. By the way, I came down for something: I forget what it was. (Shaw, Pygmalion (Webster's Thesaurus Edition) 93)

Also, after Eliza realizing that she is no longer a flower girl nor have a proper place in society she asks, Do my clothes belong to me or to Colonel Pickering (Shaw, Pygmalion (Webster's Thesaurus Edition) 93)? and this question also implies that she is not a part of the public sphere like men and cannot afford her own costs. Eliza will never be able to be successful in turning to a proper lady without Henry's education to be proper and Colonel Pickering's financial help to look like a lady. In other words, Eliza tries to find a way to gain status with her situation at hand and the concept of affording her own living increases. She claims her freedom and decides to leave Higgins, What you taught me. I'll teach phonetics (Shaw, Pygmalion (Webster's Thesaurus Edition) 125). She is using the education and language that Higgins taught her to be successful because she cannot do well with speaking her language and her appearance before. This outburst signalizes more and more to the fact that women cannot exist in public space like men. Moreover, women cannot have a proper place unless they are married or have a family connection through their fathers.

Furthermore, as Tracy C. Davis explains in Shaw's Pygmalion, "Shaw again depicts female dependence as the central theme" (Davis 225). He pictures a new ideal in Pygmalion, a woman who is self-sufficient, educated and out of the limited space that she has given. Higgins mother presents the new ideal which shows how Henry's final creation, Eliza, look like her. Mrs. Higgins is independent, intelligent and educated and Higgins himself clearly states, "My idea of a loveable woman is something as like you as possible" (Shaw, Pygmalion (Webster's Thesaurus Edition) 63). On the other hand, she is already in the social mold where she keeps house and maintains the customs of the time to fully break it. It should be a young woman to take the next stage to fully identify with the new ideal. In Eliza, Shaw designs a woman who has all the features of Mrs. Higgins, but with the aspiration to go her own way. However, Eliza is still far away from to make it out of the traditional role of the female when in a period that has such a firm representation of femininity. This explains Henry's conventional behavior after Eliza completed her change into an eligible lady, "he can dispose of the new improved Eliza into the marriage market" (Davis 225) as Davis continues.

The play comes to a climax in Act 4 when Eliza realizes that Henry only cares for his "experiment" and its success, meaning himself rather than her. Jan McDonald further explains, "In Pygmalion Henry Higgins does "make" a beautiful duchess from the apparently unpromising material of Eliza Doolittle (with help from Pickering and his mother), but his creation takes control of herself, and surpasses the imagination of her creator" (McDonald 69). Therefore, the climax is the beginning of Eliza's awakening of self-respect and will to have more such as to go on with her life with freedom and self-reliance. Eliza burst out after all, [pulling herself together in desperation] 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 (Shaw, Pygmalion (Webster's Thesaurus Edition) 92) She realizes neither her father nor Higgins cares about her and she is left with the trouble of being a proper lady without a proper place. She then demands kindness and independence and challenges by saying [ rising determinedly] I'll let you see whether I'm dependent on you (Shaw, Pygmalion (Webster's Thesaurus Edition) 125). Eliza displays matureness throughout the peak of the play, and she comes through with making Henry treat as his equal and tells us the following:

LIZA [defiantly non-resistant] Wring away. What do I care? I knew you'd strike me some day. [He lets her go, stamping with rage at having forgotten himself, and recoils so hastily that he stumbles back into his seat on the ottoman]. Aha! Now I know how to deal with you. What a fool I was not to think of it before! You can't take away the knowledge you gave me. You said I had a finer ear than you. And I can be civil and kind to people, which is more than you can. Aha! That's done you, Henry Higgins, it has. Now I don't care that [snapping her fingers] for your bullying and your big talk. I'll advertize it in the papers that your duchess is only a flower girl that you taught, and that she'll teach anybody to be a duchess just the same in six months for a thousand guineas. Oh, when I think of myself crawling under your feet and being trampled on and called names, when all the time I had only to lift up my finger to be as good as you, I could just kick myself. (Shaw, Pygmalion (Webster's Thesaurus Edition) 125)

To emphasize further, another play of Shaw's, Mrs. Warren's Profession, as Frederick J. Marker explains, Assuredly, Mrs. Warren's Profession is an "unpleasant" play and hence also a "problem" play (Marker 115). In this earlier play of him, Shaw concern himself with one of the social corruptions of the day. The play is much different yet so familiar with its issues and women characters. Apart from the given plot, dialogues show each character's personalities which mainly gives away Vivie Warren's disposition as she sounds the new ideal. Sally Ledger states, Shaw's Vivie Warren has grown into a briskly independent, puritanical New-Womanish figure (Ledger 52). Shaw plays with the Victorian society's fixed traditional gender roles and presents the total opposite by building up the nature of his play's character Vivie. She frankly explains her nature herself and in round terms, "Oh yes I do. I like working and getting paid for it. When I'm tired of working, I like a comfortable chair, a cigar, a little whisky, and a novel with a good detective story in it" (Shaw, Mrs. Warren's Profession 48). Although, Vivie is educated, intelligent, "practical" and self-reliant compare to Eliza who is almost the exact opposite, as Elsie Adams emphasizes to this, "Even the male-dominated Eliza Doolittle shows her claws and threatens to scratch when Higgins and Pickering ignore her after her triumph in Act IV" (Adams 18).

To conclude, George Bernard Shaw displays a society in a period of transition, where he desires to equality can be achieved. Unfortunately, the society at the time was rigid and new ideas about female autonomy conflict with the established ideas of gender stereotypes in his play. Although his plays have female characters who have voiced their opinions just like Vivie Warren and Eliza Doolittle, in the end, they are not far from their roles in the reality of the day. Sadly, women still must have some connection to men in order to be respected by society. It is the restrictions and portrays of women interfere with the new image of female autonomy and success free from any connection to men. Even though it is unpleasant, Shaw brings up one of the issues of the time and tries to question it while tries to evoke the audience about the matter that is colliding female independence and the traditional roles in the society.


Updated: Dec 12, 2023
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Female Autonomy in Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw. (2019, Nov 20). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/female-autonomy-in-pygmalion-by-george-bernard-shaw-essay

Female Autonomy in Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw essay
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