George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion

Categories: Pygmalion

George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion was about Higgins, a phonetics expert, who, as a kind of social experiment, attempts to make a duchess out of an uneducated Cockney flower-girl, Eliza. Pygmalion followed some traditional rules. First, the play was based on Eliza's transformation as the main theme. Higgins claimed he could pass Eliza off as a duchess in three months. (Block 5, page 14) Secondly, the virtual sixth act, the ball, was inserted in the book but was absent from the stage version. Shaw understood the essence of traditional convention by excluding the ball which was extravagant and technically taxing.

Block 5, page 11) Lastly, Pygmalion also conformed to the traditional five-act structure which allowed breakdown of actions into five balanced sections: beginning (first act), development (second act), climax (third act), turning-point (fourth act) and denouement (fifth act). (Block 5, page 12) The adage said, "Familiarity breeds contempt. " Shaw avoided the familiar 'Cinderella' and 'wedding-bells' ending for Higgins and Eliza. Shaw included the fairy-tale formula but excluded the romantic ending as he hated to be predictable.

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(Block 5, page 32) Shaw's play was realistic and economical.

Firstly, he chose to rise the curtain on an empty stage thrice to achieve an elaborated, unusual and real-looking sets. (Block 5, page 14-15) Secondly, Shaw reflected on serious moral issues in Pygmalion. He likened Eliza's physical uncleanliness to Higgin's personal uncleanliness to exhibit his distinctive Shavian paradox. Then he introduced a more unwashed character, the cockney dustman, to embody another Shavian paradox (Block 5, page 27) to mock the audience's association with only the same class and social status.

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The third realism was that of dialogue.

Though heightened and poetical language was one of the most durable and pervasive legacies of the classical tradition, Shaw challenged the tradition with characters speaking in recognizable everyday speech to relate to audience's familiar language. (Block 5, page 15) Pygmalion resembled its dramatic ancestors. One of Ovid's Metamorphoses "Pygmalion in Love with a Statue" concerned individual transformation like Shaw's Pygmalion. Shaw's and Ovid's Pygmalion were equally appealing to both artists as they explored the relation between creator and creation.

Eliza was behaving just like the statue in the Ovidian myth. Higgins, like Pygmalion, had no time for women and Eliza was Higgins's equivalent of Pygmalion's statue. The difference between Shaw's version and Ovid's was the ending of the stories. Unlike Pygmalion in Ovid's, Higgins did not fall in love with his creation. Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea recreated the true story of Bertha Mason, the Jamaican mad wife of Edward Rochester in Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre. Rhys became outraged by the caricature of the Creole in Jane Eyre: faceless, voiceless and sacrificial.

Rhys protested that it was only an account of the English side. (Rhys 2000, page viii) In telling Bertha's story (known in Wide Sargasso Sea as Antoinette Cosway), Rhys painted the other side and described how Antoinette became mad. Wide Sargasso Sea was divided in three parts of unequal lengths. The first part, the heroine's childhood, was narrated by Antoinette herself. In the second part, the narration was shared between Rochester and Antoinette. The third part, though short but intense, took place in England.

Antoinette from the attic where she had been locked up, resumed the narration until the dramatic conclusion. Her layered text structure and shifting perspectives delivered us from a one-sided perspective. She challenged the style, language and setting of any canonical novel. Novel was structured by using the modernist 'stream of consciousness' style, an extension of Antoinette's point of view to imitate the child's wandering mind (Block 5, page 182) and by giving the story a fragmentary quality and a sense of suspense. Rhys's prose was poetic and dreamy.

She avoided having an omniscient narrator. This style made her novel ambiguous with no neat ending and an unsettling feeling. It provided no clue what happened to Annette and why Christophine left. She also used the Creole and black language, giving the culture a voice in her novel. For instance, Christophine's remarks "she pretty like pretty self" (Rhys 2000, page 15) Rhys celebrated Dominica, its beauty, sensuality and resistance to imperialism but the sea surrounding Dominica, the setting of Rhys's novel was ironically not mentioned in the text.

Rhys exposed the gulfs that existed between people due to different races, genders and imperialism. (Block 5, page 196) She advocated that it was not only black and white who were separated by the gulf of unknowability, men and women were seen as equally alien to each other and it was not madness that divided them but existential loneliness. (Block 5, page 200) Rhys exposed Antoinette's husband's emptiness and weakness. "So this place is as lonely as it feels? " (Rhys 2000, page 74) She also disclosed the inability of the male and the reluctance of the colonialist to understand the female.

The land was seen like the body of a woman, something to be possessed (Rhys 2000, page 54), was never accepted for what it was and it was always wrong and malignant. " Rhys also repudiated the slander that Creoles were degenerate, and that their madness was inherited as a consequence of 'bad' breeding. (Block 5, page 185) Critics debated the merits of Wide Sargasso Sea that it relied closely on Jane Eyre and could not stand alone. (www. bookrags. com/studyguide-widesargassosea/) I would rather say that reading of Jane Eyre would complement reading of its 20th century sequel, Wide Sargasso Sea.

In addition to the influence of the original Pygmalion myth, from the Greek playwright Ovid's Metamorphoses, critics were also made on Shaw's depiction that his play though of different treatment was criticisms of Shakespeare and was consciously or unconsciously suggested by Shakespeare's "The Taming of the Shrew". (RB3 C2 p90-91) Critics had also pointed out possible influence of other works such as Tobias Smollet's novel "The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle", W. S. Gilbert's "Pygmalion and Galatea" and Henrik Ibsen's "A Doll House".

Shaw denied borrowing the story but with only traces of them in his play. (www. bookrags. com/studyguide-pygmalion/) Rhys's novel beckoned readers to re-examine Bronte's novel whilst Shaw's play compelled viewers to reconsider Shakespeare's morality in his play (RB3 C2 p91) In Bronte's novel, Bertha or Antoinette was a monster, described as violent, insane, and promiscuous, Rhys created instead a sympathetic and vulnerable young woman, Antoinette. Rhys resisted Jane Eyre by giving Bertha's or Antoinette's first person narration.

Shaw's opposed to Shakespeare's coercive methods of educating or reforming women because he advocated that kinder methods prevailed, whilst violence was 'an admission of defeat'. (Block 5, page 35) Shaw wrote a pseudonymous letter, an article and then the play "Pygmalion" to express his negative opinion about the character of the shrew-tamer Petruchio, the degradation suffered by Kate and to reject Shakespeare's concept of male dominance over women. (Block 5, page 34) "As a self-proclaimed feminist, Shaw wanted to see women equally represented... (Block 5, page 37) He used the story to promote feminism and his belief in the power of intellectuals to improve mankind. The themes in Wide Sargasso Sea explored madness, race and gender.

In Rhys's opinion, the Creoles were misunderstood and maligned both by the blacks of the islands and by the wealthier white Europeans who came to settle in the West Indies after slavery was abolished. Rhys was especially haunted by the plight of mad Creole heiresses, exploited for wealth to English husbands. The novel explored the misunderstandings beneath the mercenary contours of their struggle. Rhys 2000 page xi) The themes that surrounded Pygmalion were on the contrary about class, middle-class gentility and morality. (Block 5, page 18) Shaw's audience was largely from the middle-class which assumed that its attitudes were the norm. Shaw intentionally made Doolittle a prey to the middle-class morality to protray vices on hypocrisy, pride, avarice and social pretensions among his audience. He then paralleled Doolittle's discomfort about what was to become of him with Eliza's unease of what was to become of her. Block 5, page 22)

Chorus by Mrs Higgins and Mrs Pearce of 'what was to become of her' was used to express a better understanding than the main characters. (Block 5, page 27) They were mouthpieces of Shaw to warn the audience not to treat the lower class especially their female counterparts as inferior. Shaw used the scene where Eliza was stripped off her clothes and her true identity to mock at the middle-class audience, their values and contempt towards people of lower social status. Pygmalion was a comedy. Beneath the comedy lies a satire on the superficiality of class distinctions.

This is made explicit in Eliza's father, Doolittle, who calls himself one of "the undeserving poor" Shaw aimed to ridicule the society and mock the absurdities of life. He once said, "When a thing is funny, search it carefully for a hidden truth". In contrast, Wide Sargasso Sea was a tragedy. I felt strongly that this novel had not only left the readers but also the author a deep sense of emotional and psychological cleansing as the novel had rescued her from obscurity into which she had fallen. (Rhys 2000, page v) There was a lesson to be learnt here by the readers not to see only one side of the coins.

Pygmalion's title harkened from its predecessor, Ovid's Pygmalion which accounted a woman-hating sculptor falling in love with his own sculpture of his desired image. Wide Sargasso Sea referred to the sea surrounding Dominica, the setting of Jean Rhys's novel. The Sargasso Sea was a large area of sea in the Atlantic Ocean near the West Indies where currents moved around it and was often still but haunting. Its stories were like the weeds of the Horse Latitudes which entangled together and were difficult to unravel.

Updated: Apr 19, 2023
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George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion essay
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