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Page 1

Bernard Shaw uses the play Pygmalion to also comment upon the conflict which exists

between the sexes. This conflict is most clearly brought out through the relationship between

Eliza and Henry Higgins.

Higgins is a polished teacher of phonetics and is introduced as a person who is ‘of the

energetic, scientific type, heartily, even violently interested in everything that can be studied

as a scientific subject and careless about himself and other people, including their feelings.

These traits of character are bound to lead to conflict with Eliza Doolittle, a common flower

girl who, by a contrivance of plot, brings her to learn to speak like a lady in a flower shop

from Henry Higgins. Eliza has ambition and dignity and resents being bullied by Higgins, a

social superior.

From the beginning of the play we notice an element of conflict which characterises their

entire relationship. At their first meeting she rebukes him when he insults her by calling her

‘a squashed cabbage leaf’ and an ‘incarnate insult to the English language.’ Even when she

comes to Wimpole Street to ask to be taught, she does not beg but uses an attitude of

defiance telling him: ‘If my money is not good enough, I can go elsewhere. She speaks back

to him when he doesn’t ‘speak sensible’ to her and calls him a ‘great bully’.

Higgins continues to bully her. This is done even as he is ‘free of malice’. He is attracted by

the challenge which teaching Eliza presents: ‘It’s almost irresistible. She’s so deliciously low,

so horribly dirty. He vows to make ‘a Duchess out of this draggle-tailed guttersnipe’ and

imperiously dismisses all criticism and advice when he is asked, ‘what is to become of her’?

The stage is set for conflict from the time Eliza enters Wimpole Street. This is reflected of

Shaw’s philosophy regarding the conflict of the sexes. Since neither party is willing to submit

to the domination of the other, challenge, confrontation and petty revenge is bound to follow.

Page 3

The conflict therefore continues. Eliza rejects Higgins while Higgins is always conscious that

he never loved Eliza but learned to respect her as a person and become ‘accustomed to her

voice, her face, her soul’. He tells her to come back to Wimpole Street the morning after she

left throwing the slippers at him. He tells her to come back ‘for the fun of it’ and significantly

compares their living together to being like ‘three old bachelors’ rather than ‘two men and a

silly girl’. Through this statement he expresses that his regard for Eliza is not on account of

her being attractive woman, but because he has learned to respect her individuality in the

same way as he respects Pickering.

There is no doubt that the relationship between Eliza and Higgins at the end of the play is

very different to their relationship at the beginning. Higgins as ‘Pygmalion’ has brought his

‘Galatea’ to life out of stone. We see the way in which this is accomplished by Higgins.

Higgins first provides her with a unique social privilege which is superior speech. This gives

Eliza upward social mobility which she would otherwise never be able to achieve. Eliza then

becomes a puppet, programmed to carry out Higgins ‘instructions at Mrs Higgins’ At Home

and later when she is a brilliant success at the Embassy Ball. It is at this time that Eliza

undergoes another metamorphosis. The Galatea walks out of stone. Ironically this Galatea

does not love her Pygmalion, her Creator, but instead rebels against him, throwing his

slippers in his face. It is only later that she matures into an elegant sophisticated woman fit to

be ‘a consort for a King’.

Eliza becomes conscious of her new-found equality and refuses to be treated like dirt under

Higgins’ feet. She is justly upset at not being given credit for winning Higgins’ bet and

complains ‘I don’t matter I suppose’. She sees Higgins in the role of an exploiter who has

used her to win his bet while studiously ignoring her future. She wounds him deeply by

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