Reading Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw gives me a contradictory feeling towards the main characters, Higgin and Eliza. I really enjoyed the form of a well-made play in Pygmalion; the rising action of Higgins creating his “Galatea” through Eliza was exciting, and the climax was unexpected.
Higgins is a self-centred, narcissistic, cold-hearted man by the way he treats the people around him. He does not care about anyone but himself, and whenever people point out his mistakes, he would just make up excuses or even blame it on others. At the start of the play, he is portrayed as the notetaker; he observes people not as real human beings but as objects that help him with his studies; it suggests that everything to Higgins is nothing but an experiment, and he is unable to show compassion towards people. Of course, Eliza is also a victim of Higgins’ experiment, “It’s the most absorbing experiment I ever tackled. She regularly fills our lives up: doesn’t she, Pick?” (P.43) This indicates that Higgins is only helping Eliza to fulfill his boredom.
Even though Higgins is presented as a cold-hearted monster, George Bernard Shaw creates Higgins in a way that makes audiences have conflicting emotions toward him by being generous towards Eliza. On the surface, Higgins did not do any wrong to Eliza, and he teaches her how to become a lady as she asked. He cultures her, buys her new clothes and even allows Eliza to stay at his place. Higgins has never asked for anything in return. It is not Higgins’ fault for Eliza being attached to him emotionally. Similar to Torvald in A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen, both characters are viewed as antagonists in the beginning, but as the story develops, we get to learn more about the characters and acknowledge that both characters are flawed like we are all and there isn’t a real ‘antagonist.’
People argue that this play displays male chauvinism through Higgins. However, I do not entirely agree. Higgins did not treat Eliza poorly just because she was a woman or in a lower class. Multiple pieces of evidence show that Higgins treats people the same regardless of their gender or social class; for example, he doesn’t seem to care about Mrs. Eysnford Hill on the at-homes day and even forgets about the gentleman at the party. He even says, “About you, not about me. If you come back, I shall treat you just as I have always treated you. I can’t change my nature, and I don’t change my manners. My manners are exactly the same as Colonel Pickering.”(p.66) It is Higgins’ rude and cruel personality that causes his behaviour. Male chauvinism does not seem to be displayed by Higgins.
Eliza is emotionally attached to Higgins, this can be seen in the stage directions and dialogue between characters. For example, after the conflict, she threw away the ring that Higgins gave her but picked it up after he left. After all the cruelty that Eliza has been through, why does she still feel the need to stay? Why does she pick up the ring after she threw it away? There are two possible reasons that she picked up the ring, she either thinks that the ring is valuable and shouldn’t be wasted, or the ring relates to Higgins, and it is a symbol of an emotional bond between them. Mrs. Higgins also states, Mrs. Higgins:
“The girl is naturally rather affectionate, I think. Isn’t she, Mr. Doolittle?” “Just so. She had become attached to you both. She worked very hard for you, Henry! I don’t think you quite realize what anything in the nature of brain work means to a girl like that. Well, it seems that when the great day of trial came, and she did this wonderful thing for you without making a single mistake, you two sat there and never said a word to her, but talked together of how glad you were that it was all over and how you had been bored with the whole thing. And then you were surprised because she threw your slippers at you! I should have thrown the fire-irons at you”(p.60)
If Eliza is not emotionally attached to Higgins, why would she get so upset if Higgins says he is glad that it is over and does not applaud her after the party? It is heartbreaking for Eliza to know that she is not as important as she thinks she is to Higgins and that Higgins only treats her as his ‘lab rat’.