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Pygmalion Essay

September 25th, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments

Stunning, fascinating, brilliantly modernized story of an ancient sculptor who falls in love with his artistic creation and breathes a life into her is all about Pygmalion. Nobel PirceGeorge Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion written in 1912 brought a light into many issues that were ignored and not paid attention to. Shaw successfully addressed many important issues, where some of them were prototypic and enlightening. Nevertheless Shaw is perceived as a proto-feminist with an excellent skill of mastering satire which is greatly used in Pygmalion.

For development of this paper I took a closer look at four available materials made on Pygmalion, such as the original George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion (1912), Lerner’s and Lowe’s play My Fair Lady (1959), Anthony Asquith’s drama Pygmalion (1938) and finally the George Cukor’s musical version My Fair Lady (1964).

One of the major themes of Pygmalion is the one of superficial social requirements for determining one’s social status. Shaw greatly examines the possibility of taking one’s life into his hands and transforming this poor and miserable human being into something beautiful and valuable, simply achieved by short-termed process of modifying one’s language. This puts an emphasis on the importance of language for society and its perpetual effect on our lives. In this paper I would like to discuss the importance of language and manners codex in society and its conceptual value throughout the play of Pygmalion in respect to social class system.

The language plays a major role in Pygmalion and the social differences occur at various different levels such as one’s appearance, the way one talks and behaves. These are all pre-determinants of social perception and classification. The beginning of the story takes place on the rainy Covent Garden where Freddy’s mother and his sister scold him to get a cab. This situation serves as an initial comparison of the differences in social structure that Shaw establishes primarily through the language distinction between Freddy’s higher class family talk and Eliza Doolittle. In this part Shaw establishes the picture of Freddy’s mother and sister whose nobility interferes with insolence which. Their higher social class status is mainly pictured through the language.

“It’s too tiresome. Do you expect us to go and get one ourselves? … You really are very helpless, Freddy. Go again; and don’t come back until you have found a cab.”

This is a very powerful initial example which automatically reveals the character’s position in the story and its importance in the context. Even though the language has a level of arrogance it shows how noble and lady-like these women are and how they want to be treated.

However on the other hand Eliza’s response to her encounter with Freddy is much less uneducated comparing to Freddy’s mother.

“Nah then, Freddy: look wh’ y’ gowin, deah.”

Eliza’s gutter language and crude manners and cocky accent leaves her feeling as is she was a second-class citizen and therefore she is also treated that way. However the written plays show how the language is spoken, the movies achieved something book will never do which is the possibility to hear the dialects rather than read it. This advantage gives a clearer picture of degradation of English language and tells us little bit more about the characters. The way she speaks creates prejudices about her background and the fact she comes from intellectually poor circles.

The ability of Shaw’s social class interpretation through language creates very powerful images and makes the reader or viewer at the end realizes the upper-class superficiality that reflects the social ills of nineteenth century England, and shows that all people are worthy of respect and dignity.

Throughout most of civilization, people have been separated into different social classes. In a lot of especially industrialist cultures there is an upper class rich who are powerful and in control, then there is a middle class who live less comfortably than the upper class and certainly are less powerful but respected. Shaw implies that the lack of proper English which stands also as a sign of a need for a basic education.

Henry Higgins, the main character, criticizes the English language in the song “Why Can’t the English?” My Fair Lady (1959). As a part of Lerner’s and Lowe’s adaptation of Pygmalion and translating it into a musical play, several songs were written in order to entertain but also emphasize each one of the issues they represent. “Why Can’t the English?” directly attacks the inability of people speak proper English.

“Hear them down in Soho square,
Dropping “h’s” everywhere.
Speaking English anyway they like.”

In a satiric way it points out that not only in Great Britain but also in other English speaking countries the English is deprived.

“There even are places where English completely
disappears. In America, they haven’t used it for years!”

As Shaw suggested Higgins’ obsession with proper English in his play, it is necessary to point out the great lyrical support of this concept in Lerner’s and Lowe’s adaptation. The song elaborates more extensively on the devastation of English language as well as the importance of speaking properly.
Since this song is the first one to be played in musical, it establishes one of the themes of the musical and foreshadows the plot of Eliza. In a single scene we have a phonetics expert and analphabet which sets a basic foundation of the verbal class distinction. As the movie progress this barrier is being removed by educating Eliza about speech and manners which links back to the need for elementary education.

However in Pygmalion there is an exception to class improvement achieved without education or a good marriage. Mr. Doolittle, Eliza’s father, is a middle age man who is one of the most original modernists in England with a natural gift of rhetoric.

“I’ willing to tell ya, I’m wanting to tell ya, I’m waiting to tell ya.”
Doolittle’s philosophical (language) potential has allowed him to rise socially to become middle-class man with an exceptional perspective on middle-class morality.

Shaw in several cases points out the importance of social class, manners, morality and proper language which almost never occur simultaneously.

One of the instances that Shaw really examined the power of language and manners is when Eliza has her first test at the ascot (Asquith 1964) (Mrs. Higgins house (Shaw 1912)) when she is put in test of her language. She thrills with her proper pronunciation:

“The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain”

On the other hand when it comes to manners she fails. Eliza’s lack of manners comes out once again which shows as a lack of education.

“What call would a woman with that strength in her have to die of influenza? What become of her new straw hat that should have come to me? Somebody pinched it; and what I say is, them as pinched it done her in.”

The whole situation results in a comical discussion about her aunt that was killed and the guests are shocked. This assumes that language and manners cannot stand by themselves rather than work in correlation.

As the story progresses and Mr. Higgins slowly approaches his goal Eliza advances socially and improves her manners and her speech. Mr. Higgins’ experiment results in turning “the squashed cabbage leave into a lady” which has a tremendous impact on Eliza’s life. This sudden change nurtures her so extensively that she is being recognized at the ball as a Hungarian royalty simply because of her manners and language. This rises a question what is it that determines whether someone is a lady or a gentleman. Is it social status, money or simply the way we present ourselves? This
fundamental question Shaw answered through the ability of mastering the language and manners which created codex that is used as a determinant factor.

Although in the case of Henry Higgins the class of language and manners are not of the same quality, it does not affect his social status. Higgins perfection of his native language gives him a privilege over others thanks to which he gains lot of respect. However his language is very profound as his manners reflect exact opposite. This lack of manners is portrayed by Shaw not as matter of knowledge but as a part of Higgins personality. However it is essential to notice that Higgins’ genius might be Shaw’s explanation of why his manners are being excused and tolerated by the public. Even though the “bad” manners in this case do not have negative impact on social level but they certainly do affect the relationship between him and Eliza.

Nobel Price Winner George Bernard Shaw once said:
“The greatest problem in communication is the illusion that it has been accomplished.”

This is the problem which he tried to enlighten in his play Pygmalion mainly due to the language interference in nineteenth century England. However we can notice that this problem not only a problem of the time the play takes place in but it is everlasting issue that society of every capitalistic country is dealing with. The money, power, social class and the language determine who you are. Even though Mr. Higgins changed Eliza’s language and manners completely he did not change her values of pride and dignity.

They just were reinforced by the two superficial criteria that change the way the world looked at her since then. George Bernard Shaw astonishingly demonstrated the power of language and the role it plays in our everyday lives. As Shaw proved, the language is a very important part of every capitalistic society, whether it should be or not, is another question. The power of language can make a flower girl a duchess or make a bum a high society gentleman, or at least appear to be one. Nonetheless the language and manners codex in society has enormous power even on nowadays social class system and serves as one of our criteria based on which we many times mistakenly categorize people.


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