SYMBOLS IN PYGMALION
George Bernard Shaw uses a number of symbols in Pygmalion that we are going to take a look at. The play is about two elderly gentlemen meet in Covent Garden’s rain one night. Professor Higgins, a scientist in phonetics, is joined by Colonel Pickering, a linguist in Indian dialects. One bets that the second can convince London’s high society with his phonetic knowledge that he will transform Eliza Doolittle (a Covent Garden flower girl who speaks cockney) into a well-spoken, poised woman.
Symbols in Pygmalion: Clothing
Clothing is an integral part of characters’ appearances as well as how they present their identity and social standing. The opening scene shows that the people who live under the church portico can identify each other’s social classes by their clothing. Pickering can be identified as a man, while Eliza can be easily identified as a girl-flower. This is why Eliza’s transformation involves clothing. Act Two is when Eliza changes her clothes and her father doesn’t recognize her.
This happens before she starts to talk or act differently. Do you know the expression, “The clothes make the man?” Pygmalion proves this to be true. This is the most striking example. It occurs just before the discussion about the mirror. Doolittle is about leaving Higgins’s home when he “is confronted by a young, delicately dressed Japanese woman in a simple blue cotton tunic kimono.” DOOLITTLE: Pardon, miss. The symbol of Mr. Doolittle’s social transformation is also represented in his clothing.
In Act Five, he arrives at Mrs. Higgins’ house dressed as a gentleman. Higgins suspects that this is not Eliza’s father since he has never met him before. This suggests that a person’s social identity is not as important as clothes. The play’s central question is whether it is possible to change one’s identity by changing how you speak or dressing up, or if this is just a mask that hides one’s true identity.
Act Four brings this tension to the forefront when Eliza questions Higgins about whether her expensive new clothes are hers. Eliza wants to know if her new, upper-class identity, which she asks Higgins whether or not she owns, is real. Or if it is a role she plays, a costume that she will eventually have to part with. Clothes are a symbol of the importance of appearances when establishing one’s class and identity. However, it also raises questions about how deep this type of social identity is.
Symbols in Pygmalion: The Mirror
Pygmalion, which is named after a Greek mythical character, makes it natural to mention another mythological Greek character: Narcissus. There is a lot more to this story, but here’s the bottom line: Narcissus was a hot young man. He was so hot, that all the girls in town loved him. Narcissus, however, was vain and preferred to remain private. A god appeared and showed the boy how to swim. Narcissus fell in love with himself when he saw his reflection. He realized that his love was not real and he ended up killing himself.
Fear of mirrors is what Eliza seems to have in her. It’s clear that she doesn’t want her to be like Narcissus, but it is not clear from where her fear stems. We know that her father is not the kind of person to teach her these life lessons and she didn’t get much support from her mother. She is very protective of her identity. She always defends her motives when anyone asks about them – such as at the beginning of the play, when they are afraid she will be arrested.
It doesn’t matter where her sense of right or wrong comes from, it is clear that she has one and she doesn’t want to be like the vain Greek man. It’s helpful to start with the looking-glass, not just because it raises many questions but also because it’s one incident. Eliza has never seen herself clearly and sees herself without faults. Eliza is “waking up” and realizing that she can improve herself and her life by looking into the mirror in Higgins’ bathroom.
Symbols in Pygmalion: Flower Shop
All of Eliza’s dreams and hopes are represented by the flower shop Eliza wants to have at the start of the play. Pygmalion is Shaw’s most well-known play, and ironically, one of his most misunderstood and misused plays. Nearly everyone is familiar with the story of the Cockney flower child who, after taking phonetic lessons from her professor, almost magically transforms into a duchess.
Shaw’s play “A Romance” was subtitled by Shaw. The abuse stems partly from the fact that Shaw’s play was subtitled “A Romance” in the popular adaptations (the movie of 1938 and the musical My Fair Lady). In these films, “romance” was written into the script and embedded into the relationship between Higgins, Eliza.
However, Pygmalion, being based upon the legend of a man who fell in love, could easily lead to an incorrect interpretation. One advertisement states that the play is “one of the most beautiful love stories” the world has ever seen. Shaw used the word “romance” in a more limited form.
This means that Shaw could not transform a flower girl into grand duchess using only phonetic instruction. Despite Shaw’s pronouncements and all the evidence in play, readers and audience continue to be sentimental about the play’s outcome and refuse to acknowledge the anti-romantic aspects of the drama.
Many of the elements that run through the drama are captured in the opening scene. The common need for protection from a sudden rainstorm brings together diverse characters such as the middle-class Eynsford with their gentle pretensions. A wealthy Anglo-Indian man (Colonel Pickering) is very tolerant. Higgins, a high-ranking egotistical professor, who appears exceptionally intolerant.
There are also a group of nondescript bystanders and a rude, pushy flower girl who epitomizes vulgarity. Without a sudden downpour, these diverse characters could not be gathered together. Shaw is able to use this advantage because he requires a variety accents in order for Professor Higgins to demonstrate his ability to identify dialects and places where they were born, according his science of phonetics.
His performance is both arousing antagonism as well as appreciation from the crowd. The crowd believes that Professor Higgins is a spy for police. Second, after identifying their origins, he intrudes upon their private lives. Many people are tempted to hide their birthplaces. Thus, Professor Higgins is also giving away some details about their pasts by identifying their backgrounds.
Ironically, Professor Higgins is a wealthy man who teaches them how to properly speak so they can hide their pasts. Eliza will be coming to him in the next act so that her origins can remain hidden from the public.
Symbols in Pygmalion: The Bath
Eliza is washing off her speech patterns and past lives by taking a bath after Pickering and Higgins make their wager. Eliza’s gradual awakening to her appearance is unconscious, but she has strong desires to change her language.
Eliza doesn’t like selling flowers on the streets, and she isn’t happy with it. She longs to work in a florist shop, and gets supercilious looks, taunts, and slaps. She is able to communicate like an aristocrat and become a qualified employee at the shop if she can do so. Growing up in a London slum, she spoke with an accented dialect that is difficult to change.
Higgins describes Higgins’ first encounter with her as “depressing” and “disgusting”, describing her voice as “like a bilious porcine’s crooning”. (Shaw 1982, p. 26). He even claims that she doesn’t have the right to live because of her horrible voice. She then comes to Higgins’ house and asks him for help with her pronunciation. These accounts show that her understanding of language is still a tool to find a job.
After her first encounter with the Hills, she was able to recognize language more clearly. Although the Hills are aristocrats too, their family is already in decline. They are apathetic and lack the language of the upper classes. Mrs. Hill, an elderly but educated woman, is shocked when Eliza’s vulgar language slips off her tongue. For her noble identity, she cannot accept such vulgar language.
Her daughter Clara, a sarcastic teen, is unable to take part in parties due to her declining family experience. She sees Eliza’s vulgar words as trendy and wants to imitate them. Clara can’t connect her presumptuous clothes and high status with Eliza, which is why she cannot link them together” (Shaw 1982, p.68).
This is much worse than the situation in the first paragraph. She may even be beheaded. Her calm performance and impressive performance prove her talent and high psychological ability. She is not the poor, crowded flower girl she used to be. Instead, she is confident and able use her wisdom to gain respect and admiration. She soon learns that respect and applause can be fleeting and easily disappear.
Symbols in Pygmalion: The Indian Princess
The Indian Princess refers to a shape that can be seen in Buck’s Peak’s mountain range. Because the Indian Princess is visible only in summer, its image serves as a measure of the passage of time. Tara remarks when Tara leaves her home that she cannot “search the horizon to find the Princess.” This comment is indicative of Tara’s loss of connection with the mountain. Tara is “haunted” every time she visits Buck’s Peak while on vacation and feels a tugging at her past life.
Symbols in Pygmalion: Pygmalion
George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion play is a modern version of the myth about Pygmalion/Galatea. It was first published in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Pygmalion describes a sculptor who falls for one of his creations. Shaw’s play, however, reverses the emphasis on the traditional myth. He tells the story of Eliza Doolittle (a poor, uneducated woman) who is given self-confidence through lessons from a professor in linguistics.
Shaw’s play focuses on the transformation of the woman, not the man’s desire. Jonathan Steinberg, Tara’s professor at Cambridge, likens Tara to Eliza when she is there studying. Tara isn’t the typical Cambridge scholar, just as Eliza Doolittle challenges the traditional notions of attraction or femininity. Professor Steinberg uses Pygmalion as a way to communicate to Tara her insecurities that are hindering her ability to realize her potential. Tara, like Eliza Doolittle should accept her past to grow in herself. As the story progresses, it becomes clear that Tara follows Prof. Steinberg’s advice.
Symbols in Pygmalion: Junkyard
The junkyard was Tara’s economic engine during her childhood. It is large and dangerous, and is often referred to as “no man’s property.” Tara learns about the dangers of the scrapyard from her brothers when she starts working in it with them. Young Tara must treat Luke with the utmost care when he injures his leg while at work.
Tara has to use a saw-like machine called “The Shear”, to extract a piece metal. Tara is terrified in both cases. To avoid being injured or killed at the scrapyard, she vows to find work in the town. Tara eventually realizes this and accepts her job at the grocery shop.
Symbols in Pygmalion: Makeup
Tara’s transformation from girlhood into womanhood is symbolized by makeup. Tara’s femininity can be expressed through makeup, which is contrary to her father’s views of the “modest, pious” woman. Shawn observes Tara using Audrey’s makeup for Charles’ dates and attempts to suppress Tara’s expression.
Shawn reacts to Tara’s defense by emotionally and physically abusing his sister. This traumatizes Tara, and it forever changes her relationship with her sexuality and womanhood.
Symbols in Pygmalion: Professionalism
The idea of female professionals at the time this play was written was quite new. Apart from prostitution, women used to be housewives in pre-war times. There is still resistance to the idea that females could enter traditionally male professions through the play.
Pickering initially is horrified at the idea that Eliza would open a flower shop. Being involved in a trade was considered a sign of being lower class. Pickering feels similarly shaken after watching Eliza fool everyone at a dinner party and garden. Pickering is frightened by the idea of a professional female socialite.
Symbols in Pygmalion: Gender Solidarity, or Antagonism
Shaw emphasizes gender loyalty in this play, even though British society is supposed not to be divided along class lines. Although Mrs. Higgins is initially horrified at the thought that her son might bring a girl-flower to her home, she soon comes to be sympathetic with Liza. She is a woman and first to express concern about the future of the girl. Liza is able to see that Mrs. Higgins will take care of her when she runs from Wimpole Street. Higgins’ mother, Liza, supports Liza before her son. Higgins does not reveal that Liza is at the house while Higgins dials the police.
Shaw, on the other hand, portrays relationships between people of opposing genders as antagonistic. Higgins and his mother, as well as the professor and Mrs. Pearce, have a difficult relationship. Freddy and Liza seem to get along well, perhaps because of his passive, feminine demeanor.