The social classes in the Victorian age were very defined and highly restrictive. People generally didn’t interact with other classes other than in shopping centers. This makes Pygmalion’s theme of what truly separates the classes rather controversial for the time as it shows that even a flower girl can be taken for a duchess and become a lady.
In the beginning, everything about the characters is defined by their class. Eliza is introduced as the flower girl and Colonel Pickering as the gentleman. Eliza’s name is intended to be Liza, but Professor Higgins and Colonel Pickering call her Eliza, as it is such a common name. They even joke about it repeating what appears to be a children’s rhyme, Eliza, Elizabeth, Betsy and Bess (Shaw 14). The two men on the other hand are always referred to by their titles in contrast as soon as they are introduced. Professor Henry Higgins is most likely named after King Henry of England which may be meant to highlight his position in authority; however, Eliza, Liza and all other variations likely come from Queen Elizabeth of England making her name once just as relevant to English history and chain of authority. This makes it appear as if instead Shaw intended the names to represent that Henry and Liza are indeed equals despite their socioeconomic classes. This is validated later on when Colonel Pickering and all who come to respect her refer to her as Miss Doolittle, until they are more familiar, and even if she is still the same person, perceptions change and while she was introduced as a commoner she can be believed as a lady of great social stature. This change in behavior reflects the theme of class differences as, the difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves, but how she is treated (Shaw 63). This evolution also enforces the idea that there is no true difference between the classes other than money, privilege, and respect.
The way that Victorian society is depicted in Pygmalion also focuses on the interactions of the upper class and teaching Eliza to behave in it. However, the audience gets insightful commentary of the workings of the lower class from Mr. Doolittle. Mr. Doolittle’s rise to the middle class and his unhappiness about it show how expectations differ for the classes and people modify their behavior accordingly. It serves as an example that anyone can rise up in class even without Eliza’s circumstances, yet despite his newfound status Mr. Doolittle is unhappy, as he is now unable to do things he used to. He is not allowed to do menial labor and suddenly there are relatives coming over wishing to claim a bit of his wealth. This difference in treatment now that he is deemed important emphasizes the difference in treatment of the same person before he was wealthy and after he was wealthy. It very negatively shows human behavior to those who people wish to exploit and those who people wish to impress and be on the good side of. This adds to the theme of the difference in the way the classes are treated. When the audience is reintroduced to Mr. Doolittle there is no mention of drinking or other debauchery, which may be a sign that some problems got resolved even if it was at the cost of his happiness. In addition, as a respectable man now, Mr. Doolittle is now likely no longer able to go out drunk anymore. This adds to how humans are adaptable as Mr. Doolittle reluctantly finds his way to fit into his new position and a change of class is accepted as respect is gained.
Pygmalion is about people changing their appearance and being treated so differently while being the same person. The perception of class and the respect automatically given to the upper class is showcased in complete contrast to how the working class is exploited. Despite all this, Liza is equal to Professor Higgins in mind, spirit, and soul.
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