Social Classes in the Play Pygmalion

Social Classes in the Play Pygmalion

The play Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw depicts people’s ability to advance through the society regardless of the social distinctions that exist. Shaw reflects a society that is divided by wealth, education and language. He also shows how the social class gap can be broke through the transforming a flower girl, Eliza Dolittle, who assumes the role of a duchess after she receives language training from a language professor called Henry Higgens (Amkpa, 1999).

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Within each group in the play, there are distinctions between the rich and the poor, which is characterized by a rigid social class. The characters in the high-class status were primarily concerned with maintaining their class distinctions. For example, Higgins feels Eliza should marry someone of the more upper-class status rather than marrying Freddy (Shaw & Ward, 1931).  Therefore, the manner in which social class differences are enforced is through manners and proper codes of behavior. This paper addresses the workings of the system of social class based on the elements of Marxism while trying to expose some of its problems in the play Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw.

The characters in the play can be categorized into a high class, upper middle class, and lower middle class. The behavioral differences between these classes are noticeable, but Higgins and Pickering do not know they are putting Eliza and themselves in a tough situation. Pickering is polite and too caring just like Higgins; however, he does not allow anyone to tell him what to say or how to act. Higgins character can be characterized as greedy and manipulative, which makes him fit the Marxist theory of bourgeoisie since he aims to exploit the working class to fulfill his personal needs (Shaw, 2018).  One of the behaviors of the high class is the lack of compassion for others, something that characterizes Higgins behavior. For example, in Act II, Higgins states that Well when I am done with her, we can throw her back into the gutter; and then it will be her own business again (Shaw & Ward, 1931).  Such an attitude targeted Eliza’s future and showed how Higgins is interested in the working class only if he can use and exploit them, and what happens to the workers is the least of his concern, just as the bourgeois. Therefore, Higgins is a classic example of the bourgeoisie as he uses Eliza as a commodity to win his bet. However, Higgins may not seem much heartless as perceived since in Act V he states that About you, not about me. If you come back, I shall treat you just as I have always treated you. I cannot change my nature, and I do not intend to change my manners. My manners are the same as Colonel Pickering’s (Shaw & Ward, 1931).  Besides Mrs. Pierce also condemns Higgins habits especially the curses, and the mess he leaves everywhere.

Eliza considers herself to be a good girl, one of the typical character and thought of individuals in the middle class. For example, in Act II, Eliza describes that You are not a gentleman, you are not, to talk about such things. I am a good girl, and I know what the like you are (Shaw & Ward, 1931). As the play ends, Eliza also calls herself a good girl. However, after this change, she does not see herself as good anymore. Higgins asked her to stop her puppy tricks and asked her to have self-respect, something that she should not demand in others behaviors (Amkpa, 1999). 

Even the manner in which Eliza is dressed differently than others in her class. For example, in the scene where she attends a horse race, she talks very bad, but people do not realize that the lower class level just because she is dressed up well (Shaw & Ward, 1931).  Besides, during the party, she does not know another type of language, something that is common among the upper-class individuals. For example, a Hungarian expert talks to her during the party talks to her and she comfortably says she does not understand French (Shaw & Ward, 1931). However, everybody is attracted and charmed by her beauty, the way she walks, dresses, and dances.

The middle class and the lower class are compared using the mannerisms and interaction of Eliza Doolittle and Clara Eynsford. The middle class is shown at the beginning of the play when Clara Eynsford find it challenging to get a cab. This reflects the socio-economic problems and predicaments faced by the lower class individuals in the society (Livingston, 2003). The lower class is also shown in the play when Eliza is forced to persuade her last few coins from the opera-goers. In the play, Shaw shows Eliza’s plangent diphthongs, which characterizes the manners of the people in the middle class. Apart from Eliza, Clara is seen to have a poor way of associating with strangers, especially when interacting with Higgins in Act I of the play (Livingston, 2003). Clara takes offense, and her pushiness is clear especially her desire to attain self-respect and move from the slums in achieving the independence of the bourgeois world.

Shaw reflects how education is an essential opportunity for everybody to climb the social ladder.  Since the 19th century, there has been a belief that no one belongs to any social class and nobody is always born there. However, this can only be achieved through social change, which can only be achieved through education. In the play, this social change can be seen in the characters of both Eliza and her father.  Marxism considers society to be formed communism in a revolutionary manner but uses gradual reform instead of revolution (Shaw, 2018).  Shaw describes Alfred Doolittle as a low class who acts like a person in the upper-middle-class level. The manner in which he thinks and talks is incomparable with individuals in the lower class. Higgins is also seen to have a problem with females, but that is not the case. The rationale for his behavior is that when a boy has a wealthy mother with the dignity of character, intelligent and full of personal grace, she sets a standard for him that allows many women to struggle in his hands (Amkpa, 1999). Therefore, such a man, which in this case is Higgins, cannot accept regular women because he envisions all women to be like his mother. This is why when Higgins sees Clara; he considers her talks about fashion stupid. He also mocks Eliza because she is always caught up in the middle-class crisis of being a good woman who should be respected, but she lacks that dignity (Amkpa, 1999).  Higgins only sees Eliza marriage to Freddy as foolish because she stopped halfway when Freddy tried to make her a bourgeois or a high class. Therefore, Eliza reflects women who always try to satisfy others to fit in but fails because the change is not within them (Amkpa, 1999). Eliza is transformed like Cinderella and grows to realize that she is a human being with potentials and she realizes she does not need Higgins.

Shaw uses language to separate the social classes in the play. Eliza is depicted to have a cockney accent, while Higgins and Pickering are freer in language which describes their high-class status. The middle class is seen to be negligent in teaching language to their children. Higgins state that The English has no respect for their language, and will not teach their children to speak it. They spell it so abnormally than no man can teach himself what it sounds like (Shaw & Ward, 1931).  In the ball, Eliza does not talk because of his bad accent. She is disguise because language is a critical factor that social classes are recognized. Eliza speech is, therefore, a disrespectful in British society because the judgment of the upper-class status is based on speech (Amkpa, 1999). That is why Pickering and Higgins treatment towards Eliza differed because they viewed the society in varying ways. People love her beauty, but she stands and operates like a statue with no words. Therefore, materials like clothing, people’s thoughts and behaviors, and the way of talking show differences in social classes (Amkpa, 1999). Shaw mocks the play by saying it is a love story in five acts that has no happy ending.

The reaction of Eliza after her transformation is not the same as that of her father Alfred Doolittle since they had different ways of rising into the higher class. Alfred is a common dustman, and he has better intellectual qualifications, however with some questionable moral standards. His character shows that vanity of philanthropy as he reflects how a man’s character is a reflection of and a consequence of his life.  This is where Alfred differ from Eliza since she becomes part of the higher class not based on his updated manner and speech but because of money (Livingston, 2003). Alfred becomes popular among the higher class individuals after being rejected that the middle class loathes him. Unlike Eliza who strives to remain in the middle class because of his excellent behavior, Alfred is promoted to the higher class.

In conclusion, Shaw is depicted to be critical the conforming classes in the society, especially the lower class and the upper class.  He uses the Eliza character to reflect the middle class because of her uncouthness because she wants to be good and not better. On the other hand, he uses Higgins as a high class with a bourgeoisie stand which is so indifferent, heartless and fearless. Although the role of Higgins is similar to that of Pickering, Pickering treats Eliza as an equal societal member. Eliza changes her ways and ventures into the professional world that forces her to act as a high class. Although Higgins finds fault with her, she careless and shows Higgins how brutal she can become. This sweeps Higgins off. Critiques consider that Shaw was close to accepting the social order in the society because he used this vulgarity of specific dialect to criticize the superficiality of both the lower class and the upper class. Therefore, Shaw’s status quo shows the criticism of social status as a unifying theme in the play Pygmalion.

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