George Bernard Shaw’s ‘Pygmalion’: A study in working-class literature
The 1914 Broadway production of Pygmalion / Stage Publishing Company, Inc. (public domain)

George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) was the second Irish winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, awarded to him two years after William Butler Yeats, in 1925. Highlighted at the award ceremony was “his work which is marked by both idealism and humanity, its stimulating satire often being infused with a singular poetic beauty.”

Shaw was about as enthusiastic about the award as Samuel Beckett was over 40 years later. “I can forgive Alfred Nobel for having invented dynamite,” Shaw commented, “but only a fiend in human form could have invented the Nobel Prize.” He did not attend the award ceremony or other celebrations, nor did he accept the money.

When Shaw received the award, he was almost 70 years old. It was his play about Joan of Arc, Saint Joan (1923), written in the year of her canonization, that had swayed the Nobel Committee, as they managed to look past Shaw as the author of Pygmalion, Man and Superman and Major Barbara.

Shaw had declared at the founding of the Shelley Society on March 10, 1886, “I am, like Shelley, a Socialist, an Atheist, and a Vegetarian.” In 1882 he read Das Kapital in French translation, as no English version was yet available, and this became a “turning point” in his life. In 1884 he joined the socialist-oriented Fabians, a political society founded by intellectuals, which had its heyday in the period from 1887 to 1918. Shaw soon played a leading role there, writing radical liberal pamphlets for them with demands for land reform, abolition of indirect taxes, and women’s suffrage.


Shaw’s perhaps most famous comedy is Pygmalion (1912). The immediate social background is the swelling British women’s suffrage movement, which was increasing in strength, culminating, among other things, in the proclamation of International Women’s Day. The main themes of this play concern women and class.

‘Pygmalion and Galatea’ by Auguste Rodin, modeled 1889, carved ca. 1908-09, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art / Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.

But first, look at the title: Pygmalion was a mythological Greek artist who had become a misogynist. However, when he created a female figure from ivory in accordance with his own fantasy, he fell in love with her and implored Aphrodite to bring her to life. Then he married her.

Professor Henry Higgins, international luminary in the field of phonetics, meets the flower seller Liza Doolittle and boasts to his colleague Pickering that he can pass the working-class woman off as a duchess within a short time. They wager on it. So, like Pygmalion, the misogynist Higgins plans to create a character demonstrating his skill.

Pygmalion is about practical, intelligent women from different social classes. In addition to Liza Doolittle, two other women are significant: Mrs. Pearce, Higgins’s Scottish housekeeper, and his mother, Mrs. Higgins. Mrs. Pearce, whose name could equally be of Irish origin, asks practical questions after Liza arrives and protects her:

Will you please keep to the point, Mr. Higgins. I want to know on what terms the girl is to be here. Is she to have any wages? And what is to become of her when youve finished your teaching? You must look ahead a little.

Quite unimpressed by her employer, this woman speaks clearly about economic and social aspects concerning the young woman’s position in the household, as well as her income, and she realistically foresees difficulties after the wager is won or lost. Undaunted, Mrs. Pearce also watches over Liza’s dignity. She corrects Higgins’s behavior and his crude expression (this man who presumes to teach Liza “refined” manners and speech), demanding some control over these in Liza’s presence. In this respect, Mrs. Pearce, who comes from the same class as Liza, assumes the role of her defender almost from the beginning.

As the audience hears from Liza later, she completely sees through Higgins’s class prejudice and his related contempt for humanity: “Mrs. Pearce warned me. Time and again she has wanted to leave you… And you don’t care a bit for her. And you don’t care a bit for me.” Liza has also brought about a change in Mrs. Pearce, as Henry Higgins tells his mother: “before Eliza came, she used to have to find things and remind me of my appointments. But she’s got some silly bee in her bonnet about Eliza. She keeps saying ‘You don’t think, sir,’ doesn’t she, Pick?” and Pickering confirms, “Yes, that’s the formula. ‘You don’t think, sir.’ That’s the end of every conversation about Eliza.”

Han Bentz van den Berg and Kitty Janssen in a Dutch TV adaptation, 1962 / Wim van Rossem, Dutch National Archives, Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.

Interestingly, Mrs. Higgins expresses a similar insight. Like Mrs. Pearce, she raises “the problem of what is to be done with her afterwards.” So within the bourgeoisie, too, there is a practical woman who sees the situation and the dangers clearly. Like Mrs. Pearce, she recognizes that switching Liza to the bourgeoisie’s way of life would result in her no longer being able to support herself: “The manners and habits that disqualify a fine lady from earning her own living without giving her a fine lady’s income! Is that what you mean?” Ultimately, however, there is a fine class difference between the two older women. Mrs. Higgins clearly articulates a reservation about the young working-class woman when she says at the end, in the face of Liza’s rebellion against her son, “I’m afraid you’ve spoiled that girl, Henry.”

Liza herself confidently insists on her human equality from the beginning: “I’m a respectable girl”and “I got my feelings same as anyone else.” At the start she insists on her right not to be watched by any police and wants to pay for Higgins’s language lessons because he holds out the prospect of better employment in a florist’s shop if she can “improve”—that is, conform—her pronunciation to that of the bourgeoisie. She also prefers Pickering to the cynical Higgins because he calls her “Miss Doolittle” and treats her kindly and courteously. She is aware that Higgins does not do this. Despite Higgins’s sarcasm and his indifference toward her further career, Liza asserts her dignity and ultimately emerges as the strongest person in the play. Especially after Higgins has actually been able to pass her off as a duchess in society, smugly celebrating his victory with Pickering and conceding no part in it to Liza, she rebels.

There is no bourgeois male figure of comparable stature. We are presented with highly educated men, erudite linguists, as well as a representative of the working class, Liza’s father Alfred Doolittle, who is in no way inferior to the academics in intellect.

Higgins is deeply contemptuous of Liza, whom he thinks, as he repeatedly points out, he has taken “out of the gutter,” to which she can be thrown back when he has won his bet. He calls her “baggage” and “dirty.” This misanthrope views women as mindless beings, as he expresses several times: “Think of chocolates, and taxis, and gold, and diamonds.… And you shall marry an officer in the Guards, with a beautiful mustache.” A woman’s self-realization through her own work does not occur to him.

In this context, it is all the more understandable that his greatest crisis arises when Liza tells him that from now on she will make her living by teaching. That this will involve phonetics is his greatest threat, for Liza has a more musical ear than he and can go far.

Pickering has a somewhat gentler nature than Higgins. He treats Liza with more respect. But despite better manners, he, like Higgins, thinks the wager is won when Liza performs the great miracle and is able to pass herself off as a duchess. Together with Higgins, he enjoys the moment of this triumph without admitting that it is actually Liza’s achievement. Nor does he ever ask the question that was uppermost in the minds of the women, what is to become of Liza now?

George Bernard Shaw in 1934 / Davart Company, Library of Congress (public domain).

The play is as much about class relations as it is about women’s rights, which, for Shaw, are inseparable. Liza Doolittle has a strong sense of her own worth from the very beginning, insisting on her equality with others. In the first scene she declares that “He’s no right to take away my character. My character is the same to me as any lady’s.” And “I’ve a right to be here if I like, same as you.” She doesn’t expect any alms either, but wants to sell flowers or pay for her lessons: “Well, here I am ready to pay him—not asking any favor—and he treats me as if I was dirt.”

Liza’s father Alfred Doolittle comes across to a bourgeois audience as uneducated and unsophisticated, almost comical, yet he has enormous self-confidence and belongs unmistakably to the working class. Like Liza, he demonstrates class consciousness and the potential of this class:

I’m one of the undeserving poor: thats what I am. Think of what that means to a man. It means that hes up agen middle class morality all the time.I dont need less than a deserving man: I need more. I dont eat less hearty than him; and I drink a lot more. I want a bit of amusement, cause I’m a thinking man. I want cheerfulness and a song and a band when I feel low. Well, they charge me just the same for everything as they charge the deserving. What is middle class morality? Just an excuse for never giving me anything. I’m undeserving; and I mean to go on being undeserving.

This tremendous statement of humanity, is reminiscent of Shylock’s speech in The Merchant of Venice “I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions…”—when he holds up a mirror to the complacent Christians, denouncing their hypocrisy and forcefully, simply demonstrating his equal humanity.

Again and again Doolittle emphasizes that he does not want to be “improved.” That is why he does not take the 10 pounds offered to him, but only five. He wants to enjoy himself for one night.

Shaw’s insistence on the human superiority of the working class is also reflected on a linguistic level. For months, Higgins drills Liza in bourgeois “small talk.” She learns completely meaningless phrases by heart, which she is to offer up at Mrs. Higgins’s tea party, thus deceiving the other visitors about her true social class. In a splendidly comic scene, Liza sticks to the topic of weather and illness, but her need for meaningful conversation overwhelms her and she falls back into her own speech. While this delights Freddy, it somewhat disturbs his mother and seals, for the time being, that Liza has failed this test. Liza, who is used to saying things of substance, is quickly ordered to leave by Higgins as everything threatens to get out of hand.

The evening after Liza has actually persuaded society she is a duchess, Higgins treats her like his servant, enraging her as the consequences hit her: “What’s to become of me?” Now she realizes with full force what had been troubling the older women from the beginning: “What am I fit for…? Where am I to go? What am I to do?”

When Higgins suggests she could marry, she responds with great insight: “We were above that at the corner of Tottenham Court Road.… I didn’t sell myself. Now you’ve made a lady of me I’m not fit to sell anything else. I wish you’d left me where you found me.” For Higgins, Liza is property.

“Aha! Now I know how to deal with you,” Liza says, regretting how long it took her to grasp how she could defend herself—by teaching phonetics.

‘My Fair Lady’ on Broadway, 1956 (public domain).

Liza’s profound humanity arises from her working-class background and her experience as a woman. Toward the end, when Higgins asks her about her suitor Freddy, who writes to Liza several times a day, “Can he make anything of you?” Liza counters this insult with an answer that Higgins couldn’t even conceive of: “Perhaps I could make something of him. But I never thought of us making anything of one another; and you never think of anything else.” Her humanity and insight are far greater than any of the play’s middle-class characters. Mrs. Pearce also displays dignity, a sense of responsibility and humanity, and acts class consciously to keep Higgins in check to a certain extent.

We must agree with Shaw when the false happy ending of conventional comedy, a marriage between Higgins and Liza, is out of the question for him. It is precisely his understanding of class and the class conflict that do not permit such a denouement. Shaw thus breaks with the convention of comedy: That which the audience is conditioned to expect does not occur. Instead, Shaw holds up a mirror to the primarily bourgeois English audience to raise doubt over, if not shake, their complacent sense of superiority. The play ends with Liza’s departure and Higgins’s unreformability. It is abundantly evident in this context why any suggestion of a happy ending in the later Pygmalion-based musical My Fair Lady is such a betrayal of Shaw, while Willy Russell’s drama Education for Rita is quite in his spirit.

What does the play have to do with Ireland? When I’ve asked my students this question, they answered that the Irishman Shaw clearly comments on the situation of the Irish in two respects. Their pronunciation marks them as colonized and second-class citizens: With an Irish brogue one could not get anywhere in the England of his time, perhaps not even today. Although himself a member of the ruling Protestant ascendancy in Ireland, Shaw clearly identifies with the class to which his heroines here belong and shows the strength of that class. He does so as a socialist, yet as an outsider. He can only grasp working-class representatives, their dignity and strength from the outside.

At the same time, perhaps not coincidentally, his fellow Irishman, the painter and decorator Robert Noone (Tressell), also born in Dublin, wrote The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, the first working-class novel in English-language literature.


Jenny Farrell
Jenny Farrell

Dr. Jenny Farrell is a lecturer and writer living in Galway, Ireland. Her main fields of interest are Irish and English poetry and the work of William Shakespeare. She is an associate editor of Culture Matters and also writes for Socialist Voice, the newspaper of the Communist Party of Ireland.