"Pygmalion" explores Bernard Shaw's idea that people should not be limited by the social class into which they were born; that they should have a chance to improve themselves by gaining an education. This is called the "nature versus nurture" debate, which marked a major change in Victorian England. Should we remain in the position we were born into (nature), as was the basic Victorian belief, or can we change our status; establish equality between people regardless of age, gender and race (nurture)?
Education is the foundation of these aims and is presented in the play as a way of self-improvement through teaching and training, whether it is academically or socially based. The characters around Eliza treat her with contempt. When Eliza convinces Mrs Eynsford Hill to buy flowers from her, her daughter, Clara says to her mother "Make her give you the change. These things are only a penny a bunch... Sixpence thrown away! (She retreats in disgust). " This shows the upper classes view those beneath them as worthless-the money is not spent or given but is "thrown away" as if it has been put in the dustbin.
Clara does not address Eliza, but talks as if she is not there, showing that Clara wants to distance herself from Eliza. This indicates that the majority of the upper classes believed in "nature"; everyone had a set place in society that could not be changed. It also shows that Clara is not as well educated as she would like to think; she does not believe in self-improvement, and so does not understand the concept of education. Eliza however, believed in bettering her situation in life. "I want to be a lady in a flower shop 'stead of sellin' at the corner", proving that she was an ambitious character, and believed in fulfilling her potential.
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This demonstrates that Eliza believes in the "nurture" side of the argument, and even though she has not received an outstanding amount of education, she is willing to be educated in order to change herself as a person. She is also ashamed of her current status. When she takes a taxi to her home, she tells the taxi-driver to go to "Bucknam Pellis". When the driver questions her, she replies "Of course I havnt none (any business there). But I wasn't going to let him know that. You drive me home... Angel Court, Drury Lane, next Meiklejohn's oil shop. This reflects her proud personality-she doesn't want to look "lower class" in front of Freddie. It also highlights her situation in life as it contrasts her poverty to the richness of the royal family. It shows her lack of knowledge of social matters because she does not know anywhere else that is an affluent area, and so is unconvincing at being "upper class".
However, by the end of the play, she manages to make everyone believe that she is a duchess, which proves that she has learned a great deal socially. We immediately assume that Higgins is rude, as a result of one of the first things he says. Oh, shut up, shut up. Do I look like a policeman? " This is supposed to reassure Eliza, but with his sarcasm and abrupt language, he does little to console her, implying that he has poor social skills. If he choose to improve these it would make him a better person; he would become more compassionate towards others. Higgins boasts about his talent for improving men's statuses, when they have moved up the social ladder. "Men begin in Kentish town with i??80 a year, and end up in Park lane with 100 thousand. They want to drop Kentish Town, but give themselves away every time they open their mouths.
Now I can teach them... I can place any man within two miles of London. Sometimes within two streets. " This shows that Higgins is a learned man. It also proves that there are different types of education; there is a contrast between Higgins' knowledge and Eliza's. Higgins first sees Eliza as "so deliciously low, so horribly dirty... I shall make a duchess of this draggletailed guttersnipe. " He sees her as a challenge, and focuses on her appearance. He calls her names because "the girl doesn't belong to anybody-is no use to anybody but me.
Higgins regards her as an object without an owner, which again highlights his lack of inter-personal skills. Higgins' lack of social education is contrasted against that of the Colonel. Pickering asks, "Does it occur to you, Higgins, that the girl has some feelings? " To which Higgins replies "Oh no, I don't think so. Not any feelings that we need bother about. " This indicates Higgins's complete lack of respect towards Eliza, and that he only sees her as an experiment, not as a human being. He regards well-educated people as his equal, so by teaching Eliza, he is able to change his opinion of her.
Again, this reflects the "nurture" side of the "nature versus nurture" debate; by educating people, we can overcome our prejudices and promote equality. Eliza's first reaction towards Higgins is totally the opposite of Higgins's reaction. She acts "(quite overwhelmed, looking up at him in mingled wonder and deprecation without daring to raise her head. )" This is partly because of his talent at placing accents, and also due to the respect she has for his standing in society. The difference in their reactions reflects Higgins and Eliza's characters.
We can see that as Eliza's social skills are more acceptable, (even though her academic and social standing is below Higgins) she draws a more favourable conclusion. It shows that she has a better social awareness than Higgins, so she is able to educate him, which again, encourages equality. The first learning point for Eliza occurred at Higgins's house, where she learned elements of social ritual. Firstly, Mrs. Pearce shows her the bathroom, where Eliza has to get accustomed to the differences in standards of hygiene of the higher classes.
She is not used to having a bath. "You expect me to wet myself all over? " she exclaims, when Mrs. Pearce shows her the bathroom. "It's not natural: it would kill me. I've never had a bath in my life" This demonstrates how dirty she is, and how unaccustomed Eliza is with soap and water; hygiene is a major aspect that Eliza learns while staying at Higgins's house. However, her attitude dramatically changes, and she even says, "washing is a treat", showing how rapidly education can change ones opinions.
Mrs Pearce is shocked by Eliza's nightly habits; "do you mean to say that you sleep in the underclothes you wear in the daytime? " This again highlights the difference between the classes. Higgins' fine furnishings contrast starkly with her cramped living conditions on Drury Lane. "I couldn't sleep here," Eliza tells him. "It's too good for the likes of me. " She is still used to being regarded as below everyone else, and having inadequate living standards. By being taught the social rituals of a different class in society, Eliza can become an equal to Higgins and Pickering.
By having Eliza in the house, Higgins also learns to control his behaviour. Mrs Pearce asks him "not to come down to breakfast in his dressing gown or use it as a napkin" because this is unacceptable, and he is supposed to be setting an example to Eliza. This shows that no matter what their social standing, everyone can improve their education, even though it may be arduous. When Eliza has her first speaking lesson, she realises that it is not going to be as easy as she originally thought "I can't hear no difference cep that it sounds more genteel-like when you say it" she moans.
However, the knowledge that she has already gained from Higgins encourages her to continue because she can see that education will improve her life and the way she lives it. By changing Eliza's appearance, Higgins and Pickering begin to make her acceptable in higher-class society. "(Eliza, who is exquisitely dressed, produces an impression of such remarkable distinction and beauty as she enters that they all rise)". Even though she looks presentable, Eliza is unaccustomed to the etiquette and behaviour of the upper classes, as Higgins tells her "... to keep to two subjects of conversation".
This is because she is unreserved in her speech. When she attends Mrs. Higgins's "at-home day" she talks about her drunken father and swears, both of which is inappropriate behaviour. She talks of the death of her aunt, "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". Here, her grammar is poor and she uses slang. This is unacceptable to the company she is with. Higgins learns that this is the key area he needs to work on, as she gives "herself away with every sentence she utters".
It proves that education goes deeper than appearances; Eliza has to change from the inside. Eliza did change internally when she had to learn new skills. Without them, the material possessions such as jewellery and clothes would have been futile. She learns to speak more eloquently, she first spoke with a Cockney accent, and ended up having the hostess at an Embassy in London say that "she speaks English perfectly". In fact, they say that she is not English, "Only foreigners, who have been taught to speak it, speak it so well".
This concludes that is possible to alter one's social standing through education, and that both social and academic knowledge is compulsory to make this transition. The transformation of Eliza affects her whole outlook on life. Eliza does not really realise it until the end of the character shift, when she is unsure of where she is headed. "Oh! If only I could go back to my flower basket! Why did you take my independence away from me? " Higgins tells her "Why, six months ago you would have thought it the millennium to have a flower shop of your own".
However, now that she is more aware of the world, she becomes more ambitious. Her education has allowed her to see herself and analyse her life " I'll advertise it in the papers that your duchess is only a flower girl that you taught, and that she'll teach anybody to be duchess just the same in six months for a thousand guineas". This demonstrates her confidence and also her increased academic knowledge; she feels able to teach people. Even Higgins notices the change within her. "You were like a millstone around my neck. Now you're a tower of strength. " He is proud of her achievements.
This is a radical change from the beginning of the play, when he was constantly insulting her. He even admits that he has "learnt something from (her) idiotic notions: I confess that humbly and gratefully", showing that he has become more open minded to other people's ideas. The characters have changed on the outside and from within. It is only by having a greater awareness of the world that Eliza could say "... When a child is brought to a foreign country, it picks up the language... and forgets its own. Well, I am a child in your country.
I have forgotten my own language and can speak nothing but yours. This shows her knowledge of culture and behaviour, as well as using appropriate language and a total change on her part, which she benefits from. She has undergone a dramatic self-improvement. Higgins has not changed so radically, but has learned "the great secret. (It) is not having bad manners or good manners or having any other particular kind of manners, but having the same kind of manner for all human souls. " He has finally learned to treat Eliza as an equal, which is a valuable lesson learnt from her. Both Higgins and Eliza have been nurtured, to become better people, by having a greater academic and social understanding.
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