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Free Study Guide-Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw-Free Book Notes
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SCENE SUMMARY AND NOTES

ACT FIVE (continued)

Notes

Critics have noted that the main impetus of the action has dissipated long before Act Five opens. Eliza's society debut has been highly successful and after the climactic encounter between Higgins and Eliza in Act Four there is no dramatic tension left. Eliza has run away to Mrs. Higgins and the only issue awaiting resolution is the relationship between Eliza and Higgins. The main motive of the action has disappeared since all the previous acts had been gearing up for the crucial moment of Eliza's test. Alfred Doolittle's appearance as a gentleman provides the necessary boost to a dying play. It also serves as an ironic commentary on Eliza's metamorphosis.

Doolittle's failure to live up to the conventional image of a gentleman proves Shaw's thesis that a better social and economic status need not necessarily result in happiness. Thus Doolittle, who was happy as a poor dustman is inconsolable as a moderately rich gentleman. His deliverance "into the hands of middle-class morality" has "ruined" and "destroyed" him. This unwanted gentility that has been heaped upon him entails numerous obligations and responsibilities. The freedom that he enjoyed as a dustman has been snatched from him. His carefree days have gone and now he is constantly "worried; tied neck and heels; and everybody touches (him) for money." His prime objection against such a life is that he has to live for others and not for himself. He has been "intimidated" into respectability since he does not want to risk going to the poorhouse which would be a long term alternative. As he eloquently puts it, "it's a choice between the skilly of the workhouse and the char Bydis of the middle class." Evidently Doolittle feels unhappy because his liberty has been taken away from him. For Shaw, individual fulfillment and liberty were of prime importance. Doolittle now faces the daunting prospect of a life of responsibilities and worrisome obligations. What is most appalling is that he will be forced to "learn to speak middle class language" instead of "Proper English."


Doolittle's transformation has obvious implications for Eliza who is also dissatisfied after being made a lady. Eliza has forsaken her low-class affiliations in order to elevate herself in society in the hope of ultimately achieving happiness. But she has perhaps lost her chance of living a less responsible and dull life by rejecting the only class - the undeserving poor in England, that know how to live. This is Shaw's basic critique in the play. He argues in favor of the individual's right to develop her own soul in whatever way she wishes to do so even if it means a life of depravity and vice.

The Eliza of Act Five is strikingly different from the Eliza of Covent Garden. Her character has developed in stages and by the end of the play, she has truly become a lady and gentility has become an integral aspect of her character. She conducts herself with a new dignity. She is a model of social pose and etiquette when she meets Higgins in his mother's drawing room. Higgins who is guilty of insensitive behavior towards Eliza is frantic now that she has left him and wants her back. She has become essential to him and he cannot find any of his things nor keep track of his appointments. But he finds that the Eliza who had followed him around with a dog-like devotion has changed. Eliza is now no longer afraid of him and meets him on terms of equality. Ironically, Higgins' teaching has empowered Eliza to resist his bullying. She now plays the fine lady to him and torments him by her icy cold attitude.

She asks about Higgins' health and comments about the weather to ironically reflect upon the two subjects allotted to her for Mrs. Higgins' at home. She thoroughly enjoys tormenting Higgins and goes to the extent of negating his contribution to her metamorphosis. She attributes her transformation instead to Colonel Pickering, who has always treated her like a lady and behaved like a gentleman.

However Eliza is only partly right in her assertion that "the difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves, but how she's treated" since it is quite obvious that the difference between the Covent Garden Eliza and the duchess Eliza lies in "how she behaves." Higgins appears noble in his defense that he treats duchesses and flower girls alike. Higgins believes in behaving "as if you were in Heaven, where there are no third class carriages, and one soul is as good as another." He dreams of creating a classless society where all souls are equal. This constitutes an attack on the concept of "lady" and "gentlemen" and the kind of societal structures that are enforced to make such distinctions.

The plot rises to another climax in the final encounter between Higgins and Eliza. Higgins is desperate to get Eliza back. But the crucial question here is the terms on which Eliza is ready to come back. He adamantly refuses to offer her anything more than what he gave her before while she demands to be treated like a human being with feelings and emotions. Eliza can no longer endure Higgins' attitude, which is insensitive to the feelings of others. Higgins frantically implores Eliza to return and scrupulously tells her that he has become accustomed to having her around and he is dependent on her for all kinds of odd services. Eliza recognizes Higgins for what he is and complains, "Oh, you are a devil. You can twist the heart in a girl...." Eliza talks in personal terms but Higgins wishes to avoid this kind of confrontation. When Eliza complains that Higgins does not care for her, Higgins replies that he cares "for life, for humanity" and since she is part of humanity he cares for her. While Eliza is unwilling to settle for anything less than love, Higgins wants to evade the sexual implications of a relationship. He can only offer her "good fellowship" and nothing else. Eliza holds Higgins responsible for ignoring the trouble he would create for her by making her a lady. Higgins replies profoundly that making life entails making trouble. However throughout the play Higgins demonstrates intense unwillingness to participate in the troubles of life.

Higgins skirts any kind of confrontation about love and marriage by suggesting that Eliza should marry Pickering. Confronted with the question of Eliza's future, he cruelly tells her to "go back to the gutter" where life is vital, warm, real and violent. But Eliza's education has created a dissatisfaction with her old way of life. Nonetheless the alternative of the gutter life might be preferable to the cold insensitivity of Higgins' world. Higgins is very squeamish when it comes to talking about sexual relationships. He tells Eliza, for e.g. to "Marry some sentimental hog or other with lots of money, and a thick pair of boots to kick you with." He is very possessive of Eliza and reacts sharply when she produces Freddy as his rival. He violently objects to this marriage and asks Eliza, "Can he make anything of you?" He is intensely upset at the prospect of seeing his creation thrown away. But for Eliza such a question does not arise at all. She does not want them to make anything of each other and only wants to be "natural." The relationship that Higgins offers Eliza is an asexual companionship with Pickering and himself.

As this intensely hostile confrontation draws to a close, Eliza suggests that she will offer herself as an assistant to Nepommuck. This leads an exasperated Higgins to violently lay hands on her. This act parallels Pygmalion's infusion of life into the work of art created by him. This act severs the umbilical cord binding the creator and his creation to each other. Eliza comes to life and is no longer simply a projection of her creator's will. Her act of defiance earns her Higgins' respect and admiration. He comments happily, "By George, Eliza, I said I'd make a woman of you; and I have...." Eliza has become a self-sufficient woman capable of facing reality.

The play ends ambiguously and the readers are not sure whether Higgins may indeed marry Eliza. When the curtain falls, Higgins is left alone on the stage chuckling to at the idea of Eliza marrying Freddy. While the Greek Pygmalion marries his feminine ideal, Galatea and Cinderella at last is united with her Prince Charming, Shaw's Higgins is still a bachelor. Some critics point out that there are many incidents in the play that encourage the possibility of Eliza's marriage with Higgins and that Shaw deliberately twisted the natural end of the play to prevent a sentimental ending. The reader knows that Higgins had bought Eliza a ring in Brighton and had become habituated to her voice and face. But these reasons are hardly strong enough to enter into a marital relationship. The entire play demonstrates that Higgins and Eliza hold fundamentally incompatible views about life.

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