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Shaw describes Colonel Pickering simply as "an elderly gentleman of the military type." There is very little known about him apart from the fact that he is a student of Indian dialects and the author of "Spoken Sanskrit." He has apparently lived in India for a considerable time period and has come to England to meet Higgins whom he knows by repute. On the whole he gives the reader the general impression of being an amiable and friendly man. His main function is to serve as a foil to Higgins. The Colonel's good manners and regard for others provide a striking contrast to Higgins's impatience and boorishness. Gentility is the keynote of the colonel's character. It is significant that in the opening act of the play the Colonel is described as the "gentleman" while Higgins is given the short shrift as "the notetaker." (However, one must also note that it is the egotistical tyrant Higgins and not the Colonel who charitably flings money into Eliza's basket near the end of Act One. Thus from the very beginning Shaw examines the constitutive criteria of gentlemanly behavior). Throughout the play the gentility of the Colonel is pitted against Higgins's volatility. For instance, when Eliza comes to Higgins's Wimpole Street laboratory to learn correct pronunciation, Higgins bullies her by calling her a "baggage" and "guttersnipe" while Pickering offers her a chair to sit down and addresses her as Miss Doolittle.
Like Higgins, the Colonel also exhibits a childish excitement about the project of transforming Eliza into a lady. After Eliza's first appearance in society during Mrs. Higgins's at-home, both Higgins and Colonel Pickering exhibit extreme excitement and nearly shout one another down in their account of the progress of Eliza's training. In fact Mrs. Higgins has to tell them to stop and brands them "a pretty pair of babies, playing with (their) live doll."
Sometimes the Colonel gives the impression of being opaque and somewhat stupid. While his remarks are funny and work extremely well in the theatre, they are not witty in themselves. For instance when Mr. Higgins asks him, "Colonel Pickering: don't you realize that when Eliza walked into Wimpole Street, something walked in with her?", he replies stupidly, "Her father did. But Henry soon got rid of him." Both Colonel Pickering and Higgins lack the foresight to anticipate the problem regarding Eliza's future. On the whole Colonel Pickering is presented as a genial, warm, calm, lovable and sensitive character who is every inch a gentleman. And the fact that such an amiable man as the Colonel admires Higgins and is his good friend earns the audience's sympathy for Higgins and redeems his worst characteristics.
Eliza's father, Alfred Doolittle, is an elderly but vigorous dustman. He is among one of the most amusing characters. Although he makes only two brief appearances, he plays a significant role in the play's meaning. A member of the "undeserving poor", he provides Shaw with the excellent opportunity of exposing the hypocrisy of middle-class morality. Doolittle first appears in the play at Higgins's Wimpole Street laboratory in the stock role of a distressed father who rushes to the rescue of his helpless daughter. But Shaw, with his love of paradox, can never have so simple a situation. Soon enough the reader realizes that Doolittle isn't really concerned about his daughter's welfare and has come with the intention of blackmailing the professor who has taken in Eliza. Being a man of the world, he isn't willing to let Eliza go for nothing. He bluntly asks Higgins to give him five pounds in exchange for his daughter.
Yet despite Doolittle's role as a pimp the reader finds it difficult not to like him because of his unabashed impudence and genial warmth. Doolittle candidly explains to the outraged Colonel Pickering that he cannot afford to be moralistic and is forced by his circumstances to adopt a practical outlook. He does not see any harm in claiming his share in Eliza's good fortune. He proclaims himself a member of the "undeserving poor", i.e. that class who refuses to practice thrift and squander their money on drinking sprees and other forms of amusement. In the Victorian age, the poor were not rightfully entitled to charity. They had to prove that they morally deserved it. Shaw attacks this sham by having Doolittle's natural eloquence and ease of argument cause Higgins to jocularly remark, "Pickering: if we were to take this man in hand for three months, he could choose between a seat in the Cabinet and a popular pulpit in Wales." This is again ironic for one would assume that the field of politics and the church require different abilities apart from rhetoric yet here Shaw casts them in the same category.
When Higgins finally decides to give Doolittle the five pounds, the Colonel clucks disapprovingly, "He'll make a bad use of it, I'm afraid". Doolittle subverts this expression of conventional morality and convinces the gentlemen that he will not "save it and spare it and live idle on it." He assures them that not a penny of it will be left by Monday and that it won't "pauperize" him. The capitalist point of view recommends thrift and disapproves of heedless expenditure. But the ultimate outcome of savings is to make it possible to live without working. Thus Doolittle cunningly argues that the accumulation of savings is prompted by a desire to live idly. This is significant because the most common objection voiced against charity for the poor in the Victorian Age was the belief that it would "pauperize" them, i.e. make them accustomed to living off charity like paupers. The reader comes into contact here with Shaw's prime objection against capitalism. Doolittle suggests that living off unearned income is also pauperizing. Shaw was more angered by the unequal distribution of work than by the unequal distribution of wealth. When Higgins offers to give him ten pounds Doolittle resolutely refuses because "ten pounds is a lot of money: it makes a man feel prudent like; and then goodbye to happiness". Thus through Doolittle's subversive interpretation of the conventional moral code Shaw attacks middle class prudence and thrift.
Doolittle's second appearance in the play comes after the action has dissipated. Eliza's debut in society has been a triumphant success and after the climactic Act Four the dramatic tension disappears. Eliza runs away to Mrs. Higgins and the readers are left wondering about what will happen to Eliza and Higgins. However the main motive of the action has disappeared since all the preceding acts had been leading up to the crucial moment of Eliza's test. Hence critics point out that Doolittle's strategic second appearance performs a resuscitating act for the dying play. Doolittle appears resplendently dressed, with a dazzling silk top hat and patent leather shoes. He reveals that Higgins' joke of recommending him as "the most original moralist at present in England" has resulted in his being left £ 3000 a year by an eccentric American millionaire on the condition that he lecture for the Wannafeller Moral Reform World League as often as they ask him. Doolittle is most unhappy at such a turn of events and mourns his deliverance "into the hands of middle class morality". He dramatically claims that he has been "ruined" and "destroyed" and that his carefree days have gone. He vehemently objects to being made a gentleman because this unwanted respectability entails numerous responsibilities and obligations. He disdainfully complains that now he will even have to "learn to speak middle class English" instead of speaking "proper English'. Moreover he does not have the nerve to reject this legacy and risk going to the workhouse. He has been "intimidated" into respectability. Shaw implies that it is wrong to impose societal constraints on anybody. For him individual liberty and fulfillment are of the utmost importance.
Doolittle's eloquence in spite of his misery is remarkable and earns many a hearty laugh. For example, his magnificent outburst, "Intimidated: that's what I am. Broke. Bought up. Happier men than me will call for my dust, and touch me for their tip: and I'll look on helpless, and envy them," generates spontaneous laughter. Middle class morality has him in its clutches and he is forced to marry his mistress in St.George's, Hanover Square. However respectability fails to bring him happiness and his previously fiery mistress "never comes to words with anyone now, poor woman! Respectability has broke all the spirit out of her." In Shaw's opinion, liberty and happiness are the price one has to pay for respectability.
Alfred Doolittle is a very interesting and delightful character. He is bold enough to speak the truth and his outspokenness, frankness, hedonism, and truthfulness brings to life an otherwise flat character.