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Themes and Colors
Language and Speech Theme Icon
Appearance and Identity Theme Icon
Social Class and Manners Theme Icon
Education and Intelligence Theme Icon
Femininity and Gender Roles Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Pygmalion, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Appearance and Identity Theme Icon

Pygmalion explores how social identity is formed not only through patterns of speech, but also through one's general appearance. Much like speech, one's physical appearance signals social class. In the opening scene, as people from different walks of life are forced to take shelter under the same portico, characters' social class is discernible through their clothing: the poor flower-girl (later revealed to be Eliza) and the gentleman, for example, easily know each other's status through their different attire. As Pickering comments in Act Four, many noble people believe that one's appearance displays one's natural identity and character, thinking that "style comes by nature to people in their position." Somewhat similarly, at the end of the play, Higgins tells Eliza that he cannot change his nature. But the importance of appearances in the play reveals that identity often is changeable, and does not come naturally so much as it is performed or put on like a costume. Eliza is the most obvious example of this. As she wins Higgins' bet for him, she fools people into assuming that she is from a noble background by changing her appearance. Even before her complete transformation, her own father fails to recognize her in act two only because she has changed clothes and bathed.

The precise extent to which Eliza really changes, though, is highly ambiguous. By the end of the play, it is unclear whether she has really changed her nature or whether she has merely learned to pretend to be someone else. As Eliza tells Higgins and Pickering in Act Five, she believes that she has entirely forgotten her original way of speaking and behaving: she thinks that she has really transformed and cannot return to her old life. Higgins, on the other hand, is skeptical of this. He is confident that Eliza will "relapse" into her old ways. The play thus raises (but doesn't completely answer) a number of questions about the stability of identity. Has Eliza really changed, or can she not escape the identity she was born into? Has she become noble, or is she naturally lower-class? Moreover, is there anything natural about class identity at all? Shaw's play takes its title from the myth of Pygmalion, famously told in Ovid's Metamorphoses. (In it, Pygmalion sculpts a beautiful statue that transforms into a real woman.) Ovid's work is a poem about numerous mythical metamorphoses. But Shaw's play of transformation asks: however much one changes one's appearance, can anyone really ever change?

Appearance and Identity ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Appearance and Identity appears in each act of Pygmalion. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Appearance and Identity Quotes in Pygmalion

Below you will find the important quotes in Pygmalion related to the theme of Appearance and Identity.
Act 1 Quotes

It's aw rawt: e's a genleman: look at his ba-oots.

Related Characters: Bystander (speaker), Henry Higgins
Related Symbols: Clothing
Page Number: 13
Explanation and Analysis:

When a bystander notes to Eliza that there is a man writing down everything she is saying, she's immediately concerned that he is a policeman, and that she has unwittingly committed a crime. When the note-taker comes forward, however, a bystander notes that he is a gentleman, not a policeman, as is apparent by his manner of dress (his boots in particular). 

In Victorian society, the way one looked and acted was meant to be indicative of their status in society. By this standard, it was generally believed that one who had manners and money had higher morals than those who were poor and unkempt (thus the way the word "gentleman" has come to mean someone with integrity and manners, whereas once it was only a marker of wealth and social rank). Because of this, the bystander (who's way of speaking itself identifies her as being of the lower class) immediately believes the man is to be trusted simply by the luxury he exudes by the shoes on his feet. Eliza, by contrast, is considered unclean and inferior because she is poor, does not speak like the upper class, and sells flowers on the street to earn a living. Side by side, Higgins is considered to be much more trustworthy simply based on the way he dresses. 


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You see this creature with her kerbstone English: the English that will keep her in the gutter to the end of her days. Well, sir, in three months I could pass that girl off as a duchess at an ambassador's garden party.

Related Characters: Henry Higgins (speaker), Eliza Doolittle
Page Number: 18
Explanation and Analysis:

After astonishing the crowd by telling everyone that he knows where they are from, Higgins contends that he is so skilled in teaching dialects that he could teach the flower girl how to speak like a duchess in three months. 

Higgins' ego as an educated and wealthy man means that while he believes Eliza could pass as a noblewoman, she will never actually be one. In tracing everyone's accents, and taking great pride in doing so, Higgins shows that he believes class is inborn and intrinsic. He takes great delight in teaching other people how to speak nobly, though with his excellent ear, he alone can likely tell that their accents and mannerisms are not completely genuine. While Higgins believes accent and success are intrinsically linked, he holds the Victorian notion that class is something one is born with, not something you can learn or earn. From this idea comes Higgins' delight in the challenge of fooling the upper crust into thinking a lowly flower girl is one of them. Though Higgins is wealthy, he is not noble, and is excited at the notion of using his skill and wit to beat the nobility at their own game. 

Act 4 Quotes

Well, I feel a bit tired. It's been a long day. The garden party, a dinner party, and the opera! Rather too much of a good thing. But you've won your bet, Higgins. Eliza did the trick, and something to spare, eh?
Thank God it's over!

Related Characters: Henry Higgins (speaker), Colonel Pickering (speaker), Eliza Doolittle
Page Number: 74
Explanation and Analysis:

The garden party is a success, and Eliza "fools" all of the noblemen into believing she is a duchess. After returning from the party, Pickering and Higgins congratulate themselves on a job well-done, and completely ignore Eliza's presence. In this quote, Pickering and Higgins are smugly satisfied with their work on Eliza, completely ignoring the fact that it was she who was the actual success at the party, not just them. Higgins' comment about being grateful it is over is particularly hurtful to Eliza--it is further confirmation that they were really interested in their fun and games, and not her feelings or future, in initiating this project. She as a "success" story matters very little to them--they are only interested in using their wit and wealth to mold her and amuse themselves. Now, they can move on to whatever else will entertain them, and have little regard for what happens to Eliza now that she has been molded into a semblance of a noblewoman, and cannot return to the "gutter." This quote is evidence of the crass and blasé nature that the two men inspire in each other, in particular the insensitive remarks that Higgins frequently doles out without regard to Eliza's feelings or literal presence in the room.

I was quite frightened once or twice because Eliza was doing it so well. You see, lots of the real people can't do it at all: they're such fools that they think style comes by nature to people in their position; and so they never learn.

Related Characters: Colonel Pickering (speaker), Eliza Doolittle
Page Number: 75
Explanation and Analysis:

With Eliza still in the room, Higgins and Pickering continue to speak about her as if she was not present. In this quote, Pickering muses that Eliza learned more effectively than he could have ever imagined, to an extent that he was "frightened" as to how well she performed at the event.

This comment, though on the surface a compliment, is really an insult to Eliza's intelligence: after six months of intensive study, she of course performed well, since she is an intelligent human being capable of learning. Of course, as wealthy, classist, misogynistic men, both Pickering and Higgins drastically underestimated her abilities. Pickering comments that she acted even better than the wealthy partygoers, since as born and bred members of the upper crust, they never actually had to learn manners, but rather believed that all of their actions were worthy of class distinction. Though Pickering typically has been more sympathetic to Eliza's plight than Higgins, this comment shows that both of them fail to comprehend Eliza as a whole human being, not just the superficial product of their amusing endeavors.

Do my clothes belong to me or to Colonel Pickering?

Related Characters: Eliza Doolittle (speaker), Henry Higgins, Colonel Pickering
Related Symbols: Clothing
Page Number: 79
Explanation and Analysis:

After fighting with Higgins, Eliza declares that she has no choice but to leave Wimpole Street. In this quote, before she leaves, she asks Higgins if the clothes she is wearing belong to her, or to Pickering, since he was the one who technically paid for her entire transformation. 

As the two men's "doll," Eliza is unsure what is now hers--tangibly, or emotionally--and what is property of Pickering and Higgins. This comment deeply wounds Higgins, since he genuinely did not realize that she felt this complexly about anything, let alone that she was smart enough to realize the sarcasm and condescension entrenched in his treatment towards her. Higgins considers himself charitable for having taken Eliza in, given her fancy things and an upper-crust attitude. By asking whether her clothing is her own or if she must return it to Pickering--presumably, for their next experiment with a girl they find on the street--hurts him, since he feels that she has not been grateful or understood the act of charity.