Written in 1912, Pygmalion is set in the early 20th century, at the end of the Victorian period in England. Among other things, this period of history was characterized by a particularly rigid social hierarchy—but one that was beginning to decline as social mobility became increasingly possible. The wealthy, high-class characters of the play are thus especially concerned with maintaining class distinctions. This means more than a mere distinction between rich and poor. The Eynsford Hill family, for example, is wealthy, but (as Mrs. Eynsford Hill confesses to Mrs. Higgins) not wealthy enough to go to many parties. And Higgins wants Eliza to marry not Freddy, but someone of an even higher class. Perhaps the most important way in which these distinctions of social class are enforced is through manners, unwritten codes of proper behavior. Shaw's play displays the workings of this system of social hierarchy, but also exposes some of its problems.
For one, the play shows how the belief that one's social class and manners are natural is false. As Eliza's transformation shows, manners and nobility can be learned. One's class is formed through performance, learning to act in certain ways. And moreover, as Clara Eynsford Hill comments, there is nothing inherently better about one or another performance: "It's all a matter of habit. There's no right or wrong in it." Good and bad manners are just a matter of cultural habit. (This is also evidenced by the fact that different cultures have different notions of polite behavior.) Ironically, at several moments in the play, lower-class characters are better behaved than their supposedly well-mannered, upper-class counterparts. In Act Five, Pickering comments that Eliza played the part of a noble lady better than real noble ladies they encountered. And Higgins, while somewhat upper-class, is very rude. Mrs. Pearce must remind him to mind his manners in front of Eliza, and at the end of the play she has better manners than he does. There is thus no natural or inherent connection between social class and "correct" manners.
Despite the rigidities of social class in the world of the play, Eliza and her father show the possibility of social mobility. Not only is Eliza changed into a noble lady, but her father also inherits a sizable sum of money from the rich American Ezra Wannafeller. As a counterexample to Victorian England, Wannafeller stands in for the American ideal of social mobility—that one can rise up the social ladder through hard work. By giving money to Mr. Doolittle, he allows Doolittle to become middle class. However, Mr. Doolittle himself challenges the assumption that such a move up the social ladder is necessarily a good thing. He continually criticizes "middle class morality" and laments all the anxieties and troubles that his new wealth brings with it. By the end of the play, Eliza also misses her prior, simpler life as a flower-girl. Thus, Shaw's play questions not only the validity of a rigid social hierarchy, but even the desirability of a high social class.
Social Class and Manners ThemeTracker
Social Class and Manners Quotes in Pygmalion
It's aw rawt: e's a genleman: look at his ba-oots.
A woman who utters such depressing and disgusting sounds has no right to be anywhere—no right to live. Remember that you are a human being with a soul and the divine gift of articulate speech: that your native language is the language of Shakespeare and Milton and The Bible; and don't sit there crooning like a bilious pigeon.
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.
A young woman! What does she want?
Well, sir, she says you'll be glad to see her when you know what she's come about. She's quite a common girl, sir. Very common indeed.
You know, Pickering, if you consider a shilling, not as a simple shilling, but as a percentage of this girl's income, it works out as fully equivalent to sixty or seventy guineas from a millionaire.
Then might I ask you not to come down to breakfast in your dressing-gown, or at any rate not to use it as a napkin to the extent you do, sir. And if you would be so good as not to eat everything off the same plate, and to remember not to put the porridge saucepan out of your hand on the clean tablecloth, it would be a better example to the girl.
Liza: They all thought she was dead; but my father he kept ladling gin down her throat til she came to so sudden that she bit the bowl off the spoon.
Mrs Eynsford Hill: Dear me!
Liza: What call would a woman with that strength in her have to die of influenza? 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.
Mrs Eynsford Hill: What does doing her in mean?
Higgins: Oh, that's the new small talk. To do a person in means to kill them.
The new small talk. You do it so awfully well.
It's all a matter of habit. There's no right or wrong in it.
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!
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.
I'd like to kill you, you selfish brute. Why didn't you leave me where you picked me out of—in the gutter? You thank God it's all over, and that now you can throw me back again there, do you?
Who asked him to make a gentleman of me? I was happy. I was free. I touched pretty nigh everybody for money when I wanted it, same as I touched you, Henry Higgins. Now I am worrited; tied neck and heels; and everybody touches me for money. It's a fine thing for you, says my solicitor. Is it? says I. ...A year ago I hadn't a relative in the world except two or three that wouldn't speak to me. Now I've fifty, and not a decent week's wages among the lot of them. I have to live for others and not for myself: that's middle class morality.
But do you know what began my real education?
Your calling me Miss Doolittle that day when I first came to Wimpole Street. That was the beginning of self-respect for me.
Liza: Freddy loves me: that makes him king enough for me. I don't want him to work: he wasn't brought up to it as I was. I'll go and be a teacher.
Higgins: What'll you teach, in heaven's name?
Liza: What you taught me. I'll teach phonetics.