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Social Class and Manners Theme Icon
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Social Class and Manners Theme Icon

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.

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Social Class and Manners Quotes in Pygmalion

Below you will find the important quotes in Pygmalion related to the theme of Social Class and Manners.
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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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.

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

Eliza becomes angry with Higgins and tells him to mind his own business. Higgins becomes angry with Eliza in return, retorting that her walking around and speaking the way she does is exactly his business. In this quote, he goes so far as to say that a woman who speaks the way Eliza does has "no right to live." 

Higgins represents an extreme of Victorian society, which associated wealth and high status with high morality, and associated the lower classes with dirtiness and a lack of morals. In this instance, without knowing Eliza at all, Higgins decides that she is not worthy of a life because she is a lower class than he and speaks in a dialect that is associated with the lower classes. While he tells her that she is a scourge upon a language that produced great works of literature (although, of course, the Bible—one of Higgins' examples—wasn't originally written in English), he fails to comprehend that her lower status means that she has not had access to the same education he has had the privilege of receiving. To Higgins, appearance is everything, closely followed by birth. Eliza has neither a classy appearance nor notable birth; to him, she might as well be dead. 

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 2 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Henry Higgins (speaker), Mrs. Pearce (speaker), Eliza Doolittle
Page Number: 25
Explanation and Analysis:

The next day, Henry Higgins shows Colonel Pickering around his linguistic laboratory. As the tour completes, Mrs. Pearce, Higgins' housekeeper, comes to tell him that a "common" young woman is at the door and would like to see him. Immediately, the reader/audience knows that it is Eliza.

This quote is telling of how Higgins' prejudice against "common" people is indicative of all of Victorian society, though it is rather extreme in his case. Mrs. Pearce, though lower class than her employer, is still of a higher class than Eliza, and she, too, looks down upon the "common" girl. This shows a hierarchy of classes where all that one requires to look down upon others is to be at least one social rung above. However, it is also telling that Mrs. Pearce will not refer to her as "lower class," but rather, as "common," suggesting that most of society is of this lower class, and to be uncommon is to be part of a special, unique sector of society. 

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.

Related Characters: Henry Higgins (speaker), Eliza Doolittle, Colonel Pickering
Page Number: 28
Explanation and Analysis:

When Eliza asks Higgins to give her elocution lessons, she offers to pay him a shilling per lesson, which she believes to be his going rate (as Higgins is a very wealthy man, it is likely much, much higher). In this quote, Higgins addresses Pickering as if Eliza is not present. This further exemplifies his rudeness towards her: he does not consider her to be of the same intelligence of himself and Pickering, and therefore does not even think to include her in the conversation.

Here, Higgins reasons that as a ratio of Eliza's income, a shilling is comparable to "sixty or seventy guineas from a millionaire." Rather than feeling touched that Eliza would be willing to part with such a large part of her income in order for his expertise, Higgins' merely calculates this ratio for his own amusement. Higgins' interest in Eliza is purely for entertainment, not because he has an investment in bettering her future by "fixing" her speech to a standard that society perceives to be higher class. Comparing Eliza to a millionaire also reveals how Higgins' mind works--he is constantly determining class distinctions in his mind about the people he interacts with. Eliza does not exist as simply who she is, rags and all, but rather within the context of how she stacks up--or doesn't--to the rest of Victorian society. 

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.

Related Characters: Mrs. Pearce (speaker), Henry Higgins
Related Symbols: Clothing
Page Number: 40
Explanation and Analysis:

After taking Eliza away to wash up and change, Mrs. Pearce comes back into Higgins' study to ask him to promise not to practice some of his bad habits in Eliza's presence.

Higgins, a "confirmed old bachelor," has lived along with just Mrs. Pearce for years, and as a result, has acquired a number of habits, such as walking around in his pajamas and cursing, that the housekeeper does not believe are suitable for a young woman (particularly one to whom Higgins is supposedly going to give elocution and etiquette lessons). Given Higgins' classist and sexist views, it is ironic that his housekeeper, a woman and a member of a lower class, is reprimanding him for his manners. Here Mrs. Pearce acts as a foil to Higgins' ego--though he talks a big game, he requires Mrs. Pearce's care to live his day-to-day life, and he often acts immaturely, despite his supposedly upper class etiquette. Mrs. Pearce reveals his true habits when no one is looking, thus confirming them as his hypocrisies.

This sentiment is similar to Higgins' hope to pass Eliza off as a noblewoman, not actually make her into a genuine member of the upper class: class is all about how one hopes to be perceived, not how they truly are as a human being. For all of her faults, Eliza is true to herself, whereas Higgins' pretension is almost entirely an act. 

Act 3 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Eliza Doolittle (speaker), Mrs. Eynsford Hill (speaker)
Page Number: 60
Explanation and Analysis:

When Eliza is brought before Mrs. Higgins' company, Higgins instructs her to speak about only two topics: the weather and health. Eliza, whose dialect is now upper class but whose small talk is not yet groomed, takes this to mean she can speak about the "barometrical situation" and her theory as to who "done in" her aunt. 

In this quote, Eliza shocks and amuses the crowd with a story about her dead aunt, who curiously survived influenza (thanks to Mr. Doolittle, who ladled "gin down her throat til she came to") but then suddenly died, her hat going missing as well. Eliza was hoping to inherit the hat, and believes that whoever took the hat likely killed her aunt. This decidedly indecorous cocktail conversation shocks and amuses the audience, proving to Higgins that he has a lot more work to do before he can pass her off as a noblewoman at a garden party. 

Though her appearance and speech are well-groomed, the content of Eliza's conversations are not. This shows that in the intervening months, Higgins has tackled how Eliza sounds and looks, but has not paid attention to the fact that she is actually a person who thinks and reasons. He has not though to coach her, specifically, on what Victorian culture is, because he has not thought of her as an equal human with emotions and complex thought. This sitting room test is a rude awakening to what Eliza is--a human--and what she is capable of. A human, Higgins begins to slowly realize, is much more than what one hears and sees on the outside. 

The new small talk. You do it so awfully well.

Related Characters: Freddy Eynsford Hill (speaker), Eliza Doolittle
Page Number: 61
Explanation and Analysis:

When Eliza enters the sitting room, Freddy is immediately enamored of her. He assures Eliza that she has not said anything incorrect (despite the inappropriate content of her "small talk") and compliments her for tackling new Victorian social norms.

In this quote, Freddy praises Eliza for taking on "the new small awfully well." When Eliza speaks of inappropriate topics, like unsolved murder and alcoholism, in the midst of upper-crust company, Freddy and Clara are delighted to have an amusing conversation for a change rather the same old "Victorian prudery," as Clara puts it. Saving her feelings, they decide on the fly that she is an advanced practitioner of the "new small talk," which challenges boring Victorian social norms and makes fun, daring topics appropriate for sitting rooms.

This thinking completely defies Higgins' experiment: He wants Eliza to fit in to existing Victorian society, not become a radical within it. Having an older generation, represented by Mrs. Higgins and Mrs. Eynsford Hill, contrasted by the young Clara and Freddy, shows that social norms are highly variable from person to person and even sitting room to sitting room. From Higgins' mold Eliza may be a hit in a garden party but bomb in another situation. This further raises the question of what will happen to Eliza after the experiment is over: the skills to charm a garden party may win Higgins' bet, but they won't satisfy all of Eliza's life goals and desires. This scene shows that Higgins' experiment, though rooted in the "real world," will, to Higgins, only ultimately succeed or fail in the context of his closed laboratory. 

It's all a matter of habit. There's no right or wrong in it.

Related Characters: Clara Eynsford Hill (speaker)
Page Number: 62
Explanation and Analysis:

After Eliza is hurriedly ushered out of the room, Mrs. Eynsford Hill expresses her horror at Eliza's choice of language. She asks Colonel Pickering what he thinks of her manners. He, having been in India for several years, replies that his manners are somewhat outdated and he cannot say whether she is bawdy or merely of the times.

In this quote, Clara pipes up and says there is no right or wrong way to act in a social setting: it's merely the person's matter of habit that governs how they act. As a young woman, she has her ear to the ground moreso than her mother on what is new fashion and what is old taste. Her mother is shocked by Eliza's words because she has not been used to it, and it is her habit to act more prudishly in public; her daughter, younger and therefore more flexible to the changing times, perceptively states that what is acceptable and not acceptable is not black and white. Rather, each person's personal habits govern whether they perceive something to be acceptable or not for a social setting. 

Clara's reasoning throws a wrench into the philosophy behind Higgins' and Pickering's project: If social norms are variable, then in which direction or for what audience are they grooming Eliza? Clara and Freddy's delight over Eliza's injection of life into an otherwise dull sitting-room conversation shows that Higgins' philosophy and prejudices, though upper class in nature, cater to a very small subset of a rapidly aging-out society. 

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.

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?

Related Characters: Eliza Doolittle (speaker), Henry Higgins
Page Number: 76
Explanation and Analysis:

Incensed about Higgins' and Pickering's statements, Eliza throws Higgins' slippers at him in a rage. In this quote, she acknowledges that she has heard everything he has said, and expresses her fury at his sentiments.

Throughout the last six months, Eliza has taken Pickering and Higgins' emotional abuse for the sake of learning how to be a genteel woman so that she might have a better shot at her future than she did before they met. However, all of her rage at their condescension comes to a head after she performs admirably at the garden party, and they pat each other on the back rather than praising her for her excellent work over the past few months. 

Eliza accuses Higgins of being selfish--his statements about being grateful that the experiment was over show that he had no interest in her beyond the amusement she provided. Once the amusement was gone, he has no use for her. Just like Mrs. Higgins warned, neither man considered what would become of Eliza once the project was over. Here, Eliza shows that she, too, is concerned about her life--now that she has been shown what a life of leisure and luxury is, she has the choice of continuing to live with a man who considers her less than human, or returning to the "gutter" in a life of poverty and squalor.  In the intervening months, the two men failed to realize that Eliza's beliefs and goals--not just her appearance and speech--had evolved to be greater than one expects of a flower girl.  

Act 5 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Alfred Doolittle (speaker), Ezra D. Wannafeller
Page Number: 89
Explanation and Analysis:

Alfred Doolittle is bequeathed an entire fortune from a wealthy American businessman, and suddenly finds himself rising in the ranks of Victorian society due to his money. In this quote, he laments to Higgins that the windfall has ruined his life. 

Eliza and her father provide an interesting comparison for the ways in which "class" is often associated with both good manners and a big bank account, though in this case, Eliza has the manners but no money, and her father has the money but no manners. In both situations, suddenly being thrust into a new life without the full package makes their lives very stressful. Eliza is capable of social mobility but has no idea how to begin, while her father has the means but feels burdened by the amount of people in his life who want to use him.

Shaw here uses the two characters to provide evidence for the old adage that money can't buy happiness--and neither can an upper class accent. Just because one can join the upper crust does not mean it is a happier level of society--just one with more garden parties and "visiting days." Both Eliza and Doolittle rue the day that Higgins interfered in their lives--just because he is a professor, it does not mean he knows how to live anymore than someone from the gutter does. He expects the Doolittles to be grateful to him for their "good luck," but all they want is to go back to the days in which all they knew was what they had. Thanks to Higgins, all they now know is dissatisfaction. 

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.

Related Characters: Eliza Doolittle (speaker), Colonel Pickering (speaker)
Page Number: 94
Explanation and Analysis:

Amidst the fight in Mrs. Higgins' house, Eliza turns to Pickering and expresses her affection towards him. Compared to Higgins, he was highly respectful towards her throughout the experiment (if exceedingly immature in intentions), and in this quote, she notes that her "real education" towards becoming a lady began when he called her Miss Doolittle, rather than Eliza or a flower-girl.

Here, Eliza reveals that it is not phonetics or etiquette lessons that ultimately led to her transformation, but rather the respect that acting in socially acceptable ways earned her. Though Higgins did not believe that he could do anything more than pass her off as a duchess, the respect that Eliza felt from society went deeper than appearances, and allowed her to finally realize that she could have higher goals beyond selling flowers. In this aspect, Higgins' experiment both help and hurt: it gave her the means to dream higher than she ever had before, and to experience self-respect and self-standards, though Higgins' crass attitude towards her emotions and intelligence severely dampened her self-esteem and spirits. Thus, it appears to have been Pickering whose kindness pushed Eliza through the experiment, and inspired her to take a stand against Higgins when he acted so rudely upon its completion. 

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.

Related Characters: Eliza Doolittle (speaker), Henry Higgins (speaker)
Page Number: 104
Explanation and Analysis:

Eliza and Higgins continue to bicker about their mutual woes regarding their time together, and Eliza argues that she's not so dependent on Higgins as to be stuck with him, and reveals her plan to marry Freddy and teach to support him. Higgins scoffs at the notion, mocking both the idea that Eliza would work at all and the idea that she might have any knowledge that she could teach to others. 

Eliza has at least learned one good thing beyond proper phonetics: she has learned that she deserves better than what she has received from Higgins. To try and make her own way in the world, she decides, is worth the struggle, rather than remaining in the lap of luxury and guarded by a pretentious man who does not respect her intelligence and emotions. Ultimately, Eliza is successful in the experiment beyond Higgins' imagination – she has both presented herself as, and become, a superior moral being than when she first arrived at Wimpole Street. Yet Higgins' own intellectual, moral, and emotional shortcomings (and his own failure to develop them even as Eliza has developed hers) failed to foresee that this transformation would come along with greater goals and expectations for Eliza and the people around her. Thus, Eliza leaves both Higgins and her old life behind her, in the hopes of finding someone who loves and respects her for who she is, inside and out, and to teach others phonetics, though with far more kindness than she received from her own instructor.