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
Appearance and Identity Quotes in Pygmalion
It's aw rawt: e's a genleman: look at his ba-oots.
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.
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.