Don’t Bet on the Prince: Shaw’s Realistic Take on Cinderella
“If I can’t have kindness, I’ll have independence” (Pygmalion 349). With these words George Bernard Shaw introduces the audience not only to a romantic heroine, but an emerging feminist unwilling to settle for anything less than she deserves. In writing Pygmalion, Shaw modified and modernized Charles Perrault’s Cinderella or The Little Glass Slipper to reflect the current aspirations of feminism. The inclusion of mythic romantic elements throughout the play set the stage for a classic fairytale ending denied by Eliza Doolittle’s ideals and Henry Higgins’s egotism. Shaw infuses the character of Eliza with feminist ideals and presents a realistic interpretation of what happened after Cinderella’s transformation when she no longer wished to submit to Prince Charming.
The origin of Pygmalion has caused considerable speculation since the play debuted in 1914. The title itself alludes to the famous Greek myth of the artist Pygmalion and his statue Galatea. In the myth, Pygmalion uses his artistic skills to sculpt his ideal woman. After completing his masterpiece, Pygmalion subsequently falls in love with the sculpture. In an attempt to ease his longing, Pygmalion visits the alter of Venus and prays to the goddess to bring Galatea to life. When his wish comes true, the two unite in matrimonial bliss. Years later, Eliza’s transformation from street urchin to socialite reflects Galatea’s metamorphosis into Pygmalion’s perfect mate. Similarly, the miraculous conversion and Eliza’s rise in social status also parallel Cinderella’s evolution centuries earlier from a poor servant into a beautiful princess.
In order to understand Shaw’s modification of the Cinderella fairy tale, the reader must first examine the structure of fairy tales. The archetypal fairy tale includes a damsel in distress, a treacherous villain who torments the young heroine, and a prince who rescues the maiden and sweeps her away to a happier life. Patricia Reed examines the formalistic structure of fairy tales and the progression of the hero and heroine toward their ultimate fate in her thesis From Snow White to Jasmine: Sixty Years of Disney Fairy Tale Heroines, Sixty Years of Women: Passive Princesses or Working Women? As Reed recounts, many flawless fairy tale heroines remain relatively passive throughout the narrative and do not experience any profound revelations or personal growth (143). In essence, the heroine, though a central figure, remains a minor character unable to take an active role in her own safety.
While many fairy tales originated in the oral tradition, those that were transcribed may have been altered to fit the male editor’s motives. Consequently, men wishing to uphold the patriarchal establishment conveyed a world in which women remained docile and subservient in order to maintain the status quo. The depiction of passive women would have been especially seductive to Shaw’s audience as they grappled with the woman question. During the Victorian era, just as in fairy tales, women held a subordinate status to men. Moreover, women were expected to honor their husbands’ wishes above all others, including their own, and were obligated to care for the home and children. The marginalization of women reflected in fairy tales is further examined by Carrie Lynn Cokely in her thesis Discovering the Magic: Readings, Interpretations, and Analyses of the Wonderful World of Disney. Cokely purports that the passivity of women is based on the belief “that if you just wait long enough, wish hard enough, and keep on dreaming eventually he will come for you” (66). As a result, many Victorian women eagerly awaited a prince who would sweep them off their feet even though he would inevitably consign them to the fulfilling the constraints of their gender.
Published in the late 17th century the transformation of Perrault’s Cinderella from a peasant servant into a beautiful princess has captivated audiences for centuries. In the beginning of the tale, Cinderella is depicted as a low, dirty creature mistreated and abused by everyone around her. As Perrault states: “…the little creature herself was forced to sleep up in a stony garret, upon a wretched straw bed” (Perrault). Perrault’s rendering of Cinderella’s accommodations indicate her station to the audience and mark her family’s cruel indifference to her suffering. Moreover, Cinderella’s physical appearance marred by dirt and rags further seeks to garner sympathy from the audience and is mirrored over a century later by Shaw’s heroine Eliza Doolittle. Eliza, besmirched with dirt and clothed in misshaped garments, casts a sympathetic figure as she toils to make a living wage selling flowers to London’s elite. Eliza’s shoddy appearance is made more apparent when Higgins orders Mrs. Pearce to “[p]ut her in the dust bin” (Shaw 303). Higgins’s initial revulsion and impulsive command reflects how Cinderella earned her name by sleeping in the dust and cinders. Furthermore, Eliza’s demeaning subordinate social status, which reduces her to begging for financial assistance, and her Cockney speech, characteristic of the lower class, act as a representation of Cinderella’s indentured servitude.
While Perrault does not describe Cinderella’s appearance in detail he does state that she was “a thousand times more beautiful in her shabby clothes than her stepsisters, no matter how magnificent their clothes” (Perrault). Considerable attention, however, is given to portray her good character through socially accepted gender norms present in both the 17th and 19th centuries. Cinderella performs the menial tasks her stepmother and stepsisters deem unfit for their station such as cooking, cleaning, mending, and helping her stepsisters groom and dress. Cinderella’s counterpart, Eliza continues to satisfy the obligation of domestic duties by selling flowers meant to beautify the gloomy streets of London and later by fetching slippers and caring for Higgins. The performance of gender specified tasks is crucial to the heroine’s depiction as a woman worthy of princely salvation. As Cokely states: “It is through these roles within the domestic sphere…by maintaining the home and the relationships that are encompassed within the home, women demonstrate their ‘morality’ and fulfill their duty to society” (119). By acquiescing to their assigned social and gender constraints, Cinderella and Eliza indicate their moral integrity and establish themselves as characters worthy of a prince’s affection.
Furthermore, in order to maintain the fairy tale structure the heroine must perform these tasks without complaint or regard for her personal preferences. Consequently, Cinderella obediently completes every demeaning task her stepmother sets before her without a murmur of discontent. Comparatively, while Eliza is learning from Higgins, she meekly fetches his slippers, runs his errands, and acts as his social secretary without objection in accordance with fairy tale doctrine. The occurrence of silent subservience is further analyzed in Marcia R. Lieberman’s article “Some Day My Prince Will Come” which states:
[Cinderella,] her name is partially synonymous with female martyrdom…Cinderella bears this treatment meekly: she is the patient sufferer, an object of pity… Ultimately her loneliness and her suffering are sentimentalized and become an integral part of her glamour. (390)
It is through debasement and silent obedience that both Cinderella and Eliza indicate their upstanding character and consequently increase their attractiveness.
Ever the mistreated outcasts, Cinderella and Eliza are unable to turn to a familial presence for comfort. In Cinderella, Perrault merely alludes to the heroine’s timid father in the beginning of the tale. As a result, her father’s absence directly impacts his ability to protect Cinderella from his domineering wife. Similarly, Eliza’s father is unable to help with his daughter’s misfortune due to his poor work ethic. As Alfred Doolittle states: “I ain’t pretending to be deserving. I’m undeserving, and I mean to go on being undeserving. I like it, and that’s the truth” (Pygmalion 314). Doolittle’s negligent attitude makes him unfit to act as Eliza’s protector and consequently leads to Eliza’s precarious state. While Doolittle fails to protect Eliza, he also seeks to capitalize on her limited success. When he learns that Eliza’s financial situation may have improved, Doolittle confronts Higgins: “Is it farity to take advantage of a man like this? The girl belongs to me. You got her. Where do I come in?” (Pygmalion 311). Doolittle remains unconcerned for Eliza’s safety and uses his paternal status as a means of extorting financial compensation regardless of Eliza’s precarious state. As Cokely describes, “…the heroine of the story is not protected by her father. Rather these ineffective fathers place their daughters in danger as a result of their actions…” (110). Eliza and Cinderella’s respective fathers’ inability to protect them from the bonds of servitude conforms to the formalistic structure of fairy tales and further perpetuates the heroines’ acquiescence to their prescribed roles.
In addition, Eliza’s and Cinderella’s lack of a true mother figure to nurture and guide them adds to the heroines’ isolation. In Cinderella, a feminine presence in the form of a stepmother acts as a malevolent force debasing Cinderella for her own satisfaction. According to Cokely, while Cinderella’s stepmother “cares for and protects her own children, she neglects Cinderella, her stepdaughter, and makes her a servant for the household” (108). The stepmother’s predilection to condemn Cinderella to serfdom further exacerbates Cinderella’s solitude. As Perrault describes, “She made [Cinderella] work with the servants in washing the dishes and rubbing the tables and chairs” (Perrault). By treating Cinderella as an indentured servant, the stepmother ascribes herself to the role of villain instead of acting as Cinderella’s protector.
In contrast, Mrs. Pearce acts as a maternal presence for Eliza and even urges Higgins to consider Eliza’s future and well-being. Unconcerned with Eliza’s fate, Higgins replies: “You can adopt her Mrs. Pearce. I’m sure a daughter would be a great amusement to you” (Pygmalion 304). Although, Mrs. Pearce does not legally adopt Eliza, she does continue to care for and comfort Eliza throughout the play. According to Eliza, Mrs. Pearce even warned her to be wary of Higgins: “You can twist the heart of a girl as easy as some could twist her arms to hurt her. Mrs. Pearce warned me” (Pygmalion 346). Acting as Eliza’s pseudo-guardian, Mrs. Pearce sought to save her foster daughter from misery and heartbreak. Even though Mrs. Pearce welcomes Eliza’s assistance with her domestic responsibilities, she does not force Eliza to do her bidding as Cinderella’s stepmother forces her.
The pinnacle of both Pygmalion and Cinderella is the transformation of the poor, downtrodden peasant into a beautiful woman adored by all. This transformation is made possible through the ministrations of wise individuals gifted with abilities to help those less fortunate. In Cinderella, a good fairy in the guise of the godmother helps Cinderella achieve her dream of going to the ball by altering Cinderella’s appearance. With a wave of her magic wand, the fairy godmother turns Cinderella’s ragged clothing into a beautiful shimmering gown, places glass slippers on her feet, and equips her with a horse and carriage. In the fairytale, the godmother’s supernatural powers enable Cinderella to fulfill her dream with little effort. Upon hearing of Cinderella’s current dilemma, the fairy godmother instructs her to “be a good girl…and you shall go [to the ball]” (Perrault). Proving her sweet disposition, Cinderella follows her fairy godmother’s subsequent commands and is thus rewarded.
In Pygmalion, Eliza’s path to providence is not as smooth. Unlike Cinderella, Eliza aspires to procure a higher station through hard work instead of matrimony. Higgins’s skills in linguistics provide the instrument for Eliza’s metamorphosis. While Cinderella is able to obtain her transformation with a pumpkin and a few rodents, Eliza must commit herself to the grueling task of learning to speak proper English. Higgins informs Eliza: “…you are to live here for the next six months, learning to speak beautifully, like a lady in a florist’s shop” (Pygmalion 306). Day and night, Eliza subjects herself to the tedious pursuit of perfect diction. Furthermore, she makes herself vulnerable to gossip as a single woman living with two confirmed bachelors.
In addition, Higgins is not the benevolent good fairy that granted Cinderella’s transformation. Cinderella’s godmother only asked her to be good; Higgins, on the other hand, establishes terms for his assistance. He tells Eliza:
If you are good and do whatever you’re told, you shall sleep in a proper room, and have lots to eat, and money to buy chocolates and take rides in taxis. If you are naughty and idle you will sleep in the back kitchen among the black beetles, and be walloped by Mrs. Pearce with a broomstick. (Pygmalion 306)
Higgins’s statement is the audience’s first indication that he will not live up to the parameters of the fairytale. His need to both praise and punish Eliza does not coincide with Cinderella’s fairy godmother’s unadulterated desire to nurture and help Cinderella reach her goals. Although Higgins’s unconventional methodologies are successful in reforming Eliza’s appearance, speech, and general knowledge, it is Colonel Pickering who succeeds in transforming Eliza into a lady. Even Eliza recognizes Pickering’s influence on her transition from flower girl to duchess:
You see it was so very difficult for me with the example of Professor Higgins always before me. I was brought up to be just like him, unable to control myself, and using bad language on the slightest provocation. And I should never have known that ladies and gentlemen didn’t behave like that if you hadn’t been there. (Pygmalion 342)
Eliza dismisses Higgins’s efforts in correcting her speech as an inconsequential factor in her education while maintaining that Pickering’s direction in regards to social conventions significantly impacted her ability to elevate her social status. Moreover, Eliza does not perceive Pickering as a sexual threat which allows him to assume a compassionate paternal presence. By balancing Higgins’s predominately masculine traits and helping Eliza adopt more feminine conventions, Pickering becomes the protective father Eliza lacks. In essence Pickering’s success in transforming Eliza from a Covent Garden flower girl to an eloquent woman capable of being mistaken for a duchess solidifies his position as Eliza’s fairy godmother.
No fairy tale would be complete without a prince or hero capable of rescuing the damsel in distress. In addition, it is the prince’s responsibility to meet the young woman, recognize her as his one true love, and rescue her from her current life of strife. As Cokely asserts: “While the Princess dreams of finding her true love, it is the Prince who is responsible for the union” (82). The prince, in Cinderella, conforms to this principle by hosting a ball in which he meets Cinderella, decides she will be his wife, and scours the kingdom looking for her. In contrast, Shaw’s depiction of Higgins as Eliza’s prince charming presents an unconventional portrayal of the quintessential 19th century hero. Timothy G. Vesonder considers Higgins’s fulfillment of the heroic role in his article “Eliza’s Choice: Transformation Myth and the Ending of Pygmalion.” According to Vesonder,
Shaw’s story, simply stated, portrays an expert linguist who accepts a challenge to re-create a poor, uneducated young woman by teaching her to speak properly. Linguistic knowledge and skills are the great weapons which Higgins uses to defeat evil and improve society. (Eliza 42)
An atypical hero, Higgins enlists Pickering and Mrs. Pearce to aid his quest to improve Eliza’s social status through linguistic development. Together the trio is able to rescue Eliza from her life of hardship.
Furthermore, while Cinderella’s villain takes corporeal form in the characterization of the wicked stepmother, the antagonist in Pygmalion prevails as the obscure dark force of poverty which seeks to destroy the lower classes caught in the net of desperation and necessity. As Vesonder indicates, “When [Higgins] first meets Eliza, he notes that her kerbstone English will keep her in the gutter. She is in the clutches of the monster of poverty, which was to Shaw the greatest modern demon” (Eliza 42). Through Eliza’s financial constraints, Shaw depicts a philosophical conflict of the Victorian era. During the 19th century, a popular topic of debate between members of the upper classes was whether there is a moral or religious obligation to assist the lower classes or if it is best for society as a whole to let fate run its course. In the first case, members ascribing to this view held that it was their Christian duty to help those less fortunate. On the contrary, members who upheld social darwinism believed that fate should be allowed to run its course and those that had the skills would survive and succeed. Shaw’s portrayal of Higgins heroically defeating poverty through linguistics suggests that Shaw believed education provides the key to social elevation.
Even though Higgins performs the heroic task of defeating the villain poverty he is far from Eliza’s white knight; in fact, Higgins’s behavior more closely resembles that of Cinderella’s stepsisters. The nameless stepsisters in Perrault’s fairy tale are depicted as selfish creatures with a “disagreeable” nature (Perrault). Cinderella seeks her stepsisters’ compassion for her unfortunate fate; however, the young women remain insensitive to Cinderella’s plight. As Perrault describes, “[they were] brought up to be proud and idle” (Perrault). The stepsisters’ selfish disregard for Cinderella’s well-being and lack of motivation further exacerbates Cinderella’s predicament. They remain unphased by Cinderella’s despair over not attending the ball and demand that she help them prepare for the big night. Similarly, Higgins’s inclination to discount Eliza’s feelings mimics the stepsisters’ selfish ignorance of Cinderella’s plight and his tendency to engage in intellectualization mirrors the stepsisters’ conceited behavior. Lisë Pedersen further scrutinizes Higgins’s dialogue concerning Eliza in her article “Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew vs. Shaw’s Pygmalion: Male Chauvinism vs. Women’s Lib?” As Pedersen indicates:
[In Act II,] Higgins begins to issue orders to Mrs. Pearce about giving Eliza a bath, disinfecting her, and burning all her clothes, without consulting Eliza at all, just as though she has nothing to say in the matter, and as Eliza begins to protest he tells Mrs. Pearce, ‘If she gives you any trouble wallop her.’ (16)
Higgins’s proclivity to analyze Eliza’s behavior while remaining emotionally detached indicates the depth of his intellectual isolation. Moreover, Cinderella’s name is derived from the nickname the stepsisters gave her: “Cinderbreech” (Perrault). Comparatively, Higgins uses several diminutive phrases to refer to Eliza: “baggage,” “squashed cabbage leaves,” and “damned impudent slut” (Pygmalion 300-50). By debasing Eliza through the use of diminutives and disregarding her feelings, Higgins suggests that Eliza is incapable of comprehending the situation.
In addition to mistreating Eliza, Higgins fails to deliver the ultimate fairy tale ending. After defeating the villain, a fairy tale prince inevitably marries the young heroine and rescues her from her desolate life. As was true during both the 17th and 19th centuries, women married to improve or at the very least secure their station. Cokely supports this assertion in her statement: “Additionally, women…cannot chart their own path in life without male intervention…” (90). In Cinderella, the heroine must continue to toil until either her father intervenes or she is married and removed from her stepmother’s home. For Cinderella, striking out on her own is not an option. Eliza also must endure her life of poverty in the streets of London unless a man of considerable status is able to care for her. Even though the heroines’ fathers unwittingly placed them in harm’s way due to inadequate protection, the hero is able to rescue the young lady and offer her a new life by his side. According to Cokely, “the female heroines become a commodity that gets traded in the economy of patriarchal male relationships” (113). In each case, at least in the beginning, Cinderella and Eliza are considered possessions and exchanged through a male dominated market. Cinderella is passed from her father’s home to the prince’s castle by virtue of the marriage ceremony. Afterwards, she subsequently, arranges the marriages of her two stepsisters to wealthy men thereby releasing her father from a considerable financial burden.
Similarly, Eliza’s father sells her to Higgins for £5 and effectively severs all parental obligations he has to his daughter. Unlike Cinderella, however, Eliza does not marry Higgins and eventually refuses to acknowledge his ownership entirely. Gladys M. Crane evaluates Eliza’s matrimonial predicament in her article “Shaw and Women’s Lib.” As Crane states: “Shaw makes it quite clear that [Eliza] will not marry Higgins; if she does marry Freddy, however, she will not be the traditional wife dependent on and submissive to her husband” (178). Moreover, in the prologue, Shaw explicitly states that Eliza marries Freddy instead of Higgins further repudiating Higgins’s dominance over her. As Shaw recounts: “[Eliza] knew that for some mysterious reason [Higgins] had not the makings of a married man in him, according to her conception of a husband as one to whom she would be his nearest and fondest and warmest interest” (Pygmalion 352). Eliza’s perception of Higgins as a defective Prince Charming incapable of displaying affection compels her to reject him as a potential husband. By choosing not to marry Higgins, Eliza refuses to conform to the traditional gender roles of her patriarchal society and effectively nullifies the exchange between Doolittle and Higgins.
While Eliza marries Freddy, she does not correspond to the traditional role of the wife preferring instead to retain the dominant position in the relationship. The suggestion that women can have authority over their husbands directly conflicts with the patriarchal convention reflected in fairy tales that men are the natural superiors of women. By expanding the scope of a woman’s marital status to include female domination, Shaw suggests that women should rebel against their prescribed matrimonial roles. In The Quintessence of Ibsenism, published shortly after Pygmalion, Shaw further examines gender roles and the woman question plaguing Victorian society. According to Shaw, “No man pretends that his soul finds its supreme satisfaction in self-sacrifice: such an affection would stamp him as a coward and a weakling…But men are not the less loved on this account” (Quintessence 49). While many feminists currently reject the concept of female domination as an antifeminist statement citing that female empowerment efforts should seek to equalize the discrepancy between gender roles and not seek superiority over the opposite sex, Shaw’s depiction of Eliza and Freddy’s marriage does posses feminist merits. Shaw describes Eliza’s dilemma in the statement: “…what is Eliza fairly sure to do when she is placed between Freddy and Higgins? Will she look forward to a lifetime of fetching Higgins’s slippers or to a lifetime of Freddy fetching hers? There can be no doubt about the answer” (Pygmalion 353). As Shaw suggests it is only natural for Eliza to choose a relationship in which she hold a position of authority. Through Eliza’s marriage to Freddy, Shaw presents a call to action for women to cast of the chains of submission and become entities worthy of respect.
Despite the underlying patriarchal exchange, the typical fairy tale heroine still dreams of the day her prince will rescue her from her life of adversity. After marrying, the heroine experiences a social elevation that signals to the audience a significant improvement from her previous existence. Cokely explains this phenomenon in her statement:
Because the audience is presented with a young heroine who is stifled in her current situation, then when the chance for romance and love presents itself, the audience is inclined to buy into the belief that this will result in a better life for the heroine. (69)
As a result, when Cinderella meets the prince and they gaze at each other with longing, the audience is filled with hope that the young couple will fall in love and Cinderella will be lifted from servitude through her marriage to the prince. While Perrault satisfies the audience’s aspirations, he does not describe Cinderella’s life after marriage. In accordance with prescribed gender roles, it is highly likely that Cinderella continues to fulfill her obligations to home and family by caring for the children, completing menial housework, and performing any other service her husband requires. Cinderella has been freed from her stepmother, but she is not free: happily-ever-after comes at a price.
In Pygmalion, Eliza faces the same dilemma. After witnessing Eliza’s struggle to make an honest living, the audience anticipates that she will marry Higgins and escape a life of degradation. A close inspection of Shaw’s realistic portrayal of Higgins and Eliza’s relationship, however, indicates the pair’s incompatibility. Unlike Cinderella, Eliza does not gaze longingly at Higgins or harbor romantic aspirations for her professor. Moreover, Higgins merely perceives Eliza as someone in desperate need of linguistic instruction. According to David J. Gordon’s article “Higgins’s Anti-Romantic Character”:
Shaw was at one and the same time, romantic and anti-romantic…It is right that Higgins is alone at the end, laughing in denial of his failure to hold Eliza. And Eliza must be disappointed too, for the man she cannot help loving is incorrigible (73).
Gordon’s assertion that Higgins is incapable of harboring romantic feelings is expounded by Higgins’s inability to behave in a civil manner. Higgins’s inappropriate behavior can be seen in Act II when Eliza first comes to Wimpole Street. Upon observing Eliza’s unpleasant appearance, Higgins asks Pickering: “Shall we ask this baggage to sit down, or shall we throw her out the window?” (Pygmalion 300). Higgins further annihilates the prospect of portraying Prince Charming by referring to Eliza throughout the play as a “heartless guttersnipe”, a “presumptuous insect”, and an “impudent slut” (Pygmalion 331-50). If Eliza marries Higgins not only would she be required to manage the household responsibilities, act as a social secretary, and dote upon Higgins, but she would be subjected to a continuous onslaught of verbal abuse.
The confusion over Pygmalion’s unconventional ending can be addressed by considering each tale’s moral. As a component in the formalistic structure of fairy tales, morals serve to inform the audience of the appropriate conduct in a given situation. In typical fairy tale fashion, Perrault concluded Cinderella with a moral which Reed translates:
A woman’s beauty is quite a treasure
We never cease to admire
Yet graciousness exceeds all measure.
There’s nothing of virtue higher…
Beautiful ladies it’s kindness more than dress
That wins a man’s heart with greater success.
So, if you want a life filled with bliss,
The truest gift is graciousness. (Reed 57)
Through this final decree, Perrault urges women to uphold traditional gender roles. He acknowledges that an attractive physical appearance is a valuable asset to women, but purports that a gracious demeanor surpasses a woman’s beauty in admiration. Cinderella’s obedience to her stepmother and kindness to her stepsisters signifies her as a morally righteous woman and earns her the admiration of the prince and a life filled with bliss.
Shaw, on the other hand, used Pygmalion to convey a very different moral. By refusing to consider Higgins as a prospective husband, Eliza stands as a testament that women are capable of being an end unto themselves and consequently should not yield control to the patriarchal society. As Pedersen states, it was “Shaw’s belief that the purpose of drama is ‘to force the public to reconsider its morals’…” (15). Shaw sought to encourage social change by not only including an unconventional moral, but by inspiring the audience to reconsider traditional gender roles. Shaw held:
…it is not surprising that our society, being directly dominated by men, comes to regard Woman, not as an end in herself like Man, but solely as a means of ministering to his appetite…Now to treat a person as a means instead of an end is to deny that person’s right to live. (Quintessence 52)
In essence, Shaw contends that men should no longer view women as subservient entities designed to fulfill their desires, but as human beings with desires of their own. Moreover, he refutes the fairy tale ideology that places the self-sacrificing woman on a pedestal and perpetuates the notion that martyrdom is an attractive quality. Shaw further denigrates the concept of the submissive woman by stating “that in real life a self-sacrificing woman, or…a womanly woman is not only taken advantage of, but disliked as well for her pains” (Quintessence 49). In an age that had adopted social darwinism, women ascribing to traditional gender roles were a burden to their families and to society as a whole.
In Eliza, Shaw portrays the downtrodden woman as a victim of society’s disregard for her gender. As a Covent Garden flower girl, Eliza experiences the shame of begging for money and the derision of a society that does not appreciate her existence. Moreover, because Eliza is a woman, society expects her to bear the burdens of her class without complaint. After Eliza meets Higgins, however, she begins to hope for a new life. During their encounter Higgins states:
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. (Pygmalion 296)
In Higgins’s bitter tirade, Eliza receives a glimmer of hope for a better life. Instead of being subjected to the cruelties of the street, Eliza hopes to earn a clerk’s position in a florist shop. In this moment Eliza faces a turning point that Shaw characterizes as an essential element in restructuring gender roles: “Woman, if she dares face the fact that she is being so treated, must either loathe herself or else rebel. As a rule, when circumstances enable her to rebel…she does rebel” (Quintessence 53). As a result, Eliza denounces the patriarchal society causing her strife and seeks to improve her station through education.
Eliza’s road to independence, however, is not smooth. As a member of the lower class, Eliza received only a rudimentary education. According to “The ‘Unwomanly Woman’ in Shaw’s Drama” by Sonja Lorichs: “A poor girl in the slums did not get more than a minimum of the elementary stage and possibly basic training in housewifery” (109). While Shaw never describes Eliza’s education, through her limited grasp of business affairs and social endeavors the audience is able to ascertain that she is the product of a basic education. Fortunately, Eliza seizes the opportunity to learn from one of London’s most renowned linguists. Through hard work, Eliza transforms her speech with Higgins’s assistance and develops her social skills under Pickering’s watchful eye.
Eliza’s success in transforming from a “squashed cabbage leaf” to a strong and independent woman is made evident through her relationship with Freddy. In Act I, Freddy dismisses Eliza as one of the faceless huddled masses who occupy London’s streets. After Eliza has developed considerable linguistic skills, however, Freddy recognizes Eliza as a singular woman. As Shaw indicates in the prologue: “[Freddy] loves her unaffectedly, and is not her master, nor ever likely to dominate her in spite of his advantage of social standing” (Pygmalion 353). Through hard work and dedication, Eliza is finally considered an individual. Moreover, Eliza’s strong disposition earns Freddy’s admiration and respect instead of garnering sympathy and derision.
It is Shaw’s Pygmalion, however, that must admit Galatea has become a new woman. Frustrated by the gentlemen’s negligent disregard of her success, Eliza exercises her autonomy and devises a plan to strike out on her own. Unwilling to accept Eliza as anything other than his creation, Higgins states: “You will jolly soon see whether she has an idea that I haven’t put into her head or a word that I haven’t put into her mouth” (Pygmalion 341). Unfortunately for Higgins, Eliza is an apt pupil and a shrewd business woman capable of matching wits with him. Higgins tries to belittle Eliza’s dreams and berate her into returning, but the newly independent Eliza is not so easily swayed:
Aha! That’s done you, Henry Higgins, it has. Now I don’t care that (snapping her fingers) for your bullying and your big talk…Oh, when I think of myself crawling under your feet and being trampled on and called name, when all the time I had only to life up my finger to be as good as you, I could just kick myself. (Pygmalion 350)
No longer the poor little flower girl, Eliza refuses to allow Higgins to intimidate her and firmly establishes her independence. Embodying what Shaw referred to as the repudiation of womanliness, Eliza confronts and dismisses the concept of submissiveness as an innate attribute of her sex. In return Higgins is forced to admit Eliza’s independence in his statement: “By George, Eliza, I said I’d make a woman of you; and I have. I like you like this” (Pygmalion 350). Through this statement, Higgins acknowledges Eliza as an independent woman. Consequently, to free herself from the patriarchal society Eliza first had to take her fate in her own hands by going to Higgins, yield control to a domineering personality, and then reclaim her individuality from her creator.
Considering that Pygmalion includes elements of the Cinderella fairytale, audiences experience profound shock at the end of the play when the two main characters do not unite in matrimonial bliss. As Maurice Valency describes in his article “A Universal Cinderella Story”:
Once the fairy godmother has waved her wand and the girl’s magical transformation has been effected, it is absolutely indispensable that the Prince should seek out the resulting Princess, marry her, and live happily with her forever after. (93)
Valency’s statement echoes the sentimentality of many who believe that as a Cinderella story, Pygmalion’s Eliza and Higgins belong together and should unite romantically at the end of the play. Beerbohm Tree, the first man to portray Shaw’s Henry Higgins on stage, shares the audience’s desire for a romantic conclusion. According to Vesonder, “Tree ignored Shaw’s instructions and at the end of every performance threw flowers to Mrs. Patrick Campbell (Eliza Doolittle), suggesting a romantic attachment that would end in marriage” (Pygmalion 101). Shaw, however, did not approve of Tree’s interpretation and sought to end speculation by writing an epilogue that explicitly describes the unsuitable nature of the characters. As Shaw states:
…her resentment of Higgins’s domineering superiority and her mistrust of his coaxing cleverness in getting round her and evading her wrath when he had gone too far with his impetuous bullying…Eliza’s instinct had good grounds for warning her not to marry her Pygmalion. (Pygmalion 352)
While influenced by the romances of Pygmalion and Galatea as well as Cinderella and Prince Charming, Shaw’s Pygmalion adds a heavy dose of realism to the conclusion.
After rejecting Higgins as a potential husband, Eliza marries Freddy and embarks on a path of her own design. While she does not wish to return to Wimpole Street as Higgins’s subordinate, Eliza remains in contact with Higgins. Higgins’s inability to see Eliza as an equal, however, prevents him from fulfilling any romantic obligations he has to Eliza. Vesonder further elaborates on the romantic impasse between Higgins and Eliza. Vesonder states: “Higgins wants his independence and his work; Eliza wants her independence and affection. A compromise between these two characters is as unlikely as it is undesirable” (103). Higgins’s desire for intellectual dominance prevents him from appreciating Eliza as his contemporary and fulfilling the audience’s expectations. Freddy, on the other hand, appreciates Eliza’s intellect and independence. Consequently, it is only natural for Freddy and Eliza to maintain an affectionate relationship because Freddy does not possess the skill or desire to dominate Eliza. Until Higgins is able to abandon his academic snobbery, he will never be able to appreciate Eliza as anything other than his creation, and audiences will continue to weep for the pair of unfortunate lovers.
While Shaw did not reward Eliza with a perfect fairy tale ending, he could have been more cruel. Eliza could have remained as Higgins’s servant instead of ridding herself of the contemptible man. Moreover, Eliza could have ended her days on the streets enduring untold hardships, instead of capitalizing on her education and striking out on her own. By allowing her to retain her independence, Shaw enables Eliza to strike a blow against patriarchal society in the name of the unwomanly woman.
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