In George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, Eliza Doolittle is initially nothing but a poor girl selling flowers on the street. Due to her incidental presence of Higgins and his bravado in discussing his abilities with Colonel Pickering, Eliza is swept up into a world that she would have been unable to touch without the help of Henry Higgins. Eliza speaks with a Cockney accent, making her incapable of breaking into the more refined world that she dreams of; Higgins takes her in and transforms her into a completely different woman. The transformation is that Eliza goes through not on the adoption of refined speech and manner but on the learning of independence and sense of inner self-worth that allow her to leave Higgins at the end of the play.
Even today, the use of improper English can be a stumbling block for those interested in getting ahead in life. Poor English is often associated-- sometimes unfairly-- with people of lower socioeconomic class, as well as with laziness and inability to work hard. However, language is an ever-evolving thing, and learning to speak in a grammatically-mainstream way can increase the ability of an individual to succeed in an English-speaking society. The grammatical and spoken ability of an individual does as much for a person’s appearance as being well-dressed does, according to Shaw; he writes:
[Eliza] is not at all an attractive person. She is perhaps eighteen, perhaps twenty, hardly older. She wears a little sailor hat of black straw that has long been exposed to the dust and soot of London and has seldom if ever been brushed. Her hair needs washing rather badly: its mousy color can hardly be natural. She wears a shoddy black coat that reaches nearly to her knees and is shaped to her waist. She has a brown skirt with a coarse apron. Her boots are much the worse for wear. She is no doubt as clean as she can afford to be; but compared to the ladies she is very dirty (Shaw).
Higgins takes Eliza in and gives her a bath, and then begins to teach her how to speak properly. Although the soot of London easily washes off Eliza, her history in the streets is easily discernible in her voice; no one would ever believe that she is a lady because of the way she speaks.
As the play moves forward, Eliza’s speech becomes more refined, and she is more able to vocalize her feelings eloquently. Higgins’ ministrations to her speech do more than he intended; although he intended for the repair job to be a cosmetic one, he also succeeds in teaching Eliza all the trappings of high-class womanhood. At one point in the play, Eliza throws her slippers at Higgins; of the incident, he says: “Sneering doesn't become either the human face or the human soul. I am expressing my righteous contempt for Commercialism You call me a brute because you couldn't buy a claim on me by fetching my slippers and finding my spectacles. You were a fool: I think a woman fetching a man's slippers is a disgusting sight: did I ever fetch your slippers? I think a good deal more of you for throwing them in my face. No use slaving for me and then saying you want to be cared for: who cares for a slave?” (Shaw). This is, for all intents and purposes, the turning point of the play. Eliza realizes at this point-- although she does not express it until later-- that Higgins has no real affection for her, and that she is only his pet project. However, she is faced with a painful conundrum. She must choose whether to go back to her old life in the slums or to continue to chase her upward mobility. She laments that Higgins did not leave her in the gutter where she came from, because once he made a lady of her, she was no longer fit for the slums, but now had to latch on to the chains and trappings of upper-class society to survive.
Although she leaves Higgins at the end of the the play, she is not necessarily free from the gilded cage that Higgins enclosed her in. She is free from the hold that Higgins had over her, indeed-- but she is still enclosed by all the restrictions and societal norms that he forced upon her. She laments the pain and difficulty of her upward mobility, saying: “I sold flowers. I didn't sell myself. Now you've made a lady of me I'm not fit to sell anything else” (Shaw). Although Eliza gains her voice in the play-- a very significant symbol of her relative freedom-- she gains her voice at the cost of her ignorant freedom that she had at the beginning of the play.
Higgins is a complex character, and many critics believe that he is fond of Eliza in his own way; however, there is no doubting that Higgins saw Eliza as a project throughout the majority of the play. The only thing that made him realize her true value was her final, ultimate act of leaving him at the end of the play.
Shaw, George Bernard. Pygmalion. Waiheke Island: Floating Press, 2008. Print.