Nataliya's Reviews > Pygmalion

Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw
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Aug 20, 2012

it was amazing
bookshelves: my-childhood-bookshelves, favorites, awesome-kickass-heroines, excellent-reads, plays, i-also-saw-the-film, 2012-reads, books-from-childhood-revisited
Read from August 17 to 18, 2012

"Eliza has no use for the foolish romantic tradition that all women love to be mastered, if not actually bullied and beaten,"¹ says G.B.Shaw in the afterword to his famous play.
¹By the way, I think this quote should be memorized and repeated on the daily basis by the contemporary authors, especially in the YA genre, who attempt to create female characters. Really. Maybe I can start a campaign encouraging authors' awareness of this quote. Hmmmm...
This was one of the first plays I've ever read, and to this day is one of my favorites. The combination of Shaw's wit and satire with creating an amazingly strong heroine was a treat to read! The play is brilliant, as witnessed by its continuing success - but it's the afterword from the author that ultimately made it into a five-star read. The afterword that takes this story and makes it wonderfully and firmly grounded in reality (even if it's a reality with somewhat outdated early 20th century reasoning).

The many faces of Eliza Doolittle.

Most people know this story, right? If not from reading the play then from seeing the classic Hollywood's production of My Fair Lady musical, right? The 1912 story of a simple London Cockney flower girl Eliza who learns how to speak like a proper British lady from a renown phoneticist (and, honestly, a rather miserable person) Henry Higgins. Both Higgins and Eliza have remarkably strong characters and no wonder that problems ensue (well, because of that and because of the fact that a well-mannered British woman in the early 20th century seemingly did not really have that many choices besides finding herself a man). According to the famous movie, sparks also fly between Eliza and Higgins. But do they, really? In the words of Shaw himself,
"Nevertheless, people in all directions have assumed, for no other reason than that she became the heroine of a romance, that she must have married the hero of it."
And that's where the Audrey Hepburn movie lost me. After all, haven't the movie makers read the famous afterword by Shaw himself (and I honestly think that it's just as interesting as the play itself!), where he painstakingly details the future lives of his characters and destroys every notion of the happily ever after for Eliza and Higgins - the ever-after that was already clearly doomed in the play itself:
"LIZA [desperate]: Oh, you are a cruel tyrant. I can't talk to you: you turn everything against me: I'm always in the wrong. But you know very well all the time that you're nothing but a bully. You know I can't go back to the gutter, as you call it, and that I have no real friends in the world but you and the Colonel. You know well I couldn't bear to live with a low common man after you two; and it's wicked and cruel of you to insult me by pretending I could. You think I must go back to Wimpole Street because I have nowhere else to go but father's. But don't you be too sure that you have me under your feet to be trampled on and talked down. I'll marry Freddy, I will, as soon as he's able to support me."
After all, it would not be in character for Eliza, who is not really a romantic character but a strong, pragmatic, and independent young woman who would not settle for a life of bringing Higgins his slippers (oh, that awful last line of the movie!!!) and being ignored; a woman who is not beyond a well-aimed slippers throw to the face:
"This being the state of human affairs, 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. Unless Freddy is biologically repulsive to her, and Higgins biologically attractive to a degree that overwhelms all her other instincts, she will, if she marries either of them, marry Freddy.
And that is just what Eliza did.
No, Eliza Doolittle is not a woman to be ignored. She is a strong, independent and level-headed heroine who has guts and self-worth even before her 'magical' lady-like transformation. She knows what she wants, and she determinedly sets out on the path that she thinks would lead her to her dream - working in a flower shop. She may be comical and pathetic in the beginning - but she knows she's not nothing (unlike the view of her that Henry Higgins has). She stands up for herself even when she is clearly in an unfavorable situation - a woman vs. a man, a social nothing vs. a respected gentleman, a physically weaker creature vs. a physically more intimidating one:
"I won't be called a baggage when I've offered to pay like any lady."

And from the afterword:

"Even had there been no mother-rival, she would still have refused to accept an interest in herself that was secondary to philosophic interests."

And her feeling of self-worth only increases as the horizons of the society open up more for her. She refuses to play second fiddle even to a powerful and intimidating Higgins. The thing is - Higgins, contrary to his belief, did not "create" Eliza, like the famous literary Pygmalion created his Galatea; he merely gave her more power to achieve what she wants. And what she wants does not include being ignored and fetching him his bloody slippers. He is a strong man - well, she is an equally strong woman who will have what's best for her. And even if in the end - the afterword - Eliza's independence is not complete and she continues to owe a lot to the duo of Higgins and Pickering - but again, somehow on her own terms.
"But to admire a strong person and to live under that strong person's thumb are two different things."
This was my first time reading this play in English, and reading it in the language it was intended to be read in highlighted even more the brilliance of Shaw as a playwright and the exquisite humor of it. Shaw skillfully deconstructs the notions of the British class system - and does it with easily felt pleasure and enjoyment, and continues to do so in the afterword, which I enjoyed so much. In the end, it's not about Eliza becoming a lady on Henry Higgins' terms; it's all about the shrewd future florist/greengrocer Eliza, and that's the awesomeness of it. It is an excellent read, a timeless one, thoroughly entertaining and thought-provoking. Easy 5 stars!
"Galatea never does quite like Pygmalion: his relation to her is too godlike to be altogether agreeable."
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Comments (showing 1-26 of 26) (26 new)

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message 1: by Sesana (new)

Sesana *wild applause* I hate the ending of the movie, and all the more so because it completely inverts Shaw's intention.

Nataliya Sesana wrote: "*wild applause* I hate the ending of the movie, and all the more so because it completely inverts Shaw's intention."

So happy to find a kindred soul here!

message 3: by Sesana (new)

Sesana I suspect that we're far from alone on this site, thank goodness!

Kaethe Oh, well done! I love the movie, but as a thing completely apart from the play, for the sets, the costumes, the songs. But you nailed it with the afterward, and how much it meant to me when I first read it.

Nataliya Thanks, Kaethe! I think I would have adored the movie had I seen it first, but I had very particular expectations for it based on what I loved about the play, and I was severely disappointed as a result. On the other hand, I see how the changes helped the commercial success of the movie.

Kaethe Meh. I think the musical could have ended with she and Freddy just fine.

Nataliya Kaethe wrote: "Meh. I think the musical could have ended with she and Freddy just fine."

It would be fine, but many people seem to be unable to stomach the idea that the hero and the heroine don't ultimately get together in the end. Shaw himself saw that: "Nevertheless, people in all directions have assumed, for no other reason than that she became the heroine of a romance, that she must have married the hero of it."

Lawyer Here! Here! Well done, indeed.

Nataliya Thanks, Skyla!
Playing Eliza in high school sounds like fun!

As for the ending of the movie - her coming back was framed in a way that at least to me implied romantic relationship (and, given the times, likely a marriage). Everyone who I talked to about this movie assumed Eliza and Higgins would get together.

Kaethe Nataliya, you and Shaw are right about people wanting Henry/Eliza, but it never seemed credible to me, probably just because I'd read the play and the afterword long before seeing the film.

message 11: by Chris (new)

Chris I have never been that fond of Shaw, but you make me want to read this.

I have to say the part I love about the movie is watching Sherlock Holmes sing.

message 12: by [deleted user] (last edited Aug 23, 2012 07:31AM) (new)

Excellent review! I had watched the movie many times before reading the play. I was so happily surprised by how the play ends, as opposed to Eliza crawling back to that bully Higgins. I was glad to know that Eliza wasn't just all talk and no spine! I was surprised to read somewhere that Shaw approved the play's more "romantic" ending. Didn't he work on, or at least approve of, the final version, that was then translated to the screen?

And, I loved seeing Jeremy Brett sing, too, Chris! TIme for a re-read of this one.

message 13: by Jane (new)

Jane Awesome! I too hate the end of the movie - I can't bear to think of Eliza spending her life toadying to Higgins. Freddy's a much better match; he may not be the brightest bulb on the string, but he adores Eliza and would let her do her own thing. There are worse husbands than the adoring kind.

Nataliya I fully agree with you, Jane. Eliza would not settle for being overlooked and bossed around. She has way too much self-worth for that. Plus, from the afterword, Freddy was eventually coached by Eliza to become a quite productive member of society, after all.

message 15: by Ceecee (new) - added it

Ceecee Another brilliant review. :) I enjoyed the movie, but was really confused by its ending. It didn't seem to match the over-all message they were sending, so I had to research what Shaw intended. I guess the movie had to appeal to its audience at the time, but it still ruined the story. More people should know the true ending...

Nataliya Chris wrote: "I have never been that fond of Shaw, but you make me want to read this."

I gotta say - out of quite a few plays by him that I've read, this one is by far my favorite! Of course, I'm yet to read "Major Barbara".

Jeannette wrote: "I was surprised to read somewhere that Shaw approved the play's more "romantic" ending. Didn't he work on, or at least approve of, the final version, that was then translated to the screen?."

I went to Wikidpedia (which occasionally can actually be credible!) and learned this: apparently Shaw did work on the script for 1938 movie adaptation of the play which had a happy ending:
"Against Shaw's wishes, a happy ending was added, with Eliza fleeing Higgins with Freddy but then returning to Higgins' home (though whether permanently or on her own terms is left deliberately ambiguous)."
So I guess he may not have been happy with that ending? It would make sense given the lengthy afterword that he felt compelled to write.
As for the musical and the movie My Fair Lady, Shaw was already dead by the time both of those were done.

message 17: by Jane (new)

Jane And spinning in his grave, no doubt.

Nataliya Jane wrote: "And spinning in his grave, no doubt."

Zombie Shaw???? You don't say...

message 19: by Jane (new)

Jane Eliza Doolittle, Zombie Hunter. Her principal weapon: the Flying Ninja Slippers of Extremely Permanent Death.

Nataliya Jane wrote: "Eliza Doolittle, Zombie Hunter. Her principal weapon: the Flying Ninja Slippers of Extremely Permanent Death."

I have a feeling we may see a book just about that in the near future. And I would be the first in line to read it!

message 21: by [deleted user] (new)

I've seen the 1938 movie, which I had expected to end differently (like the play) than "My Fair Lady", but it doesn't. I knew that Shaw had been involved, and I guess I remembered that he approved. (memory can be tricky)

I found a blog article about this topic:

What is clear is that Shaw had no intention of allowing Henry Higgins and Eliza Dolittle to finish Pygmalion or My Fair Lady as lovers. At the end of the play (and Shaw wrote several endings over the years trying to keep this as clear as possible), Eliza declares her independence from Higgins, and leaves him. What is equally as clear is that from the beginning, audiences have fought him over it.

message 22: by Jane (new)

Jane Nice find.

message 23: by Tracy (new)

Tracy This is a fabulous review. I read this when I was a teenager and really enjoyed it. I wrote a poem once about Pygmalion. I always thought he was a bit of an ass, but I did take a bit of poetic license with the story.

Perfection isn’t all it’s cracked up to be

Pygmalion carved her from ivory.
Perfect beauty,
And fell in love
He begged
To give her life
So he could love her in truth.

The goddess of love pitied him
Granted him his wish.
Appeared in the garden
So lovely that
Pygmalion wept
And married her.

They were happy until
Pygmalion grew bored
As she was a perfect
But an imperfect
Human being
He grew tired of
Her virginal blushing
And her
Obsession with her looks
She knew enough to know that
He didn’t love her for her brains.

Pygmalion ran about
Looking for other things to
And carve into statues
And Galatea
Remained at home…
In the garden
Where she had been born

It disturbed Aphrodite
All of that noise
Was interfering with her beauty sleep.
She had been exhausted since the Trojan War ended.
Ares was a demanding lover,
And he liked her well rested.

Aphrodite returned to the garden
And turned Galatea
Back to ivory
Which is hard
To make love to
But easy to worship.

Pygmalion learned not
To mess with

January 11, 2004.

Nataliya Jeannette, thanks for linking to that article! I loved it!

"In a moment I would have love to have watched, Shaw went back to the 100th performance of Pygmalion and was horrified to see that the producer/director, Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree, had “sweetened” the ending, something about Higgins tossing Eliza a bouquet from a window. He told Tree, “Your ending is damnable; you ought to be shot."

message 25: by [deleted user] (new)


Choko Great review!!!

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