Bourgeois Flowergirl, Worker Professor? A Look at Shaw's Pygmalion from a Marxist Perspective

Journal of A Changing Artwork (I)

George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, with its motifs of class consciousness and ideological domination, all but begs to be read from a Marxist point of view. Higgins, the bullying, cussing professor who terrorizes Eliza with his disregard for her humanity, is whom Marx would identify as the quintessential bourgeois.

Affirmed in his position as an educated upper-middle class man, he not only uses Eliza for the purposes of winning a bet as proof of his skills as a linguist, but he also imposes his middle-class culture on her. Eliza, the flower-girl, is on the other hand representative of the working class, continually oppressed and exploited by the belligerent bourgeois that is Henry Higgins. However, a closer reading reveals that it is perhaps Eliza who is exploiting Higgins, instead of vice versa; she is, after all, the one who is ‘employing’ the services of Higgins, and thus in the position of the ‘oppressor’. The purpose of this journal is thus twofold: firstly, I will examine how Higgins, as the wealthier character, conforms to the Marxist definition of the bourgeois oppressor with the imposition of his culture onto Eliza’s; secondly, I will reverse this reading and point out how it is Eliza instead, despite her position of the humble flower-girl, who is in fact the ‘oppressor’ in the Higgins-Eliza relationship.

The character of Higgins, it can be said, fits the Marxist stereotype of the greedy, manipulative bourgeois who exploits the working class in order to fulfill his own ends. In the play, Higgins readily ‘picks up’ Eliza and agrees to “make a duchess out of this draggletailed guttersnipe” (Shaw, 20) in order to meet his bet with Pickering, who wagers that Higgins pass Eliza off as a person of high pedigree at an ambassador’s garden party. Indeed, the two of them are talking about Eliza here as if she were merely an animal, or a commodity, that could be bet on, like a horse at the races or a cockerel at a cock-fight. Furthermore, Higgins goes so far as to pay Alfred Doolittle, Eliza’s father, for his use of Eliza; this illustrates how for Higgins, Eliza is merely a commodity with ‘exchange value’. Higgins’ lack of foresight regarding Eliza’s future after the bet is over also reflects how the Higgins-Eliza relationship is similar to that of bourgeois and worker; when asked by Mrs. Pearce about Eliza’s future, he merely says, “Well when I’ve done with her, we can throw her back into the gutter; and then it will be her own business again.” (Shaw, 23) Higgins’ nonchalant attitude regarding Eliza’s future is similar to how a bourgeois is interested in a worker only to the extent that he can use the worker for his ends; what happens to the worker at the end of the work day is of no concern to the bourgeois. For Higgins, what happens to Eliza after Higgins has won his bet is of no concern to him. Thus because he regards Eliza only as either a commodity or a worker only to be used to fulfill his designs, Higgins is a classic example of Marx’s heartless, avaricious bourgeois.

Higgins can also be said to fulfill the role of the bourgeois oppressor through the imposition of his upper-middle class customs on Eliza. For instance, he commands Eliza to wipe her nose with a handkerchief instead of using her sleeve; wiping one’s nose on a sleeve is completely unacceptable behavior according to his standards. Here, Higgins is imposing his middle-class values on Eliza, and because he is in the dominant position in terms of wealth, Eliza has no choice but to accede – her action of wiping her nose on her sleeve is wrong simply because she is the poorer one, obliged to submit on account of her indigence. Similarly, Eliza’s cockney accent is considered wrong, improper, even base; as Higgins declares vehemently, “A woman who utters such depressing and disgusting sounds has no right to be anywhere – no right to live.” (Shaw, 11) The correct way of speaking, of course, is according to how Higgins or Pickering speaks, according to how the wealthier class speaks; even Eliza realizes this, as she comes to Higgins looking for lessons on how to “talk more genteel.” (Shaw, 18)

Eliza’s willing submission to Higgins’ domination over her behavior and speech can be explained with Gramsci’s theory of hegemony, which states that:

“the “spontaneous” consent given by the great masses of the population to the general direction imposed on social life by the dominant fundamental group…is caused by the prestige (and consequent confidence) which the dominant group enjoys because of its position and function in the world of production.” (Rivkin and Ryan, 673)

Eliza thus accedes to Higgins’ dictums on her comportment and manner of speech simply because Higgins is of “the dominant fundamental group” – in other words, Marx’s bourgeois. However, it is also interesting to note that the character of Eliza, in a way, also fulfills the role of the bourgeois in the sense that it is she who is using Higgins as a commodity, as a worker; after all, she comes to Higgins in the hopes of enlisting his services. Although Eliza cannot pretend to have the material wealth of the bourgeois, she is nonetheless utilizing Higgins’ labor for her own ends – she wants to learn to speak better so she can work as a lady in a florist’s shop instead of selling flowers by the curb. As such, she seeks out Higgins, as it is his expertise as a phonetician which can aid her in achieving that aim. In this sense, Eliza can be viewed as the dominating bourgeois instead of the oppressed worker.

The idea that Eliza fulfills the role of the bourgeois ‘slave-driver’ is further emphasized with the inclusion of a particular song in the 1964 musical adaptation of Shaw’s play, My Fair Lady. In order to illustrate Higgins’ arduous travail of converting Eliza into a duchess, Alan Jay Lerner, writer and composer of the movie’s screenplay, incorporates a song sung by the servants of Higgins’ household upon witnessing the seemingly impossible task of correcting Eliza’s pronunciation:

“Poor Professor Higgins!
Poor Professor Higgins!
Night and day
He slaves away!
Oh, poor Professor Higgins!
All day long
On his feet;
Up and down until he’s numb;
Doesn’t rest;
Doesn’t eat;
Doesn’t touch a crumb!” (Lerner)

The lyrics of this song (ironically sung by servants) indicate how it seems as if Eliza is the cruel, brutal, dominating half in the Higgins-Eliza relationship who drives Higgins to work unceasingly in order to achieve her goal of speaking like a lady. Higgins can therefore be seen as the commodity in this instance, whose ‘exchange value’ as a professor of phonetics Eliza “purchases” with a shilling. Six months of intensive labor as a teacher for a shilling! – it indeed seems as if Eliza were the heartless, avaricious bourgeois sparing little concern for the wellbeing of the professor, her ‘hired help’. Furthermore, Eliza’s sudden departure from Higgins’ household, and her subsequent cast-off of him from her life, can also be interpreted as the bourgeois disposing remorselessly of her worker after having sufficiently used him for her ends. Seen in this light, the tables are thus turned in the dynamics of the Higgins-Eliza relationship; despite her literal lack of wealth, the role Eliza plays in the Higgins-Eliza relationship puts her in the position of the bourgeois, and Higgins in that of the worker.

From the above, it is thus evident that not only can Shaw’s Pygmalion be read according to a Marxist perspective, but that it can be read in a twofold manner – the characters of Higgins and Eliza can both fulfill the roles of bourgeois and worker, oppressor and oppressed. Although Higgins’ literal wealth makes him the obvious dominating force in the Higgins-Eliza relationship, Eliza’s character can also be interpreted to possess power in the sense that she uses Higgins just as much as he uses her. Nonetheless, it can be said that, for all of Eliza’s semblance of power, it is Higgins and his upper-middle class values who win in the end; Eliza, after all, wishes to “move up” the social ladder and convert to middle-class mannerisms, whereas Higgins would not in a million years abase his English with cockney.

Works Cited:

Lerner, Alan Jay. My Fair Lady. New York: Signet Classics, 1980. Print.

Rivkin, Julie and Michael Ryan. (eds.) Literary theory: an anthology. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub., 2004. Print.

Shaw, George Bernard. Pygmalion. New York: Signet Classics, 1980. Print.

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