Pygmalion – Themes
Appearances and Reality
Pygmalion examines this theme primarily through the character of Liza, and the issue of personal identity (as perceived by oneself or by others). Social roles in the Victorian era were viewed as natural and largely fixed: there was perceived to be something inherently, fundamentally unique about a noble versus an unskilled laborer and vice versa. Liza’s ability to fool society about her “real” identity raises questions about appearances. The importance of appearance and reality to the theme of Pygmalion is suggested by Liza’s famous observation: “You see, really and truly, apart from the things anyone can pick up (the dressing and the proper way of speaking, and so on), the difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves, but how she’s treated.”
In Pygmalion, Shaw interrogates beauty as a subjective value. One’s perception of beauty in another person is shown to be a highly complex matter, dependent on a large number of (not always aesthetic) factors. Liza, it could be argued, is the same person from the beginning of the play to the end, but while she is virtually invisible to Freddy as a Cockney-speaking flower merchant, he is totally captivated by what he perceives as her beauty and grace when she is presented to him as a lady of society.
Change and Transformation
The transformation of Liza is, of course, central to the plot and theme of Pygmalion. The importance at first appears to rest in the power Higgins expresses by achieving this transformation. “But you have no idea,” he says, “how frightfully interesting it is to take a human being and change her into a quite different human being by creating a new speech for her. It’s filling up the deepest gulf that separates class from class and soul from soul.” As the play unfolds, however, the focus shifts so that the effects of the change upon Liza become central. The truly important transformation Liza goes through is not the adoption of...
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