Social Distinction in the novel Pygmalion

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As the world evolves around us; one of the things that stay the same is the way that people criticize others for their social class. Social class is also based on the way you talk and how one projects oneself towards others. In George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion, class distinction is seen through means of one's social status in the society of that time. Also, one's speech and accent can place him in upper class, middle class, or lower class. Aside from that, Shaw also shows the different ways the two classes, upper and lower, run their lives. Pygmalion reflects the apparent class distinction in the society in which it was written.

Pygmalion illustrates the difference and tension between the upper and lower class. A basic belief of the period was that a person is born into a class and that no one can move from one class to another. Shaw, on the contrary, believed that personality isn't defined by birth. Instead, he thought that you can achieve social change if you really believe in yourself. As to the play, the barriers between classes aren't natural and can be broken down.

Pygmalion was a Greek sculptor who fell in love with Galatea. The twist is that Galatea was one of his sculptures. Starting with a flawless piece of ivory Pygmalion sculpted a woman, and fell in love with her. He prayed to Aphrodite for a woman as perfect as his sculpture; upon seeing the sculpture Aphrodite found that it was in her image, and so brought Galatea to life.

George Bernard Shaw's version of the tale, told in the play
Pygmalion, doesn't start with a piece of marble. Rather it starts with a woman and, while she is bathed and provided with new clothing, this isn't a story about sculpting her body; rather this is a play about sculpting the human presence.

An extremely important characteristic of this play is that it was written in London, 1912. What makes this so important is that 1912 London was a hodgepodge of dialects where social status was closely linked to where you sounded like you came from. Interestingly, though, Shaw sets the play in "Present" rather than specifying 1912, which is when most productions are set.

Importance of the Act 1

The interchange between language and social class can be symbolized through Shaw’s characters. The author uses different characters to portray different aspects of class divisions, which are depicted in the very first act. England’s social class, as a major theme, was clarified greatly through the art of speech. Throughout most of civilization, people have been divided in classes. There is the rich and powerful, the middle class who are less powerful but nonetheless respected, and the incapable poor. The author cleverly bestows his characters’ their own identity, by giving each a language and speech that suits their bubble of reality: their own social class. Shaw depicts members of all social classes, the lowest being Liza, known for her London’s working class cockney accent. Furthermore, the middle class (Doolittle after his inheritance) to the genteel poor (the Eynsford Hills) to the upper class (Pickering and the Higgins’ family). Those who were classified in the upper class, where known for their proper articulation for the English language. Even though the articulation was proper, it did not need to reach perfection. The author reflects this through Mr. Higgins, who was rich and well articulated, but his manners when speaking where not genteel.

The book is based on a girl whose social class is a low one and she is taken in by a scientist in phonetics. She is determined to make a better lady come out of her and her determination will prevail over everyone’s surprise. Her social status grows along as she starts to talk more proper and her clothes evolve from rags to dresses. She has a task of making other people feel like she belongs somewhere where she is a stranger and a new person. She has to learn basic things as how to speak and how to use the proper words, and make her stop using her slang.
The first example that indicates the social class in Pygmalion is in the beginning of the book, when Eliza is showed a girl selling flowers and is prevailed as a flower girl. At that time Eliza is seen as a girl in a low class and doesn’t have proper manners. When Mr. Higgins find Eliza he figures out where she comes from and her ancestory, Mr. Higgins is seen as a person who is in a very high social class mainly on his vocabulary and how he approaches Eliza in the street. Mr. Higgins is interested in Eliza mainly in the fact that he sees in her vocabulary a lot of different background and he figures out where she comes from.  Eliza is also amazed but at the same time she tries to avoid his questions by making the remark “He’s no gentleman, he aint, to interfere with a poor girl”.

Places mentioned in Pygmalion

Besides introducing the major characters of the play, this act introduces socioeconomic class as a central theme of Pygmalion. As a socialist, Shaw was particularly concerned with exploring and exposing the power divide between the poor and the rich. By setting the play in London, Shaw chooses to deal with a society that is particularly stratified. British class-consciousness is based not only on economic power, as it is in many other societies, but also on history (historic class differences). The play highlights British people's recognition of accents to differentiate among themselves not only geographically (a Welsh accent is distinct from a Scottish accent, which is distinct from a Surrey accent), but also to distinguish (on another but related dimension of accents) the various social classes.

Higgins's ability to pinpoint the location of origin of members of the crowd means not only that he can tell what part of England, or even what neighborhood of London, they are from, but also that he can probably guess fairly easily their socioeconomic status. In the early twentieth century, social mobility in Britain was slim to none, so the fact that Pickering's accent is audibly a Cambridge one (tying him to a very upper-class university) means that he is upper-class and likely to remain so. Conversely, Liza was born in Lisson Grove and, correspondingly, grew up speaking with what was considered a terrible accent. She is thus likely to remain poor not only because her family was poor, but also because everyone else can tell that she had a poor upbringing from the way that she speaks.

Attitude towards the opposite class

In Pygmalion, we observe a society divided, separated by language, education, and wealth. Shaw gives us a chance to see how that gap can be bridged, both successfully and unsuccessfully. As he portrays it, London society cannot simply be defined by two terms, "rich" and "poor." Within each group there are smaller less obvious distinctions, and it is in the middle, in that gray area between wealth and poverty that many of the most difficult questions arise and from which the most surprising truths emerge.

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Eliza and Alfred Doolittle, originally living in bad conditions, represent the working class. What happens to Eliza and her father expresses Shaw’s belief that people are able to improve their lives through their own efforts, but they have to consider that their character might change as well. Thus it doesn't seem astonishing that the difference between a lady and a flower girl lies rather in her treatment than in her behaviour. Another example of the change that Eliza is going to have a change is the fact that at the beginning of the play she gets paid for the ...

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