Book Review: Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw

Year of First Publication: 1912

Year of Publication for This Edition: 2009

Number of Pages: N/A

Publisher: Project Gutenberg

Genre: Drama, Comedy


We kick off this year’s Reading Ireland Month with one of the great classics of Irish drama. First performed in 1913, Pygmalion is the story of Professor Henry Higgins, an arrogant (though occasionally amusing) phonetician who bets a colleague that he can teach Eliza Doolittle, the so-called “draggletailed guttersnipe” who sells flowers for a living, to speak so well that she can pass for a duchess.

“The divine gift of articulate speech”

Of course, this play is wonderful for anyone who loves language because the entire thing is about language. And not just language in itself, but language as a force for good in people’s lives. Here’s a girl who learns how to communicate well, and once she does that, her world opens up in more ways than one. Sure, she can fool people into thinking she’s a duchess, but she can also stand her ground when Professor Higgins starts trying to run her life. She has the confidence to go out and start the business she always wanted. She realizes, I think, that with language comes power: because she had the power to persuade and to be understood, she gained a self-assurance she might not have had otherwise. As a person for whom language is one of the most important things in the world, I like stories like this that remind me of how wonderful it is.

Epilogues, Romance, and Shaw

Who else but Shaw can call his readers idiots and get away with it?
Who else but Shaw can call his readers idiots and get away with it?

Because I was too impatient to go out and buy the thing, I read Project Gutenberg’s ebook of it, a digitized form of an edition from 1916. I don’t know how other editions of the play are formatted, but in this one, Shaw begins with a long dedication to the grammarians and phoneticians whose work influenced Pygmalion, then ends with an even longer note (he calls it a “Sequel”) explaining what happened to all of the characters after the play ended. I found that interesting, since I’m one of those people who likes to know what happened on the other side of Happily Ever After. However, Shaw makes it clear that his reason for writing this epilogue is not merely to satisfy his readers’ curiosity, but to explain all of the reasons why Eliza and Professor Higgins couldn’t have ended up a couple. Almost since the play premiered, directors, actors, and audiences have insisted, despite Shaw’s protests, that Eliza must marry Professor Higgins. Hoping at last to put all of that speculation to rest, Shaw added this piece to the printed play in 1916. Not only does he explain how the rest of the story plays out in his head, he also gets in a dig at his audience, whom he accuses of maintaining a “lazy dependence on the ready-makes and reach-me-downs of the ragshop in which Romance keeps its stock of ‘happy endings’ to misfit all stories.” Nice.

Shaw’s imperiousness aside, I appreciated his depiction of friendships like the ones Eliza had with Colonel Pickering and Professor Higgins. Last year when I reviewed James Joyce’s Dubliners, I made the comment that Joyce’s work stands out to me because he refuses to believe that all stories need fast-paced action and lots of plot twists: in a similar way, Pygmalion stands out, in part, because Shaw refuses to believe that women in fiction exist solely to furnish the hero with a love interest. He also refuses to buy into what’s become one of the main tenets of modern-day storytelling, that a story is only as good as its romantic subplot. (Not that I don’t love a good romantic ending too, but who says a story needs romance to be entertaining?)

So, that’s one “Begorrathon” book down. Stay tuned next week for a review of the debut book of my current favorite Irish author.

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8 thoughts on “Book Review: Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw

  1. I’m one of the few (or so it feels) who doesn’t like Eliza ending up with Henry Higgins at the end of My Fair Lady because I don’t think they will be at all happy together, and so when I read Pygmalian, I was so excited that she marries Freddy in it instead!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Right? I like Professor Higgins well enough as a character, but I don’t know why any one would want to marry him. (Especially in Pygmalion, where he never seems even to consider changing his ways.)

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  2. I have never read Shaw, but let me tell you this sounds very intersting. As an author, I do believe words have power, and your words actually talked me into reading this play 😉
    I’ll probably download the Project Guthemberg version, because I’m very interested in the ‘sequel’ as well. Shaw’s position with regards to women in fiction sounds cutting adge, especially for his time.

    I’ve just read a mystery novel which is based on this play and I wonder whether it is based on the ‘sequal’ as well, since in the novel Eliza does have a business and a fiance, and is only friends with Pickering and Higgings.
    You may want to check it out, it’s the Eliza Doolittle’s series by D.E. Ireland.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Glad to hear I could talk you into it! This was actually my first time reading Shaw, but I’m definitely planning to read more of his work in the future.

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