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Henry Higgins, a professor of phonetics, is the protagonist of the play. He represents the legendary character Pygmalion who transforms a piece of marble into a beautiful woman who then comes to life. In this version, Higgins transforms an uncouth flower girl, Eliza Doolittle, into a genteel lady by teaching her how to speak correctly. While this whole exercise is nothing more than an experiment for him, he is amazed to discover that his creation has fallen in love with him. He cannot handle this kind of emotional commitment, as his aim was merely to reform the human race and not have people at a disadvantage simply because of the way they speak.
Eliza is the antagonist as she rebels against Higgins by becoming independent-minded after he has finished experimenting with her. Her accusations that he has used and disposed of her in the last act reveals Higgins for what he is, a coldhearted and emotionally vacant man who puts all his energies into his career. In the final act, Eliza insists that it was the Colonel's unfailing gentility and kindness and not Higgins' efforts that have truly transformed her into a lady. In fact in the confrontation between Higgins and Eliza in Act V, Eliza has become superior to Higgins in many ways.
Act IV constitutes the climax of the play. Eliza, Higgins and Colonel Pickering have been to a fashionable ball at an embassy in London. Eliza has played her part perfectly and has passed as a lady and thereby won Higgins' bet for him. While Higgins and the Colonel begin talking, Eliza listens in miserable silence. The men are glad that the tiresome affair is over at last. "Thank God it's all over," says Higgins without realizing that he is hurting Eliza by such remarks. There is a confrontation between Higgins and Eliza when she throws his slippers at his face in a fit of rage. She realizes that she has been made a lady and is fit for nothing else. Higgins, amazed to see his creation come to life, loses his temper.
The play ends on an uncertain note. Whether or not Eliza will marry Higgins is left ambiguous. However Shaw does provide a resolution in the epilogue in which he lists the reasons against such a union. Instead Eliza marries Freddy Hill and the two end up running a fashionable green grocer shop. It was typical of Shaw who loved paradox to have provided such an anti-romantic conclusion to the play. The majority of the critics accuse Shaw of deliberately twisting the natural end of Pygmalion merely to make the play unromantic. However, critics who eagerly attribute this anti-romantic ending to Shaw's perversity or to his supposed oedipal attraction towards his mother would do well to remember that the actual point of the ending is not the issue of Eliza's marriage but her gaining independence. Throughout the play Higgins boasts of having transformed a Cockney flower girl into a duchess but after Eliza's climactic assertion of independence he remarks, "I said I'd make a woman of you; and I have." In this light the original ambiguous ending seems preferable to the concrete resolution provided in the epilogue.