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SCENE SUMMARY AND NOTES
Act Two provides a further exposition of the characters and situation. Eliza arrives in a cab, which parallels Cinderella's golden coach, wearing an ostrich feather hat and a shabby coat. It is obvious that her conception of gentility is based on surface appearances such as clothing, wealth and diction. She haughtily demands that Higgins teach her to speak properly so that she can become a lady who works in a flower shop. While this points out her desire to move up the social scale, at this stage Eliza only craves the financial security and social respectability that would accompany her ability to speak with the right accent. She is unaware that this is but a small step in her larger quest for self- awareness.
It is interesting to observe that in this act Eliza is perceived in various ways by the other characters. To Higgins she is only a "guttersnipe", an object fit to be thrown "in the dustbin" and useful only as a phonetic experiment. This detached objectification of Eliza reduces her humanity. Higgins does not think she has any feelings to bother about and dehumanizes her as an experiment. Moreover he treats her like a child who must be forced to bathe and can be tempted by chocolates. To Colonel Pickering, on the other, hand, Eliza is a young girl albeit a naïve poor young girl and he grants her the due courtesy with which he would have treated any other woman. He is concerned about what will happen to her and whether or not Higgins will exploit her sexually. His concerns are more gentlemanly. Eliza herself thinks that she is a virtuous woman who is being cunningly seduced by the gentlemen and comically asserts, "I'm a good girl, I am." Mrs. Pearce, Higgins' housekeeper, sees Eliza only as a poor common girl. At first, she treats her as being beneath her but eventually she warms up to the poor girl and becomes concerned about what Higgins will do to her. She does not dehumanize Eliza and in fact becomes protective of her. To her father, Eliza is simply an unexpectedly lucky opportunity to extract some money for his drinking sprees. These differing perspectives about the same individual contribute to the complexity of Eliza's characterization.
To ascend to a higher plane of self-awareness Eliza has to undergo a purgation of both body and soul. Soon enough she is reduced from haughtiness to a chaotic state of helplessness. It is essential that she be purged of her childish pretensions and Cinderella-like fantasies. She is bullied by Higgins who unleashes a torrent of invectives at her. Eliza is incapable of understanding the situation and thinks she is being seduced by the gentlemen. There is an undercurrent of melodramatic sentimental fiction here. Like Richardson's Pamela who defends her virtue from the villainous Squire B., Eliza thinks that she is in grave danger and asserts the sacredness of her character by remarking, "I'm a good girl, I am." She is well acquainted with the ways of the world and tells Higgins, "I've heard of girls being drugged by the like of you" and refuses to eat the chocolate he offers her. This melodramatic sentiment resurfaces with the entry of Alfred Doolittle and contributes to the comic effect of the play. Shaw is subtly mocking the simplified interpretation that most naturally occurs in a melodrama. Furthermore, he shows how this interpretation is totally at odds with the reality of the situation. Alfred Doolittle does not want to save his daughter's virtue but is looking for a way to extort money out of Higgins so he can go off and get drunk. Also, although Eliza is being objectified, it is not sexually, but as a scientist would use animals to test his theories. Eliza is seen as the raw material for an intellectual exercise.
While Eliza is only capable of analyzing her situation as a vile seduction scheme, Higgins is also guilty of oversimplification. He robs Eliza of her humanity by objectifying her as a "draggletailed guttersnipe," "baggage" and an object fit to be thrown "back into the gutter" once the experiment is over. He does not think that Eliza could be hurt by his insensitive remarks. Higgins' insensitivity is thrown into greater prominence by Colonel Pickering's courteous behavior towards Eliza. The Colonel considerately offers Eliza a chair to sit down and addresses her as Miss Doolittle. For Higgins, Eliza is simply a stepping stone to proving his wager with Pickering. Thus he cannot share Mrs. Pearce's concern about Eliza's future. She cautions that he cannot take a girl as if he were picking up a pebble on the beach. Mrs. Pearce shows greater foresight than Higgins and tells him, "I want to know on what terms the girl is to be here. Is she to have any wages? And what is to become of her when you've finished your teaching? You must look ahead a little." For Higgins a human being is simply the raw material out of which something more sophisticated can be fashioned. Indeed Mrs. Pearce's question is a practical enough one that becomes a major point of revolt for Eliza against her 'creator.' It is also a query that Higgins' own mother puts to him.
However, one cannot condemn Higgins' behavior towards Eliza as unkind. It is only unfeeling. Mrs. Pearce understands Higgins' insensitivity very well and tells him, "Of course I know you don't mean her any harm, but when you get...interested in people's accents, you never think or care what may happen to them or you." In fact, Mrs. Pearce plays the important role of commenting and describing Higgins' conduct and attitude throughout the play. Through her observations, the audience is made aware that Higgins acts the way he does with everyone not just Eliza, a point he will bring up in the last act of the play. He is inconsiderate of other's, rude, and petulant at times although he also has a great sense of humor.
The Pygmalion myth is set in action in this act. Here Higgins is to 'shape up' Eliza's pronunciation and grammar and he does a good job of it as will be seen in the next act. However, the topic that she chooses to discuss is characteristically low in taste. Eliza can be viewed as raw material that her 'creator' or sculptor will carve and create something. In this manner, he will shape her up into the mold of a duchess. Therefore the idea of 'Pygmalion' is brought in more specifically in this particular act.
There are elements of the medieval morality play in the episode where Higgins persuades Eliza to submit to his experiment. Higgins assumes the diabolic role of Satan who tempts Eliza by dangling many pleasing prospects before her. He offers her the lure of worldly comforts, wealth and social prestige. Eliza, the tempted, is guilty of the cardinal sins of overweening ambition and curiosity. The satanic Higgins lures Eliza with the offer of unlimited "chocolates, and taxis, and gold, and diamonds." However Eliza does not wish to have gold and diamonds as she equates having these luxuries with being immoral. Higgins, "No: I don't want no gold and no diamonds. I'm a good girl, I am." Higgins tempts her by appealing to her Cinderella fantasies and predicts, "You shall marry an officer in the Guards, with a beautiful moustache: the son of a marquis, who will disinherit him for marrying you, but will relent when he sees your beauty and goodness". He also threatens her with Cinderella's fate and tells her, "If you're naughty and idle you will sleep in the back kitchen among the black beetles, and be walloped by Mrs. Pearce with a broomstick."
Soon Higgins realizes that his earlier appeals to romance and worldly grandeur have not had much impact on Eliza. "At the end of six months, you shall go to Buckingham Palace in a carriage, beautifully dressed." This proves to be quite overwhelming for Eliza who takes his words literally and objects to being beheaded when she never asked to go to Buckingham Palace in the first place. However Higgins' realistic offer of seven-and-sixpence to start life with as a lady in a shop appeals to her and she sells her soul to the devil whom is also ironically her fairy godfather.
The sentimental melodramatic element re-enters the act with the arrival of Alfred Doolittle in the role of a virtuous father. But the audience soon realizes that his chief intention is to blackmail the two men who have taken up Eliza. He is shocked when Higgins bullies him out of this scheme and changes his tone to become a reprehensible pimp. He tells Higgins, "If you want the girl, I'm not so set on having her back home again but that I might be open to an arrangement." But Higgins does not show any interest in Doolittle's hideous proposition of selling his daughter for a mere sum of five pounds. Doolittle is not a man to accept defeat and philosophically proclaims himself a member of the 'undeserving poor.' He complains that middle class morality is "an excuse for never giving (him) anything" and robbing him of his natural right to happiness. He persuades Higgins and the Colonel by the smooth eloquence of his philosophical oratory to part with five pounds so that he can go and enjoy himself in a bar and get drunk. However, when Higgins offers him ten pounds, Doolittle refuses to accept it because ten pounds is too large a sum of money and would make him think about the waste. Through Doolittle, Shaw attacks the middle class morality that advocated the virtues of prudence and thrift and its attendant sanctimoniousness in behavior. In Shaw's purview, the idea of social conduct is replaced by the notion of social morality.
Shaw subtly infuses social satire into the act. Thus he conveys his social message obliquely and casually. The audience is continuously made aware of the plight of the poor. For instance, when Mrs. Pearce mentions that Eliza might be married, Higgins sarcastically replies, "Don't you know that a woman of that class looks a worn out drudge of fifty a year after she's married?" Again at the end of the act, Eliza is shown to be amazed by the amenities of the bathroom and remarks, "Now I know why ladies is so clean. Washing's a treat for them." But Shaw makes his most bitter attack through Doolittle who unabashedly tells the Colonel that morality is the luxury of the upper class in society. It is interesting to note the differing attitudes of Doolittle and his daughter. While Doolittle is complacent to be part of the 'undeserving poor' and rejects the hypocrisy of middle class morality, Eliza wants to escape it her class and to become a member of the middle class. In fact this is exactly the reason she has come to Higgins.
Act Two reverberates with echoes of the morality play, an undermining of sentimental melodrama, the Greek Pygmalion legend as well as the Cinderella fairytale. All these elements coexist simultaneously and are often at odds with each other. This renders a complexity of texture to the act.