Table of Contents | Message Board | Downloadable/Printable Version
SCENE SUMMARY AND NOTES
Act Four is the most climatic of all acts as it is when Eliza has a realization of her worth as well as a sense of who she is and where her destiny lies. Eliza, Colonel Pickering and Higgins have been out to a fashionable ball where Eliza has been a triumphant success. She has been passed off as a lady to such an extent that many of the people at the ball laughed in Higgins' face when he told them the truth about Eliza's origins. While the two men begin talking, Eliza sits alone. The men are tired and talk about how exacting the whole affair has been and are glad that now the tomfoolery is over. All this time, Eliza sits miserably and absolutely silent. The insensitive remarks of the men shock her. She has gone through a lot during the last six months. While it has been hard work for Higgins it has been much harder for Eliza herself. Both the men do not realize that the credit for the success of their experiment belongs as much to Eliza as it does to them.
It is at this moment that the Cinderella fairy tale is over. It is the hour of midnight, a time for encountering the reality of the situation. Higgins trivializes Eliza's strenuous efforts and takes most of the credit for edifying her. This hurts her, as she has invested as much as they have in her edification. In the midst of this sudden deflation, Eliza awakens to the falsity of her Cinderella fantasies. A lesser dramatist would have hastily concluded the play after the triumphant test scene but delves deeper and confronts the reader with the problem of Eliza's dissatisfaction and unhappiness about being made a lady. He is more interested in what happens to the work of art after the creation of it has been presented to the public.
Eliza's awakening to social reality is expressed in her heartfelt cry of despair, "What's to become of me?" For the first time she becomes aware of her loneliness and isolation as well as her inability to be a proper lady because she lacks the financial resources to be fully independent yet she cannot continue to live with Higgins. Mrs. Pearce and Mrs. Higgins had earlier foreseen the problem of her future. Higgins' mother had in fact warned him about the disadvantages of imparting to Eliza "the manners and habits that disqualify a fine lady from earning her own living without giving her a fine lady's income." Eliza's education has made her dissatisfied with her old way of life as a flower girl, but she is also not pleased by the prospects available to her as a lady. She has grown-up and goes through an agonizing night of soul searching. She becomes aware for the first time of her predicament, of the impossibly wide gulf between her ambitious desires and her means of fulfilling them. She realizes that Higgins does not care for her. She is merely an experiment to him.
Emotionally drained and enraged she throws Higgins' slippers at his face. Shaw here manipulates the Cinderella fairy-tale to fit his own artistic ends. In the fairytale the slipper lost by Cinderella was the means which led to her marriage and a happy ending. Here it is the prince (Higgins) who loses his slippers because he is so used to having someone (Eliza) bring them to him. For Eliza the slippers denote a life of subordination. By throwing the slippers at Higgins, Eliza declares her independence from such a life. She rejects the Cinderella part allotted to her. She can no longer live in Higgins' doll-house and act like a dog as she has done while being educated into a fine lady. Part of being a lady in fact is learning how to be submissive but Eliza defies this behavior by acting with impudence as she has done in the past.
Higgins displays an inability of understanding Eliza's predicament. His insensitivity has dehumanized Eliza as an object in his experiment. He has disregarded the humanity of Eliza. He is obtuse to the fact that Eliza's valiant efforts to learn the correct pronunciation have not merely been made to fulfill her desire to elevate herself in society. Instead she has devoutly undergone all these troubles for the sake of her two masters. When Higgins and the Colonel fail to admire her great achievement, she unleashes all her thwarted feeling in a fit of rage. In order to make Higgins take notice of her as a human being she goads him into a fury as well.
Eliza's dramatic encounter with Higgins is characterized by tremendous energy and spit fire rejoinders. Eliza has total control of the scene and displays a unique clarity of perspective. Higgins has been so involved with his experiment that the thought of Eliza's future has never crossed his mind. Even when Eliza points it out to him now he does not take the matter seriously. When Higgins suggests that she could marry a wealthy husband, Eliza scornfully observes that she was above selling herself when she was a flower girl but now that she has been made a lady she isn't fit to sell anything else. The social acquisitions obtained by Eliza are inadequate for fulfilling her aspirations. In fact they even disqualify her from earning a living. Eliza herself sees her predicament and thereby affirms her maturity. She is disgusted by the only avenue open to her - of hooking a wealthy husband to sustain her lifestyle as a lady - since it would amount to prostituting herself. At the end of this act, Eliza manages to break Higgins' self control, that is, she manages to make him lose his temper.
After the conclusion of Act Four the action enters a period of restive calm. Eliza leaves Wimpole Street signifying her break with the past. The only issue left is the resolution of the Higgins - Eliza relationship.