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Shaw has often been criticized for his inability to create well- developed round characters. His characters are usually seen as mere puppets propelled by the crisis of the plot or as mouthpieces for his socialist viewpoint. However in Pygmalion,, Shaw vindicates himself of these charges by the creation of rounded and life-like characters such as Higgins and Eliza. Clearly they are not authorial stooges. They have a peculiar quality that leaves a lasting imprint on the reader's memory. But there is some truth in the charge that Shaw created a mouthpiece for his own ideas and the character of Alfred Doolittle is a case in point. While Doolittle is undoubtedly a staple comic character, he is an artificial and flat one. Doolittle is there for a purpose - he serves Shaw's didactic needs. As such he is in the Dickens' vein of exaggeration. Doolittle's character is drawn for the sole purpose of ridiculing the Victorian philosophy of the "undeserving poor." One cannot imagine such a character existing in real life. On the whole, however, Pygmalion is peopled with imaginative and lively characters. While Higgins and Eliza are excellent, even the minor characters are well drawn.
Higgins is an extremely interesting character and the life of the play. Although the play's obvious concern is the metamorphosis of a common flower girl into a duchess, the development of Higgins' character is also important. The play isn't only Eliza's story. One also detects changes in Higgins or to be more precise he appears to the reader in a new light at the end. This is seen when he tells Eliza that he has grown accustomed to seeing her face and hearing her voice. This is not much of a sensitive display of emotions but it is quite different than the savage invective he hurled at her at the beginning of the play in Covent Garden.
Higgins is portrayed as being highly educated. Apart from being a professor of phonetics, he has a deep reverence for literature and fancies himself as a poet. In all seriousness he thinks highly of "the treasures of (his) Mittonic mind." He is self-indulgent, whimsical, and ill mannered when it comes to interacting with other people.
Higgins is not a man given to extravagant aesthetic tastes. The walls in the Wimpole street laboratory are not adorned by paintings but by engravings. His passionate fondness for sweets and chocolates stands out in comic contrast to his seriousness and austere mode of living. Higgins' most prominent characteristic is his restlessness and the consequent inability to sit still. He is constantly tripping and stumbling over something. For instance, in Act Three, Shaw writes in the stage directions that Higgins's sudden arrival at his mother's at home is accompanied by minor disasters - "He goes to the divan, stumbling into the fender and over the fire-irons on his way; extricating himself with muttered impatiently on the divan that he almost breaks it". These quirks and oddities of his character contribute to the laughs in the play and place Higgins in the tradition of the comic hero.
It is obvious that simply as a professor of phonetics Higgins would not have been very humorous. Thus Shaw makes Higgins obsessed with his profession. His devotion to phonetics is so engrossing that it leaves little time or inclination for anything else. Consequently his behavior strikes people as odd and unconventional to the point of being rude. He despises the conventions of the middle class that include their manners and hypocritical sense of decorum. He claims to treat everyone with equal disrespect yet his invective is lavished on Eliza while Mrs. Eynsford-Hill and Clara, who represent a more despicable aspect of society are never verbally reprimanded; they are simply ignored.
Higgins's volatile temperament and frequent outbursts provide some of the most amusing moments in the play. While his apparently unfeeling condescending attitude towards Eliza in Act Two - "She's so deliciously low - so horribly dirty" might have earned the reader reprimand for a lesser character, at times the reader is forced to laugh. This is because Higgins is not acting socially superior nor does he bear any malice or pride. Rather he is amazed at Eliza's poverty and is only stating the facts in a very clever yet also tactless way. He is genuinely concerned about cleanliness, which is proved by his order to Mrs. Pearce to clean Eliza with Monkey Brand soap, burn all her dirty clothes and wrap her up in brown paper until new ones arrive from the shop.
When the play opens, the audience encounters an egotistical bully who harangues the helpless Eliza. He is insensitive to the feelings of those around him. However, surprisingly enough, the reader does not disapprove of his egoism and rather indulges his frequent tyrannical outbursts because this is the key to his character, his childishness. At a certain level Higgins is an overgrown child. Shaw wrote in his stage directions that Higgins is, "but for his years and size, rather like an impetuous baby 'taking notice' eagerly and loudly, and requiring almost as much watching to keep him out of unintended mischief."
His manner varies from genial bullying when he is in a good humor to stormy petulance when anything goes wrong, but he is so entirely frank and void of malice that he remains likeable even in his least reasonable moments. This trait of impetuous childishness in an otherwise extremely articulate and learned adult lends complexity to his characterization. This interpretation is confirmed by Higgins himself when he defends himself against the imagined notions held by Mrs. Pearce. He tells Colonel Pickering, "Here I am, a shy, diffident sort of man. I've never been able to feel really grown-up and tremendous, like other chaps. And yet she's firmly persuaded that I'm an arbitrary overbearing bossing kind of person. I can't account for it." His blindness to his faults serves to endear the audience to him despite him being an egoist and a bully.
It is important to note Higgins's lack of interest in women. In Act Three, Higgins's conversation with his mother regarding Eliza's society appearance gradually turns to the topic of young women and his antipathy towards them. Higgins dismisses the idea of any romantic association with a faint contempt for the fairer sex and dismisses them as "idiots." He categorically tells his mother, "Oh, I cant be bothered with young women. My idea of a lovable woman is something as like as you as possible. I shall never get into the way of seriously liking young women; some habits lie too deep to be changed." This antipathy to the fairer sex is a quintessential Shaw characteristic. Shaw believed that emotional entanglements were deterrents to intellectual fulfillment. Thus it is only natural that Higgins is single-mindedly devoted to his career and exhibits indifference bordering on contempt for women. Higgins embraces Pygmalion's typical distaste for the feminine.
Shaw further adds complexity to the issue by suggesting that the perfect woman for Higgins is his mother. This implies that Higgins only desires a sexually unchallenging mother figure who can take care of his daily necessities. This role is more or less fulfilled to a large extent by Mrs. Pearce, his housekeeper, who mothers and reproves him for his unsociable mannerisms. In his climatic encounter with Eliza in Act Five, Higgins declares that he cares for "life, for humanity" rather than for particular individuals. His world is too broad in scope and cannot revolve only around Eliza. It is this humanism which makes him repudiate Eliza's complaint with a profoundly meaningful rejoinder that "making life means making trouble."
Thus although there are several suggestions of the possibility of a romantic involvement between Higgins and Eliza, one knows that union between the two is impossible because of their fundamental incompatibility in their views they hold about life. The readers know that Higgins had bought a ring for Eliza in Brighton. One also learns that he has become habituated to her face and voice and depends upon her for his domestic needs. But one also realizes that the two of them could not live happily together. The main thrust of the play is not the depiction of the love between the master- pupil/artist-creation but rather the portrayal of the pupil's assertion of independence. Higgins is thus thrilled when Eliza is no longer a "millstone" hanging around his neck but at last a "woman" capable of taking care of herself.
Shaw questions the defining criteria of what constitutes a gentleman through the character of Higgins. It is obvious that Higgins's manners are not much better than those of the Covent Garden flower girl. In fact Higgins comes off much worse because of the fact that he has had all the civilizing benefits of wealth and education yet he is rude to the point of being boorish and ill mannered, is given to frequent inflammatory outbursts, and possesses abominable table manners. The fact that such an ill- mannered person is accepted by society as a "gentleman" provides Shaw with an opportunity to expose the shallowness and hypocrisy of such a society. Shaw thus critiques a society that views wealth and the ability to speak correctly as the constitutive criteria of a prescriptive gentleman. It is one of Shaw's master ironic strokes to make such a rude and boorish egotistical bully the main agent for transforming a common flower girl into a lady.