Table of Contents | Message Board | Downloadable/Printable Version
Eliza is the focal point of the play since its main thematic concern is the metamorphosis of a common flower girl to a lady. Shaw honestly admits in the epilogue that such metamorphoses are "common enough" and "have been achieved by hundreds of resolutely ambitious young women since Nell Gwynne set them the example by playing queens and fascinating kings in the theatre in which she began by selling oranges." Eliza thus occupies a stock romantic personality and Shaw's skill lies in not sentimentalizing her presentation. The play charts her growth and development as she moves form darkness to light and finally acquires self- awareness. Eliza moves from being a 'common flower girl' (in Acts One and Two) to becoming a 'lady' (in Acts Three and Four) and finally by the end of Act Five becomes a self-reliant 'woman' capable of facing reality.
When the play opens, the audience is shown a brief glimpse of the world that Eliza occupies as a flower girl as she tries to wheedle a few coins in return for violets from the group of people seeking shelter under the Portico of St. Paul's church. She is forced by her circumstances to coax money out of prospective customers. When a bystander warns her about the notetaker, who is recording her words she thinks that she is being suspected of soliciting as a prostitute simply because she belongs to a class that cannot afford lawyers and that is a typical profession for a girl of her class. She has to fend for herself and vehemently asserts the virtue and sacredness of her character. Her loud and hysterical protests against the imagined harm to her character irritate Higgins, who hurls a torrent of invectives at her. Eliza however can express her feeling of wonder and fear only by crying out an indistinguishable sounding "Ah-ah-ah-ow-ow-ow-oo!" A little later when she receives a handful of coins she goes almost wild with delight and lacking the ability to express her feelings articulately can again only utter a baffling "Ah-ah-ow-ow-oo!" For Eliza, pain, wonder, fear and delight become an indiscriminate sound of vowels. At this point the audience is not aware that beneath this dirt and terrible speech lies the ability to evolve into a polished human being.
However, even in this pathetic state Eliza is not totally depraved. She is self-sufficient and capable of earning her living by selling flowers. She exhibits cleverness and a degree of resourcefulness to get the maximum value possible for her flowers. She has enough self-respect and pride to defend her honor. But most significantly she reveals an ambition to better her lot by hiring a cab with the money Higgins has thrown into her basket. Her hiring of the cab is the first small step in her quest for self-awareness. The cab acts as the vehicle that carries her over the threshold from the shabby indigent world to the comforts of genteel life in Act Two. Wearing an ostrich feather hat and a shabby worn out coat, Eliza strikes one as a pathetic and odd figure. She haughtily demands that Higgins teach her to speak properly so that she can become a lady in a flower shop instead of selling flowers. Evidently at this stage Eliza only craves the economic security and social respectability that would come with her ability to speak correctly. She does not know that this desire for security and respectability only constitutes the second small step in her larger quest for self-realization. However she is required to purge both her body and soul before she can ascend to a higher plane of awareness. Her haughty air is soon reduced to confusion, fear, and helplessness as she bears the tyrannical outbursts of Higgins who insultingly calls her a "baggage" and "a draggle-tailed guttersnipe."
Her soul is thus cleansed of childish pretensions as she encounters the grim real world. She undergoes a cleansing of her body at a physical level: her dirty clothes are burnt and her body purified through a hot bath.
By Act Three Eliza has become a lady but she still has a long and arduous journey before her. At Mrs. Higgins' at-home she fails to restrict her conversation to the weather and everybody's health - the topics prescribed by Higgins - and proceeds to describe to her audience her aunt's death which touches on some of the gruesome aspects of life in the slums such as poverty, alcoholism and murder. The irony is that her talk fails to bewilder the Eynsford- Hills who misconstrue it as the new small talk. Her expletive "bloody" is excitedly repeated by Clara, who wishes to appear as part of the latest trends. At this stage Eliza is nothing more than a live doll, an automaton without a mind of her own. She is still a lifeless statue with an element of crudeness in her parrot-like conversation. She is wearing a mask of gentility that imperfectly hides her lower class affiliation. Shaw demonstrates that only fine clothes and the right accent are not sufficient to make a lady. Eliza's accomplishments are artificial. As Mrs. Higgins astutely proclaims, Eliza is simply "a triumph of (Higgins') art and of her dressmaker's". However it stands to her credit that at least she behaves naturally without any affections unlike the pretentious Clara. By the time Eliza returns after her triumphant society debut at the Ambassador's ball, she no longer exhibits this element of crudeness. She has benefited from Higgins's lessons in social poise and has acquired the ability to express her feelings articulately.
In Act Four Eliza comes face to face with the great moment of truth and the reality of her situation. For the first time Eliza becomes aware of the impossibly wide gulf between her desires and the means at her disposal for fulfilling them. Higgins has unwittingly created in her a desire for the better things of life yet they are not available to her as she does not have the financial means to gain them only the poise and manners. When Higgins suggests that she could marry a wealthy husband, Eliza replies scornfully, "I sold flowers, I didn't sell myself" and that now she has been made a lady she isn't fit to sell anything else. Her stark rejoinder reveals a certain degree of emotional maturity and self- awareness. She then throws Higgins's slippers at him thereby freeing herself from a life of subordination and servitude. She returns the ring he had bought her in Brighton and determinedly leaves Wimpole Street. She has acquired a personality of her own and is no longer afraid to stand up to her creator and declare her independence.
By Act Five Eliza develops into a self-sufficient woman able to express her feelings coherently and displays the perfect social poise and ease even in a difficult situation. Her gentility has become an inseparable part of her character. She is no longer afraid of Higgins and talks to him on terms of equality. In fact she even negates Higgins' contribution to her metamorphosis and insists that "the difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves, but how she's treated". She categorically asserts that it was Colonel Pickering's unfailing courteousness and manners rather than Higgins' phonetic lessons that truly made her a lady. She does not let Higgins dominate her and rejects his proposal that he, she and Pickering live together like old bachelor buddies. She astounds Higgins with her announcement that she will marry Freddy, who loves her and support him by offering herself as an assistant to Nepommuck, Higgins' former student. Although shocked, Higgins is also happy that Eliza is no longer a worrisome "millstone" weighing down his neck. He cannot give her what she needs and so she must leave to find it. He is only concerned with reforming humanity while she is concerned with human compassion and intimacy.