BlogEnglishHow to Analyse Pygmalion for HSC Standard English

How to Analyse Pygmalion for HSC Standard English

Pygmalion can be a really hard text to understand, let alone writing up an analysis of the play. From the references to the early 1900s, to sentences like “Ow, eez, yə-ooa san, is e?”, it can be super confusing.

That’s why we are here to help you understand what is going on!

We’re going to walk you through the key ideas in Pygmalion, as well as give you a step-by-step of how to analyse a piece of text from Pygmalion.

PLUS we’ll provide you with a sample analysis table (also called a TEE table) and a sample Band 6 paragraph for Pygmalion!

So, what are you waiting for? It’s time to ace your analysis of Pygmalion – let’s go!

Characters in Pygmalion
Key Ideas and Quotes in Pygmalion
Link to Language, Identity and Culture
How to Analyse Pygmalion
Sample Band 6 Paragraph and Analysed Examples

What is Pygmalion about?

Pygmalion begins outside in the rain one night in Covent Garden. Eliza Doolittle, the protagonist, is selling flowers and speaking in a Cockney accent.

She is overheard by Professor Higgins, who makes a bet to his colleague, Colonel Pickering, that he can train Eliza into speaking as elegantly as a duchess.

Eliza turns up to Higgins’ house the next day and asks him to give her language lessons so that she can work in a flower shop. Higgins mocks Eliza because she is not able to pay him enough, but he is eventually convinced by Pickering to take her on as a student.

Pickering says he will pay for Eliza’s tuition if Higgins can pass Eliza off as a Duchess at an ambassador’s upcoming party.

Pygmalion Analysis - Synopsis

Following this, Eliza takes speech lessons from Higgins, who is often rude and obnoxious towards her. He treats her as if she is a toy that is his to play with and fashion as he chooses. This is why the play is titled ‘Pygmalion’ — The figure of Pygmalion in Greek Mythology is famous for creating his ideal woman by sculpting her out of ivory.

Similarly, Higgins tries to “sculpt” Eliza into the perfect Duchess, rather than allowing her to have agency and act for herself.

Ultimately, Higgins succeeds in passing Eliza off as a duchess. After the party, Higgins and Pickering celebrate their own success, failing to acknowledge Eliza’s role in her own transformation.

Eliza is furious, throws her slippers at Higgins and disappears the next morning. Higgins finds Eliza at his mother’s house and begs her to come back and live with him and Pickering.

Eliza rejects his request and demands respect from Higgins, arguing that her independence is far more important than her social status.

Characters in Pygmalion

Eliza Doolittle AKA “the flower girl”

Eliza Doolittle is the protagonist of the play. She begins the play as a poor flower girl with a cockney accent, but she is determined to learn to speak the queen’s english. 

Henry Higgins AKA “the notetaker”

Henry Higgins is a professor of phonetics who tutors Eliza Doolittle. He is characterised as hot tempered and arrogant.

Colonel Pickering AKA “the gentleman”

Colonel Pickering is a language expert and friend of Higgins. He convinces Higgins to tutor Eliza and is kind to Eliza throughout the play.

Mrs Eynsford Hill AKA “the mother”

Mrs Eynsford is the mother of Clara and Freddy, and represents the gentile society which Eliza strives to become a part of. 

Clara AKA Miss Eynsford Hill AKA “the daughter”

Clara, much like her mother, represents everything that Eliza is not. She is represented as stuck up, particularly in the first act when she is called “the daughter”.

Other Characters

Freddy: Freddy is the son of Mrs Eynsford Hill and the love interest of Eliza.

Mrs Pearce: Mrs Pearce is Higgins’ housekeeper. She is characterised as kind and maternal towards Eliza.

Mrs Higgins: Mrs Higgins is Mr Higgins’ mother. She acts as a voice of reason throughout the play and points out Higgins’ flaws.

Nepommuck AKA whiskers: Nepommuck is a former student of Higgins. He confuses Eliza for a duchess, allowing Higgins to win his bet.

Context of Pygmalion

Bernard Shaw was born into an unusual family of “genteel poverty” which was highly musical.

When he moved to London in the 1970s, he discovered the work of Karl Marx and joined the Fabian society, which sought to advance democratic socialism through gradual reform, not through revolution. Despite leaving the Fabians after the war, he was heavily interested in matters of class and equality.

British society before 1914 had been highly stratified into a working, middle and upper class. It was not always money, but often one’s accent was the primary indicator of their class.

There were a variety of different accents in England which might indicate different parts of a person’s class or background. However, Pygmalion focusses primarily on two accents: the working class “cockney” accent and the middle and upper class’ “queen’s English”.

Key Ideas and Quotes in Pygmalion

in this section we will go over some of the key ideas in Pygmalion, and the quotes which correspond to these ideas. These quotes might be helpful to add to your notes of TEE tables.

The injustice of the class system

“You see this creature with her kerbstone English: the English that will keep her in the gutter to the end of her days. Well, sir, in three months I could pass that girl off as a duchess at an ambassador’s garden party.” (The Note Taker, Act I)

In this quote, the note taker (Henry Higgins) suggests the only thing that separates the poor from the rich is their accent. What does this quote show us about the power of language?

“I want to be a lady in a flower shop stead of selling at the corner of Tottenham Court Road. But they won’t take me unless I can talk more genteel” (Eliza, Act II)

In this monologue, Eliza demonstrates that one’s social mobility is obstructed by their accent. Consider what comment Bernard Shaw might be making on injustice through this quote.

A person’s inner value vs how they are perceived externally

“you know you can’t be a nice girl inside if you’re a dirty slut outside.” (Mrs Pearce, Act II)

Here, Mrs Pearce elucidates society’s perspective directly: one’s inner value is determined by their outer appearance. Mrs Pearce says this to Eliza when she first comes to Henry Higgins’ house covered in dirt from the streets. Also, if you were wondering, the word “slut” is not calling Eliza sexually promiscuous, it is an old fashioned word for a dirty girl.  

“I want a little kindness. I know I’m a common ignorant girl, and you a book-learned gentleman; but I’m not dirt under your feet.” (Eliza, Act V)

The recurring motif of dirt is used to subvert the perspective that Eliza should be judged by her dirtiness. Despite the fact society might judge her external qualities of cleanliness and education, Eliza recognises she has intrinsic value and should be treated as such.

Power, exploitation and dehumanisation

“You certainly are a pretty pair of babies, playing with your live doll,” (Mrs Higgins, Act III)

In this quote, Mrs higgins uses a metaphor to critique Higgins and Pickering. This comment suggests two things: firstly the immaturity of the two men’s endeavor to transform Eliza, but secondly the lack of agency that they give Eliza. By calling her a doll, it suggests they see her as something that can be shaped and manipulated by their own whims, rather than somebody who makes decisions for themself. This quote also reminds us of the title of the play, Pygmalion, a greek myth about a man named pygmalion who shaped his ideal woman out of marble and when he kissed her she came to life. What does Mrs Higgin’s statement and her allusion to greek mythology show us about the way others perceive Eliza’s identity?

 “I have created this thing out of the squashed cabbage leaves of Covent garden.” (Henry Higgins, Act V)

In this dialogue, Higgins suggests that he did all the work in transforming Eliza, stripping her of her agency. Why do you think Higgins believes he has more power than Eliza to make changes in her life?

“you won my bet! You! You presumptuous insect! I won it!” (Henry Higgins, Act IV)

Not only does Higgins take away Eliza’s agency in winning the bet, but he also dehumanises her by calling her an insect. What connotations does “insect” hold which illuminate Higgins’ attitude towards Eliza?

The importance of individual agency and autonomy

“It’s making a gentleman of me that I object to. Who asked him to make a gentleman of me? I was happy. I was free.” (Doolittle, Act V)

Here, Mr Doolitte (Eliza’s dad) contrasts his life as a gentleman against his life in poverty. He claims that he preferred poverty to gentility because at least when he was poor he was happy and free. This suggests that individual autonomy is more important than social class or wealth. Do you agree with this?

“But you see I did it; and that’s what makes the difference afterall” (Eliza, Act V)

The emphasis on first person in this quote shows Eliza’s recognition of her own agency in transforming herself, rather than it being Higgins that did all the work. This contrasts against Higgins’ many claims that he had all the power in Eliza’s transformation.

How Pygmalion links to Language, Identity and Culture

Let’s take a look at the syllabus for Language Identity and Culture to get our heads around what this module is all about!

Module A: Language, Identity and Culture

In short, this module is about the relationship between who people are, what group of people they come from, and how this is reflected through language.

However, you are expected to understand not only these relationships, but how these aspects are perceived, and how these perceptions are supported or challenged by the text you are studying.

You can read more about Language, Identity and Culture in our HSC Standard English Module A guide here!

Now let’s see how we can link Pygmalion to the syllabus!

#1: Language has the power to both reflect and shape individual and collective identity

In Pygmalion, collective identities are reflected by the different language which each social class uses. Characters such as Higgins immediately develop stereotypes about other characters based on the accent which they use.

However, language is able to shape individual identity when Eliza shifts her accent from cockney to the more sophisticated “queen’s English”. She moves from being perceived as dirty, stupid and worthless to being recognised as a duchess.

Despite this, the play forces us to question whether language has shaped Eliza’s true identity, or just other’s perceptions of it. It asks: does one’s use of language truly reflect one’s internal identity, or does that identity stay constant, regardless of external factors?

#2: How language can be used to affirm, ignore, reveal, challenge or disrupt prevailing assumptions about [our]selves, individuals and cultural groups.

Throughout Pygmalion, characters develop stereotypes about other characters’ internal identities based on their language, and their external appearance. For example, Higgins’ housekeeper says, “you know you can’t be a nice girl inside if you’re a dirty slut outside.”

Pygmalion breaks down this stereotype through the power of Eliza’s voice, who suggests that identity is intrinsic, rather than based on their accent or class. She argues with Higgins, who thinks he is the one who made her into a duchess, stating, “But you see I did it; and that’s what makes the difference afterall”.

The use of the first person pronoun illuminates her personal agency over her transformation. Through this emphasis on the word “I”, she dismantles Higgins’ perspective that identity can be crafted superficially through speech training, and instead demonstrates her own unique and powerful identity.

How to Analyse Pygmalion in 4 Steps

Analysis is the building blocks of your essay — which is what you’ll need to do for Pygmalion. And it’s the hardest bit to get right. It is easy to have a good thesis and three good themes, but having good analysis is what will bring your essay from a C, up to an A.

Analysis always needs to be done with a theme or idea in mind, because analysis is your ability to link a technique or quote to a theme or idea!

There are two main steps to doing incredible analysis:
  1. Linking the technique to the idea in a meaningful way
  2. Saying something new about the idea

Now let’s put that into practice!

Step 1: Choose your argument

It is important to make sure you are basing your Pygmalion analysis on an argument, not just a vague theme. For this analysis we are going to make the argument that: Cruel language and insults are used to dehumanise the working class, suggesting value is found in wealth.

Step 2: Choose your example

Make sure the example you choose backs up the argument you are trying to make. The most important thing to look for in an example is a technique that creates meaning.

A great way to integrate examples into your essay is to split your quotation into two and compare the two sections of the quotation. For example:

Upon taking Eliza on as a student, Higgins contrasts Eliza’s current state, “draggletailed guttersnipe” against his ideal for her, “a duchess.”

Step 3: Identify techniques

When trying to find a technique within your example, it’s not about finding the fanciest technique or just any old technique for that matter!

It’s about identifying a technique that will enable you to say something about your idea that’s interesting and can contribute to your argument and analysis.

The technique that we’ve pulled out of this example is invective!

This is a great technique because it’s going to allow us to connect the quotes really meaningfully to our main theme.

If you need to brush up on your literary techniques, check out this cheat sheet of literary techniques to help you analyse Pygmalion here!

Step 4: Carry out your analysis 

Did you know the key to good analysis is starting with a technique? You focus on the technique and identify what it reveals about an idea.

Good analysis involves using a technique to say something in addition to what the quote says.

Bad analysis is using a technique to restate what happened in the quote.

It usually sounds something like this: “Invective shows that Higgins has insulted Eliza’s class and would prefer her to be a duchess”, without going into any real depth.

So, what does the technique of invective reveal about Pygmalion in this passage?

His use of an invective illustrates that Eliza’s poverty makes her worthless, metaphorically placing her in the gutter of society, suggesting she will only inherit worth through rising in social class.

Now, let’s organise our analysis by placing it in a TEE table like below!

What’s a TEE table?

The TEE in TEE table stands for Technique, Example and Effect. They’re a great tool you can use to analyse your text.

All you have to do is include your pieces of evidence under ‘example’ then identify the technique in the ‘technique’ column and carry out your analysis.

If you’re analysing a few themes, it’s a good idea to have a separate TEE table per theme. For example, for Pygmalion, you may want to keep all your pieces of evidence that relate to ‘language as a tool of oppression’ in one table.

For more info on what a TEE table is and how to use one to boost your analysis of an HSC text, check out this article here!

Need some help with your analysis of other texts?

Check out other texts we’ve created guides for below:

Need more help with HSC English for your Pygmalion analysis?

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Brooklyn Arnot has a Bachelor of Arts majoring in English Literature with Honours at the University of Sydney. She scored an HD average and has even received the Dean’s award for excellence! Brooklyn teaches our English classes at Art of Smart and has over 5 years of experience supporting Year 11 and 12 students throughout their HSC. She’s also a new Syllabus expert and studied 4U English in high school.

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