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Collective Versus Individual Identity In Pygmalion

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Collective Identity and social norms can shift an individual’s sense of self and make them change themselves to fit into society and access the same opportunities. Through the comparison of individual identity and social self, collective identity and judgement we see how the points included in this essay are applicable to the play ‘ Pygmalion’ by George Bernard Shaw. The studies of how the pressures of society can shape collective and individual Identity and how changing into a social self can be difficult are evidently shown in Shaw’s play and will be discussed in this evaluative essay. It will focus on the protagonist Eliza and her literary trainer Higgins.

The pressures of society can shape the ideology of collective and individual self, but in doing so can leave damaging effects on self and society. We see this as soon as we enter act one of Pygmalion where we are introduced to Eliza where she is confronted by the community around her when she is selling flowers. Using mood, audience engagement and emotive language we are given an early connection with the emotions of a scared young woman trying to do her job. “[springing up terrified] I ain’t done nothing wrong by speaking to the gentleman. I’ve a right to sell flowers if I keep off the kerb. [Hysterically] I’m a respectable girl: so help me, I never spoke to him except to ask him to buy a flower off me’ Eliza then backs up her statement later on with “Ive a right to be here if I like, same as you”. From these lines, the audience feels compassion for Eliza. The audience is then shown the collective judgement of society as the notetaker, Henry Higgins; the one to first judge Eliza, says “A woman who utters such depressing and disgusting sounds has no right to be anywhere- no right to live” the emotional audience engagement to Eliza being berated is an example of how the audience can relate and understand Eliza’s issue and feel sympathy for her. Once Eliza has gone through the early states of her tutoring she is escorted by Higgins and Pickering to meet Higgins mother At this point, Eliza’s lower-class identity still shows through her upper-class appearance, revealed both through her speech (as in ‘done the old woman in’) and lack of proper manners in talking about death at a party. Eliza does not yet fit in with Mrs. Higgins’ upper-class guests, as shown by her lack of manners in speaking of inappropriate subjects and her unpolished language. And so Higgins cuts short this experiment, once again treating her like a subject rather than a person. Mrs. Higgins worries that her son is treating Eliza, a vulnerable young woman, like a plaything for his academic enjoyment. He now insists that his project is to entirely transform Eliza, not just to help her pretend to be someone she’s not. Mr’s Higgins realises the damaging effects this will leave on Eliza, as we see how Mr’s Higgins feels for Eliza’s future the audience engagement comes into play again and we sympathise for Eliza at the foreshadowing of the drastic effects it will have on her individual identity and her relationship with the collective community especially her father.

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People changing into a social self is difficult and the intimidation and judgement that comes with it can make them feel unhappy about their choices. When Eliza goes to Higgins and begins taking lessons we can already see how he expects change out of her simply alluding to the fact of not to wipe her tears on her sleeve but on a handkerchief as it would be neither ladylike nor in accordance with good manners. As pickering offers to pay for Eliza’s tutoring in revelation that an annual garden party is coming up Higgins wastes no time berating Eliza calling her ‘so deliciously low—so horribly dirty.’ and ‘I will make a duchess of this draggle-tailed guttersnipe.’ By only planning to change her outside appearance and social self they don’t think of whether such exterior changes might involve actually changing who Eliza really is. Higgins, although tutoring Eliza, clearly shows no more consideration to Eliza’s own thoughts or feelings. His willingness to ‘walk over’ Eliza has to do both with her lower-class status and her gender. These scene changes of Eliza changing herself are met with black humor and comedic relief as higgins continues to order Eliza around, revealing his lack of empathy. He is excited by the prospect of fooling members of the upper class by merely changing Eliza’s appearance and speech. Once Mr Doolittle comes to pay higgins for Eliza, Higgins rudely disregards what Mr. Doolittle actually says Even before Eliza has really transformed, the simple change of her appearance and clothing is enough to make her at first unrecognizable to her own father. The destruction of Eliza’s old clothes symbolizes the loss of her old identity. Moments after Higgins comments on how Eliza has ‘risen’ based purely on her change in appearance, Eliza’s decidedly un-classy exclamation indicates her lower-class upbringing, showing how far she has to go to transform into a noble lady. The dramatic irony then comes into play at the party, after all her training and berating insults Eliza is mistaken as a Hungarian Princess by one of Higgins other students who claims he can pinpoint everyone’s accent and where they come from. After the party Higgins and Pickering discuss the events that led up to the party. Higgins is insensitive to Eliza’s feelings, saying that he has been bored with ‘the experiment’—he doesn’t even think of her as a person. Eliza is finally fed up with having to deal with Higgins treating her as if she was nothing more than a test and loses it yelling and comedically throwing a tantrum. Eliza (Links to an external site.) calls Higgins (Links to an external site.) a ‘selfish brute,’ and says that now she will be thrown back ‘in the gutter,’ where she came from. Higgins refers to her as ‘the creature,’ Eliza says she knows Higgins doesn’t care about her at all. Higgins says that no one has ever treated her badly at his house, and says that Eliza must simply be tired after a long day a small example of the emotional manipulation Higgins has over Eliza. We sympathise with Eliza as we connect with her point of view. We also see that, while at times he has no patience for the Victorian social hierarchy, Higgins is still prejudiced against the lower class. The juxtaposition between Eliza and Higgins social self is outstanding to the audience letting them truly engage themselves in the play.

In conclusion, the idea of collective and individual identity, social selves and the damages of society is clearly shown throughout ‘Pygmalion’. The characters and events that happen with them expressively shows the statements addressed in this piece allowing audience connection and a clear range of understanding throughout the play.

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Collective Versus Individual Identity In Pygmalion. (2022, March 17). Edubirdie. Retrieved June 6, 2023, from
“Collective Versus Individual Identity In Pygmalion.” Edubirdie, 17 Mar. 2022,
Collective Versus Individual Identity In Pygmalion. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 6 Jun. 2023].
Collective Versus Individual Identity In Pygmalion [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Mar 17 [cited 2023 Jun 6]. Available from:
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