Pygmalion And Class Distinctions

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The populist tale of perfect love dates from ancient Greece, a story about a sculptor, named Pygmalion, who falls in love with his statue creation. There are many versions of what happens next. For example, his pure and steady affection, plus the help of the goddess Venus, transforms the statue into a live woman. They live happily ever after. George Bernard Shaw’s play, mounted in London in 1914, proposed a different telling of this story and its central creation myth. That myth is that one person can transform another person, usually by magic or alchemy, and in fundamental ways, to achieve a sort of perfection. The linguistic twist in Shaw’s story is that the linguistics professor, Henry Higgins, challenges his friend, Colonel Pickering, with a bet that he can pass off Eliza Doolittle, a good and innocent woman from the lowest class of London society, as a respectable member of the most elevated upper class society. The story of Pygmalion is of Eliza Doolittle, a woman with a bad register, who is taught the social register. In the happy ending of the story, she has hit all the right notes. She has achieved the best register. Henry’s chief and central craft is to improve the way Eliza speaks her vowels and expresses herself. He sees the construction of accent and register as the key to adapting to society. He delights in it, “How frightfully interesting it is to take a human being and change her into a quite different human being by creating a new speech for her. It’s filling up the deepest gulf that separates class from class and soul from soul.” Henry sees the training as an interesting experiment in linguistics and a bit of a prank. We can also see it as an interesting example of “how English works”, coincidentally, the title of an important textbook. In How English Works, the authors contend that this George Bernard Shaw
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