Metaphors of the Substandard
Higgins announces in the first scene that poverty goes hand in hand with substandard speech. He implies that the poor like Eliza are substandard human beings who need to be raised to the level of human status. He calls Eliza a squashed cabbage leaf and a guttersnipe. He refers to her as baggage to be thrown out the window. The sounds she makes are animal-like, like a “bilious pigeon” (Act I, p. 27). When Eliza gets angry, Higgins compares her to a cat with claws. He calls her a “Presumptuous insect” (Act IV, p. 100). Everything about Liza's origins is referred to as dirty. Her clothes have to be burned, and the hat has to be put in the oven to kill the lice. Her father is a dustman or garbage collector, and Liza's room in the slums is hardly a human habitation. Although Higgins devotes himself to teaching Eliza, he does not respect her or notice her as a person until the final scene of her transformation. It is her chief complaint that she does not exist as a human being as far as he is concerned. Even after she becomes a lady, she tells Pickering she is but a child in their world, nothing they take seriously.
Higgins does not entirely escape the substandard himself. His mother and Pickering and Mrs. Pearce are constantly at him for his bad behavior. His mother scolds him like a boy, though he is forty. Higgins tells Clara that “we're all savages, more or less” (Act III, p. 73). This goes along with Shaw's philosophy that the human race has a long way to go in its evolution, a topic he pursues in other plays. Higgins identifies himself with Milton and culture, but he is shown to be a bully, not quite grown up as a person, unable to control himself.
Metaphors of Society
Though Eliza is trying to raise herself in society, the play shows society itself to be a humbug. Higgins refers to the embassy party as a purgatory that he is happy to be out of. Eliza calls it a dream, completely unreal, from which she will wake up. Nepommuck is there to unmask any frauds and pronounces Eliza a princess. This illusion at the ball is accomplished through speech, manners, and the right clothes and jewels. It is a sort of play society puts on, and Pickering remarks that Eliza can play the part better than those who have done it their whole lives. On the other hand, Higgins believes the perfect society would be “behaving as if you were in Heaven, where there are no third-class carriages, and one soul is as good as another” (Act V, p. 126). He claims this is what he does by treating all people the same. Of course, he treats all people rudely, so it is not really a heaven.
When Eliza is dissatisfied with what she finds in a higher class, Higgins tells her to go back to the gutter where she will find a man who is not cold and cultivated as he is, but warm and will kick her and kiss her, as they do in the gutter. In this metaphor, he makes life in the lower class seem animal-like and emotional, whereas he represents the superior intellect of the educated class. He also accuses Eliza of middle-class Commercialism, buying and selling. She wants to “buy a claim” on him by fetching his slippers, but he “wont trade in affection” (Act V, p. 128). Nevertheless, when Higgins thinks Doolittle will take his daughter back, Higgins exclaims that he bought Eliza for five pounds from him, and she belongs to him. He acts as though he owns Eliza and has the right to order her about. Eliza too feels she was independent until she became a lady when she is only fit to sell herself to some man or other for protection.
Metaphors of Power
From Act I, when Higgins is in Covent Garden, placing people by their speech patterns, he shows himself to exercise a great power in society. He is a scholar with a reputation, respected, and can be received anywhere in society, despite his manners. The way he talks and acts demonstrates that he believes he has power, and that he believes he has the right to use it because he knows better than others. He is aware he can change the destiny of a person by changing speech. Mrs. Pearce objects to the way he acts when Eliza comes for lessons. He begins bossing her around and deciding her fate as an “experiment.” Mrs. Pearce says “You cant take a girl up like that as if you were picking up a pebble on the beach” (Act II, p. 42). This apt metaphor shows the way Higgins regards people. She is an anonymous stone to him, something to experiment upon. He refuses to treat the situation like a contract or spell out the terms. He picks up Eliza like a pebble, and she is afraid of being thrown away when he is bored, as he claims to be after the ball. Eliza accuses him of passing her over and mowing her down: “you are a motor bus: all bounce and go with no consideration for anyone” (Act V, p. 127).
Higgins and Pickering are excited with their experiment on Eliza, excited by her reactions to things. Mrs. Higgins accuses them of playing with their live doll. Higgins thinks his status as a scientist gives him a right to exert power for the good of society. He has a laboratory with machines where he submits Eliza to an inhuman routine. Science has been a main metaphor for power in society since the Industrial Revolution. Yet Higgins also aligns himself with high culture for his authority by referring to “the treasures of his Miltonic mind” (Act V, p. 128) and implying that he is the owner or teacher of the language of Shakespeare and Milton. Colonel Pickering, being a military man, brings in the power metaphor of the army. He refers to the embassy ball as a battle, and Higgins tells Eliza he has made her into a “consort battleship” (Act V, p. 132) so she may be a companion to him and Pickering. Eliza foils his plans with her own idea of power that Higgins does not know how to deal with: she becomes not only a lady, but a woman.