Commentary on Act V
In this scene both Doolittle and his daughter complain of how Higgins has changed their lives. This is ironic, for he has been idealizing his mission to erase class lines, and yet he has not understood the implications of meddling with peoples' lives. By recommending Doolittle to Wannafeller (a play on the name Rockefeller), Higgins engineers Doolittle's position as a lecturer, and the irresponsible dustman suddenly finds himself in the middle class with responsibility. He sees both Eliza and himself as Higgins's victims. Higgins did not free them from the gutter, but bound them to a foreign lifestyle. Eliza tells Pickering and Higgins in this scene that she is still a child in their world. She also complains Higgins took her independence from her; now she will have to be a slave to a man, either a wife, or Higgins's secretary.
Another interesting revelation for Higgins, who takes total credit for making Eliza into a lady, is that she sees instead it was Colonel Pickering who made her a lady by treating her as one; she sees the speech lessons as merely part of Higgins's trade. Higgins is always in denial that his behavior has anything to do with who he is. He speaks on all occasions of his soul and Miltonic mind. His behavior is just a quirk others should put up with.
Eliza surprises him by being able to argue with him, to reason independently of what she has learned from him. She points out their equality in many ways. Higgins, she says, is the way she used to be, bad-tempered and unable to control himself. She was that way as a lower class person, but Pickering taught her how gentlemen and ladies behave. In effect, she demonstrates how she has grown as a person, while Higgins is still a selfish adolescent. She demonstrates she is ready to conduct her own life by choosing to marry Freddy instead of being Higgins's servant or admirer. Finally, it dawns on Higgins that Eliza is really her own person now, and he admits he is impressed. He likes her better as an individual than as a groveling student. And yet, he still makes the mistake of claiming to have been the one who made her into this independent person, denying that she had anything to do with it. He insists to the end, that she is his creation.
It will be noticed that the play ends differently from the films and musical version of Pygmalion (“My Fair Lady”), where the last scene is Eliza walking back into the lab on Wimpole Street and Higgins acting as if nothing has changed. The films and musical assume an unspoken romantic love between Higgins and Eliza. This implies that whatever they may call the relationship, they are emotionally attached and do not want to be parted. What is the meaning of Shaw's ending with Eliza walking out and Higgins's gesture of laughing at the thought of her marrying Freddy? Shaw includes a lengthy epilogue to explain his own view of the fates of his characters.
Summary and Commentary on Epilogue
Shaw uses the opportunity to rant on his favorite topics, one of them being the relationship of the sexes. Shaw hated the Victorian sentimental view of the sexes, with women weak and fainting and dependent on men. As a socialist, he believed in the equality of the sexes. His women are frequently stronger than his male characters. In other plays, such as in Act 3, scene 2 of Man and Superman (1903), called, “Don Juan in Hell,” Shaw proposes his theory that women carry the Life Force, and that they do not choose mates from sentiment but from natural instinct.
He begins the epilogue saying it would not be necessary for him to write this epilogue if all the ready-made happy endings had not blunted our imaginations. The play is called a romance because Eliza is transformed in her destiny (like Cinderella). When she told Higgins she would never think of marrying him, she meant it; she was not flirting. Her instinct tells her Higgins is not a good bet, even though Shaw admits Higgins will remain a key figure in her life.
Shaw puts forth a theory why Higgins is a confirmed bachelor. Men who have mothers like Mrs. Higgins never find another woman to take her place. We are told Mrs. Higgins has Pre-Raphaelite art on her walls and was a liberal thinker and non-conformist in her youth. Higgins can talk to his mother of high-minded things, yet she is not fooled by him. He never completely grew up. Liza knows he is going to remain a bully to her and that she will always be second to his mother and philosophy.
Shaw goes on with his own version of the end of the story. Freddy is affectionate, and Liza marries him because he will not dominate her. Higgins and Pickering invite the pair to live with them, since they have no money, but Liza wants Freddy to have pride and a profession. He is a gentleman with no trade or talent. Pickering sets them up in a florist shop, which fails since neither knows anything about business. Both Freddy and Eliza take business courses, trying to make a go of it. After years of Pickering bailing them out, they hire people to run the shop, so they have time for their family. They remain lifelong friends with Higgins and Pickering.
Eliza changed her class to middle-class tradesperson. Her father, Alfred Doolittle, went even farther. He skipped the middle class and became a darling of the upper-class dukes and lords, who loved to hear him speak his ideas, because he is above intimidation.
Shaw gives a long analysis of the Eynsford-Hill family because at this time in history, 1914, just before World War I, the upperclass are undergoing a change. Clara is trying to make it in society without any dowry or marriage prospects. She has no connections and is ridiculous in the crowd she tries to impress. Both Freddy and Clara are brought up to be refined, but they are not educated, they are not supposed to work, and they have no fortune unless they marry it. Neither Freddy nor Clara can maintain this old-fashioned lifestyle. Freddy marries Eliza for love, not minding that she is from a lower class. He is willing to try business even if it is socially below him. He is a failure there, but fortunately, Pickering takes the couple on as a sort of father, until they can get on their feet. Freddy represents all the aristocratic sons who awake and find that in the modern world they need a profession.
Clara becomes a type of the new liberated woman. She was not given an education; she was expected to marry and give teas, but she discovers such authors as H. G. Wells (1866-1946) and John Galsworthy (1867-1933), becoming intellectually stimulated by the new ideas in the air. The old Victorian order has crumbled. The class system is unfair and being overhauled. Once Clara has a larger view of the political and social mechanisms of English society, she realizes she was in a false prison, not knowing there were alternatives for her. H.G. Wells, like Shaw, was a socialist, wanting to do away with class exploitation in favor of greater equality. Galsworthy provided in-depth analysis of the moral bankruptcy, pretensions, and money motives of the Victorian middle classes. Clara gets a job and starts going to socialist meetings. The main thing, Shaw points out, is that she becomes a person, like Eliza. Shaw's play is thus proposing, with his usual persuasive humor, a new world order.