You Are What You Speak
a Marxist analysis of rags to riches
Language is a key element in the school of Marxism. The story of Pygmalion is a satire that celebrates and satirizes the nuances of speech. Whether or not language can be sold and utilized as a product is the subtext of this play. Beneath the superficial plot, lies a myriad of unspoken rules about society. Karl Marx examines societal rules, stating, “As individuals express their life, so they are. What they are, therefore, coincides with their production, both with what they produce and how they produce” (“The German Ideology” 311). Although language is used as currency in Pygmalion, it takes more than proper English to climb the social ladder.
In the case of Henry Higgins, he makes his living through the study of language, and maintains his social status by speaking properly. Eliza Doolittle sees his product, the ability to blend into a social class and define oneself by language, and is interested in buying. Her father does not seek to change his lower position in the social hierarchy, but does seek to use his material belongings for gain, specifically, using his daughter as a product. Both Henry and Eliza begin the play with a nearsighted understanding of language’s power. By the end, they are forced to face the hidden social rules which truly determine where they stand. Modern literary theorists Charles Kaplan and William Davis Anderson define Marxism as a philosophy that is “materialist, empirically grounded in the concrete world of work and economic relationships, rejecting metaphysical explanations” (Criticism: Major Statements 310). Using this definition, a play is a useful vessel for studying Marxist theory, as the precise text lends itself to material analysis. Also, this Cinderella story includes a complex interplay of characters across the social
strata, providing examples of the aforementioned “work and economic relationships.”
The setting of the play is deep within the throes of a capitalist economy. Eliza is an eager capitalist who zealously seeks out opportunities for financial gain. When Higgins inquires as to what his payment will be, Eliza enthusiastically responds, “Now youre talking! I thought youd come off it when you saw a chance of getting back a bit of what you chucked at me last night” (Shaw Pygmalion 31,II).” Eliza does not have anything close to what Higgins could demand, but she is an experiment, and he is teacher. Knowledge is his “labor power.” Marx discusses labor power, writing, “Labor power is, therefore, a commodity which its possessor, the worker, sells to capital. Why does he sell it? In order to live” (“Wage Labor and Capital” 660). Higgins’ role as a worker is only temporary, as he does not have financial needs. Yet, in order for Eliza to approach him, this fact must be momentarily suspended. Higgins condescends to her level as a sort of game. Eliza’s motives are closer to what Marx describes, because she works “in order to live.”
In the introduction to Pygmalion, James Hynes provides a historical context for Pygmalion. He writes concerning the working class:
By 1912 [the year the play was written (XII)], some of the worst exploitive practices of the Industrial Revolution were coming to a close and conditions for the working class had greatly improved, but they still had few advantages . . . World War I had a cataclysmic effect on British culture and the British class system. (Hynes “Introduction” XVIII)
Shaw’s character, Eliza, typifies a sect of the women in this time period, desperate to improve their station, not for the vainglory of prosperity, but for survival.
The connection between social rules and poverty coldly reveals the unfortunate truths of
society. Marx writes about the material manifestation of society’s implicit makeup that keeps the working class from succeeding. He writes, “I now return to this thesis: an ideology always exists in an apparatus, and its practice, or practices. This existence is material” (Marx “From The German Ideology” 695). In Eliza’s case the material is meager. She begins, as Higgins’ describes, “so deliciously low—so horribly dirty (36, II).” The material trappings of the play distinguish classes; for example, the descriptions of Higgins’ lavish home compared Eliza’s tragic abode. Act one concludes with this scene: a poor, cold, and tired girl falling asleep with shoddy surroundings unglamorously described as:
“a small room with very old wall paper hanging loose in the damp places. A broken pane in the window is mended with paper. A portrait of a popular actor and a fashion plate of ladies’ dresses, all wildly beyond Eliza’s means, both torn from newspapers, are pinned up on the wall” (26,I).
This early stage of Eliza’s journey is a key part of her identity. These facts cannot be erased or decorated. Though a transformation will occur, the initial distance that separates Eliza from being able to buy the dresses on her wall is significant.
In “From The German Ideology,” Karl Marx presents the rudimentary facts of Marxist theory as such:
“The social structure and state are continually evolving out of the life-process of definite individuals, but of individuals, not as they may appear in their own or other people’s imagination, but as they really are, i. e. as they operate, produce materially, and hence as they work under definite material limits, presuppositions, and conditions independent of their will” (314).
To summarize these facts, society is not the manifestation of our mental comprehension, what we envision “life” to be, but it is the empirical make-up of everyday activity. In some ways, we are what we do. And in Eliza’s case, a flower girl is a flower girl is a flower girl.
Henry Higgins represents the ruling class with a defiant air of “I can do whatever I want.” Even his mother notes his spoiled behavior. His connection with language is mostly as an art. Eliza uses language as a tool, part of the how of moving into higher society. Higgins is romanced by the aesthetic of language. As individuals, Henry and Eliza affirm the power of language that Marxism posits, by individually seeking to master parts of the English language. Marx’s own value of language is described, here:
Language is as old as consciousness, language is practical consciousness that exists also for other men, and for that reason alone it really exists for me personally as well; language, like consciousness, only arises from the need, the necessity, of intercourse with other men. (“From The German Ideology” 317)
Higgins, Eliza and Marx are in agreement on this basic premise: language is a necessity.
In Pygmalion, language is both a necessity and a commodity. In order for Higgins and Eliza to communicate, language is required. Eliza uses language to blend into a more civilized social status, and Higgins uses it to maintain his own status. Viewed as a commodity, language is a product that can be bought and sold. Just as one dresses appropriately for a job interview, so one must speak appropriately. In Marx’s discussion of labor and value, he defines a commodity as “an object outside us, a thing that by its properties satisfies human wants of some sort of another” (“Capital” 665). So, once words are vocalized they have an existence outside of the self. The nature of a commodity is explained further in Marx’s “Capital,” as he explains that “the products of
labor become commodities, social things whose qualities are at the same time perceptible and imperceptible by the senses” (667). The labor of the play resides in the humorous and excruciating moments of Higgins’ persistent tutoring of Eliza. The exchange of goods consists of Higgins offering training and Eliza offering herself as the tool for an experiment. The hierarchy is established as Higgins holds the role of teacher. Henry and Eliza fill teacher-student roles, affirming the “imperceptible social things” that Marx describes.
One stipulation of Marxist theory relates to consciousness. Marx writes, “Consciousness can never be anything else that conscious existence and the existence of men is their actual life-process” (“From The German Ideology” 314-315). This statement relates to Eliza’s situation both mentally and physically. It relates mentally, in that as long as Eliza is aware of her own history, she is bound to it. Her understanding of the world is determined greatly by the early stages of her life that are grounded in poverty. No matter how much elegance and ease her assimilation to higher society is characterized by, her past is unchangeable. Physically, her life-process relates directly to her job. The play begins with her as a girl who sells flowers. Later, she dreams of teaching phonetics. In the end, she is a girl who sells flowers. Her actual life-process, in the end of the play, includes more luxuries, but she is still a member of the working class. Marx writes, “The production of ideas, of concepts, of consciousness, is at first directly interwoven with the material activity and the material intercourse of men, the language of real life” (“From The German Ideology” 310). For Eliza Doolittle, this means that although she can articulate ideas and concepts, she cannot change the content of the superstructure.
Borrowing language from Louis Althusser, the idea of the “material existence of an ideological apparatus” is reflected in the microcosm of society created by the group within the
Higgins’ household (“Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses” 696). They represent one “ideological apparatus,” that is unique in its design. The rules of larger society are mimicked, but a new hierarchy is prescribed. As the head of the household and the greatest intellectual of the group, Higgins holds the dominant position. Through study and a graceful social up-bringing Pickering is second in command. All under one roof, they can be examined as a family. Within this definition, Marx views the members of a family not as a nurturing social environment, but as a place for producing workers. He writes, “Thus, for instance, the structure of a family is a product of the need to produce and train workers for the next generation and not solely an indication of altruistic parental affection” (“From The German Ideology 310). This helps explain the confusion once Eliza’s experiment is over. She has completed her training and must move on. As friendships have been established and her financial future remains uncertain, this change is difficult.
The problems that arise through the play are caused by the blurring of social rules, with the ruling party not clearly wielding power. One outspoken example of someone struggling with these tensions is the character of Mrs. Pearce. She appears in the first scene in the Higgins’ home, introducing Eliza to the men in the study. The narrator simply describes her as “Higgins’ housekeeper”(31, II). Only a few lines later, Mrs. Pearce describes Eliza, saying “She’s quite a common girl, sir. Very common indeed. I should have sent her away, only I thought perhaps you wanted her to talk in your machines”(31, II). “Common” means lowly, crudely pointing to the girl’s lack of good breeding. Mrs. Pearce does not only see her as lowly, but as a tool that Henry might use for research. Eliza is not seen in a humane light, and will spend the rest of the play attempting to become more than an experiment. Mrs. Pearce struggles, as she descends from serv
ing the gentlemen of the house to serving common Eliza.
Mrs. Pearce mantra through the second act is a constant “What’s to become of her?” The motives behind this question can be analyzed from a few perspectives. One perspective might view Mrs. Pearce as a compassionate woman worrying about how Eliza, a fellow member of the working class, will function after this “experiment.” A maternal concern might be detected in Mrs. Pearce persistent questioning concerning Eliza’s future. This view cannot be wholly adopted, though, as Henry scornfully jokes about Mrs. Pearce taking Eliza on as a daughter, to which a clearly indignant Mrs. Pearce responds with a request that Henry “be sensible” (40, II). Another view might show Mrs. Pearce as a protector of the household, wary of Henry’s reputation. This would be an extension of her job, keeping everything copasetic with a watchful housekeeper’s eye. In the Marxist view, fulfilling one’s job role brings with it a certain amount of satisfaction. Here, Mrs. Pearce would be going above and beyond, as she is concerned for her employer. She wants to see the “experiment” laid out somewhat scientifically, or reasonably, with terms that can be fulfilled. She makes approaches to Henry, demanding “I want to know on what terms the girl is to be kept here. Is she to have any wages? And what is to become of her when you’ve finished teaching? You must look ahead a little” (41, II). At this point, Mrs. Pearce mediates between Henry and Eliza.
The first two hypotheses, that Mrs. Pearce is concerned for Eliza or that Mrs. Pearce is fiercely protecting her employer, can be trumped by one simple, base, explanation: Mrs. Pearce does not want to serve Eliza, who is clearly beneath her. To hold her own social standing, Mrs. Pearce looks out for herself. The other hypotheses seem superficial, compared to the idea that one does not want to sink into a lower class position. Descending the social ladder is a fear that all the
characters must face to some degree. Even Higgins must beware of the student surpassing the teacher. Although Eliza is not actually capable of rising to such scholarly heights as Higgins, – Pickering cannot surpass these bounds either—her façade is convincing enough that the hoi polloi is fooled into assenting to her mock nobility. Higgins is only susceptible to falling beneath Eliza in the way that the original Pygmalion could find himself worshiping Galatea, his own sculpted creation (Hynes “Introduction” XI). Galatea and Eliza transcend social boundaries in their ideal states, when they represent reality.
Ultimately, some social mobility is possible. Eliza does move from selling flowers on the street to selling flowers in a shop. The education Henry provides is beneficial. Eliza gains other assets from her journey, including profitable relationships with Freddy—the husband with better breeding than she—and Pickering—the kind friend, who invests plentiful sums into her flower shop. It cannot be denied that her station improves. And yet, applying Marxist theory to the play reveals that class struggles are not so easily overcome. Eliza’s roots in the working class remain. Henry’s superiority in the ruling class remains. In this work, the superstructure, ideology and hierarchy that control society may be trifled with, but not totally overcome. Capitalism continues to thrive, fueled by flower girls and English teachers.
Assume for a moment that Higgins’ motives were to rescue Eliza from his circumstances. This could not erase the superstructure. Higgins would still be a cog in the wheel, completing his role in the bigger picture. Marx describes this bigger picture, writing about the worker; “his ideas are his material actions inserted into material practices governed by material rituals which are themselves defined by the material ideological apparatus from which derive the ideas of the subject”(“Capital” 697).
In the course of the play, the protagonist improves her diction, finding that she can acquire the skills to sometimes blend into a social setting that is above her station. Her knowledge of language broadens, but a complete metamorphosis is impossible. Although she can play the part of a princess at a party, speaking elegantly, as in her introduction into society scene: “[with a beautiful gravity that awes her hostess] How do you do?” (89, III). She is still the girl who began act one with “Theres menners f’yer! Te-oo banches o voylets trod into the mad” (13). Henry does not change Eliza’s working life. Pickering changes it by funding the initial experiment, and then her later endeavors. Higgins’ contribution was technical, in that he taught her how to blend into society. Pickering provides the fiscal means, the true salvation, to have a warm home and escape poverty.
Marxist literary theory is useful for evaluating Shaw’s Pygmalion, as Shaw and Marx were nearly contemporaries. Many Marxist works were published in the late 1800s (Rivkin “Introduction: Starting with Zero 644), and Pygmalion was published in 1912 (Hynes “Introduction” XII). These writers were examining a similar time period within history, and thus a similar culture. Modern literary critics Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan examine the Marxist perspective, explaining that “One major assumption of Marxism is that culture, including literature, functions to reproduce the class structure of society” (“Introduction: Starting with Zero” 644). A comparison of the works of these two authors shows the disparity of class unity during this time. Shaw demonstrates that the accumulation of language can ease class tensions, but unspoken socials laws are binding. Marx speaks for the past and the present, and the politicians and the playwrights, as he recognizes that “we are all situated historically and socially, and our social and historical contexts “determine” or shape our lives” (Rivkin 644).