Pygmalion: A Romance Story

         In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Pygmalion, sick of the promiscuous women that he has been surrounded by all his life, carves a statue of the woman that he considers to be “perfect.” Honoring chastity, he deems her “a perpetual virgin.” However, after time of admiring her, Pygmalion falls in love with his creation, and he begs Aphrodite to turn her into a real woman. Aphrodite, being charmed by the story and expecting an interesting twist, grants his wish. Yet, the paradox of the story is that she is a “perpetual virgin”; hence, he can never “have” her.

         Directed by both Anthony Asquith and Leslie Howard and based on George Bernard Shaw’s 1913 play that is an homage to Ovid’s story, the 1938 film Pygmalion is advertised as a romance story. Yet, after seeing the movie, audiences are confused, because it is not by any means the fluffy, formulated love story. Yet, at a closer look, the film is a twisted romance story in which the creator subtly “falls in love” with his creation.

         Professor Higgins (Leslie Howard) is a successful, pompous Professor of Linguistics who stumbles across a poor flower girl (Wendy Hiller) while he furtively is studying people’s accents in the streets of London. This flower girl is named Eliza and happens to have an incredibly crass, uneducated accent that is “an insult to the English language.” Then, he haughtily brags of his linguistic abilities by betting Colonel Hugh Pickering (Scott Sunderland) that he can transform Eliza’s speech to be like that of a lady’s from high society in a short period of time. Higgins says this, of course, hypothetically to emphasize his talent, but Eliza ends up taking up on his offer.

         At the beginning, her transformation seems impossible. Yet, Professor Higgins tirelessly makes Eliza work day and night in repetition of the correct pronunciations, so much so that others around him think it is almost inhumane. This is not surprising, for Professor Higgins lives in an intellectual world void of any human emotion or normalcy, and he treats his students as objects. This is most revealed when Pickering questions Higgins’ intentions with Eliza, making sure that a sexual motive is not involved. Higgins replies saying that he has had so many women students that he only treats professionally, and that they “might as well be blocks of wood.” He is so haughty that he thinks he is above relationships with humans and deems himself a “confirmed bachelor.”

         In addition to this comment, it is revealed how void of emotion he is when he interacts with Eliza, for he is extremely condescending. Even though she is unruly and has raunchy speech, in no way does Eliza deserve to be threatened to be beaten with a broomstick. And Eliza does not put up with this behavior, but she does sacrifice a little dignity to be trained to speak like a lady and not a “squashed cabbage leaf.”

         Ironically, because Eliza is not brought up as a lady, she is able to reach through and break Higgins icy demeanor. This is due to the fact that she does not politely dance around the subject, as a witty lady of society would do. Instead, she directly plows right threw the bullshit to the point. In addition, she is just as stubborn as he is; therefore, he is unable to walk all over her. Yet, even though she matches Higgins in characteristics, she does behave like an emotional human being and is honest about those emotions.

         Therefore, without knowing it, Higgins “falls in love” with Eliza. This is in quotations, because it is not a love defined by Eros. Instead, it is a deeper love that C.S. Lewis categorizes as “philia” in his book The Four Loves. Lewis states that this love has the least involvement with impulse or emotion. Because of this, states that this type of love is “the most admirable of loves because it looked not at the beloved (like eros), but it looked towards that ‘about’--that thing because of which the relationship was formed.” This summary than goes on to say that “this freed the participants in this friendship from self-consciousness, because they were looking towards something beyond or above themselves… which freed the relationship from jealousy.” That thing that the relationship is “‘about’” is the new creation of Eliza. Therefore, his love is almost narcissistic because “he falls in love” with his creation. Yet, it is not only what he created that he loves but also the personality that has remained constant behind that conception.

         Professor Higgins, like Pygmalion and his “perpetual virgin” creation, will not be able “to have” Eliza in the Eros way, but they both have the possibility of being in a “philia” relationship with their creations. This relationship is so complicated that Higgins does not even know he loves her; his love is only revealed when Eliza leaves him, proving Pygmalion to truly be a story of romance.

Sarah Landolt

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