Higgins' Philosophy

         Professor Henry Higgins is seen throughout George Bernard Shaw's 1913 Pygmalion as a very rude man, as he is also depicted in Anthony Asquith and Leslie Howard's 1938 movie and in George Cukor's 1964 movie, My Fair Lady. While one may expect a well-educated man, such as Higgins (Leslie Howard/Rex Harrison), to be a gentleman, he is far from it. Higgins believes that how one has treated someone is not important, as long as one has treated everyone equally. He plainly states his "great" theory to Eliza (Wendy Hiller/Audrey Hepburn) at Mrs. Higgins's home near the end of the work: "The great secret, Eliza, is not having bad manners or good manners or any other particular sort of manners, but having the same manner for all human souls: in short, behaving as if you were in Heaven, where there are no third-class carriages, and one soul is as good as another."

         Higgins presents this theory to Eliza, in hope of justifying his treatment of her. This theory would be fine if Higgins himself lived by it. Henry Higgins, however, lives by a variety of variations of this philosophy. It is easily seen how Higgins follows this theory. He is consistently rude towards Eliza, Mrs. Pearce (Jean Cadell/Mona Washburn), and his mother (Marie Lohr/Gladys Cooper). His manner is the same to each of them, in accordance to his ideals; however, the Higgins we see at the parties and having good times with Pickering (Scott Sunderland/Wilfred Hyde-White) is in fact well mannered and sophisticated, showing all the falsities in his beliefs.

         However, this apparent discrepancy between Higgins' actions and his word can, in fact, be completely twisted around, depending on the interpretation of this theory. There are two possible translations of Higgins' philosophy. It can be viewed as treating everyone the same all of the time or treating everyone equally at a particular time. It is obvious that Higgins does not treat everyone equally all of the time, as witnessed by his actions when he is in "one of his states" (as Mrs. Higgins' parlor maid calls it). The Higgins that we see in Mrs. Higgins' parlor in the play and the earlier movie and at the Ascot races in My Fair Lady is not the same Higgins we see at the parties. In times where social interaction is at its lowest, he wanders aimlessly around the parlor, irrationally moving from chair to chair, highly unlike the calm Professor Higgins we see at the ball. Based on these observations, we are to believe that Higgins does not believe that a person should have the same manner towards everyone all of the time, but that a person should treat everyone equally at a given time. When he is in lower social interaction settings, his manner is the same towards everyone; he is equally rude and disrespectful to all. Yet when minding his manners, as he does at the parties, he can be a gentleman.

         The greatest flaw in this philosophy, if we take as his ideal that he treats everyone equally at a particular time, is, of course, his treatment of Eliza. No matter what type of setting Higgins has placed himself, he always treats Eliza unequally and without respect at any time.

         Near the end, at the home of Higgins's mother, Eliza confronts him about his manner towards her. "He [Pickering] treats a flower girl as duchess." Higgins, replying to Eliza, "And I treat a duchess as a flower girl." In an attempt to further justify himself, Higgins also states: "The question is not whether I treat you rudely, but whether you ever heard me treat anyone else better." Though Eliza does not answer this question, it has become apparent that he has treated others with much more sincerity and kindness. Higgins has opened his house to Colonel Pickering, a man whom he had merely been interesting in meeting, and treats him with dignity through out the story. Other occasions, such as the party they attend, where Higgins responds as a gentleman to the hosts and other guests, he still treats Eliza as his "experiment." Higgins could never see the true transformation that Eliza undergoes; he could only see a dirty flower girl that he had taught and trained to be a perfect lady. Since Higgins knows where Eliza had come from, it was difficult for him to make her parts fit together as a masterpiece that he could respect.

         The biggest obstacle that Higgins would have to overcome to view Eliza as she had become is his immaturity. He does not see her as what she is; he only sees her as what she had been before. This immaturity is representative of Higgins' childish tendencies, which the reader can see throughout the play. Higgins' childlike actions can partially explain the variations in his philosophy. Try to imagine Higgins as a young teenager. A young Higgins, or teenage boys in general, for that matter, have a very limited outlook. They treat everyone the same; based on depending on the situation. When around adults, teens have a tendency to be more respectful; however, when they are among friends, their attitudes become more and more vulgar and rude. The adult Higgins' actions are the same as the those of the child.

George Reaves

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