Two old gentlemen meet in the rain one night at Covent Garden. Professor Higgins is a scientist of phonetics, and Colonel Pickering is a linguist of Indian dialects. The first bets the other that he can, with his knowledge of phonetics, convince high London society that, in a matter of months, he will be able to transform the cockney speaking Covent Garden flower girl, Eliza Doolittle, into a woman as poised and well-spoken as a duchess. The next morning, the girl appears at his laboratory on Wimpole Street to ask for speech lessons, offering to pay a shilling, so that she may speak properly enough to work in a flower shop. Higgins makes merciless fun of her, but is seduced by the idea of working his magic on her. Pickering goads him on by agreeing to cover the costs of the experiment if Higgins can pass Eliza off as a duchess at an ambassador’s garden party. The challenge is taken, and Higgins starts by having his housekeeper bathe Eliza and give her new clothes. Then Eliza’s father Alfred Doolittle comes to demand the return of his daughter, though his real intention is to hit Higgins up for some money. The professor, amused by Doolittle’s unusual rhetoric, gives him five pounds. On his way out, the dustman fails to recognize the now clean, pretty flower girl as his daughter.
For a number of months, Higgins trains Eliza to speak properly. Two trials for Eliza follow. The first occurs at Higgins’ mother’s home, where Eliza is introduced to the Eynsford Hills, a trio of mother, daughter, and son. The son Freddy is very attracted to her, and further taken with what he thinks is her affected “small talk” when she slips into cockney. Mrs. Higgins worries that the experiment will lead to problems once it is ended, but Higgins and Pickering are too absorbed in their game to take heed. A second trial, which takes place some months later at an ambassador’s party (and which is not actually staged), is a resounding success. The wager is definitely won, but Higgins and Pickering are now bored with the project, which causes Eliza to be hurt. She throws Higgins’ slippers at him in a rage because she does not know what is to become of her, thereby bewildering him. He suggests she marry somebody. She returns him the hired jewelry, and he accuses her of ingratitude.
The following morning, Higgins rushes to his mother, in a panic because Eliza has run away. On his tail is Eliza’s father, now unhappily rich from the trust of a deceased millionaire who took to heart Higgins’ recommendation that Doolittle was England’s “most original moralist.” Mrs. Higgins, who has been hiding Eliza upstairs all along, chides the two of them for playing with the girl’s affections. When she enters, Eliza thanks Pickering for always treating her like a lady, but threatens Higgins that she will go work with his rival phonetician, Nepommuck. The outraged Higgins cannot help but start to admire her. As Eliza leaves for her father’s wedding, Higgins shouts out a few errands for her to run, assuming that she will return to him at Wimpole Street. Eliza, who has a lovelorn sweetheart in Freddy, and the wherewithal to pass as a duchess, never makes it clear whether she will or not.
Professor Henry Higgins
Henry Higgins is a professor of phonetics who plays Pygmalion to Eliza Doolittle’s Galatea. He is the author of Higgins’ Universal Alphabet, believes in concepts like visible speech, and uses all manner of recording and photographic material to document his phonetic subjects, reducing people and their dialects into what he sees as readily understandable units. He is an unconventional man, who goes in the opposite direction from the rest of society in most matters. Indeed, he is impatient with high society, forgetful in his public graces, and poorly considerate of normal social niceties–the only reason the world has not turned against him is because he is at heart a good and harmless man. His biggest fault is that he can be a bully.
Colonel Pickering, the author of Spoken Sanskrit, is a match for Higgins (although somewhat less obsessive) in his passion for phonetics. But where Higgins is a boorish, careless bully, Pickering is always considerate and a genuinely gentleman. He says little of note in the play, and appears most of all to be a civilized foil to Higgins’ barefoot, absentminded crazy professor. He helps in the Eliza Doolittle experiment by making a wager of it, saying he will cover the costs of the experiment if Higgins does indeed make a convincing duchess of her. However, while Higgins only manages to teach Eliza pronunciations, it is Pickering’s thoughtful treatment towards Eliza that teaches her to respect herself.
“She is not at all a romantic figure.” So is she introduced in Act I. Everything about Eliza Doolittle seems to defy any conventional notions we might have about the romantic heroine. When she is transformed from a sassy, smart-mouthed kerbstone flower girl with deplorable English, to a (still sassy) regal figure fit to consort with nobility, it has less to do with her innate qualities as a heroine than with the fairy-tale aspect of the transformation myth itself. In other words, the character of Eliza Doolittle comes across as being much more instrumental than fundamental. The real (re-)making of Eliza Doolittle happens after the ambassador’s party, when she decides to make a statement for her own dignity against Higgins’ insensitive treatment. This is when she becomes, not a duchess, but an independent woman; and this explains why Higgins begins to see Eliza not as a mill around his neck but as a creature worthy of his admiration.
Alfred Doolittle is Eliza’s father, an elderly but vigorous dustman who has had at least six wives and who “seems equally free from fear and conscience.” When he learns that his daughter has entered the home of Henry Higgins, he immediately pursues to see if he can get some money out of the circumstance. His unique brand of rhetoric, an unembarrassed, unhypocritical advocation of drink and pleasure (at other people’s expense), is amusing to Higgins. Through Higgins’ joking recommendation, Doolittle becomes a richly endowed lecturer to a moral reform society, transforming him from lowly dustman to a picture of middle class morality–he becomes miserable. Throughout, Alfred is a scoundrel who is willing to sell his daughter to make a few pounds, but he is one of the few unaffected characters in the play, unmasked by appearance or language. Though scandalous, his speeches are honest. At points, it even seems that he might be Shaw’s voice piece of social criticism (Alfred’s proletariat status, given Shaw’s socialist leanings, makes the prospect all the more likely).
Freddy Eynsford Hill
Higgins’ surmise that Freddy is a fool is probably accurate. In the opening scene he is a spineless and resourceless lackey to his mother and sister. Later, he is comically bowled over by Eliza, the half-baked duchess who still speaks cockney. He becomes lovesick for Eliza, and courts her with letters. At the play’s close, Freddy serves as a young, viable marriage option for Eliza, making the possible path she will follow unclear to the reader.