Pygmalion | Significance of the Title

Pygmalion | Significance of the Title

Significance of the Title Pygmalion


The title of a piece of literature should be apt, suggestive and attractive. It should at once attract the attention of the readers and also indicate its theme. Like a good signboard it should suggest what the readers should expect to get in the play. Pygmalion has all the essentials of a good title, as would become clear, if we examine the question in some detail.

The Pygmalion-Legend

In Greek mythology, Pygmalion was a king of Cyprus who fell in love with a statue of Aphrodite. But Ovid, the Roman poet (43 B.C.-A.D. 18), invents a more sophisticated version in his Metamorphoses. According to him, Pygmalion was a sculptor, a worker in marble, bronze, and ivory. He was exclusively devoted to his art. He had an image of beauty in his mind and no woman could come up to it in the world. He, therefore, worked over his statue from morning to evening in search of loveliness beyond his powers of expression.

In fact, the statues of Pygmalion were always far more beautiful than real human beings, and each statue was more nearly perfect than the last. Still in each new statue, Pygmalion felt something lacking. While his admirers stood entranced before his statues, he never cared to look on them, but was wholeheartedly absorbed in his next attempt.

Pygmalion’s Love of Galatea

Finally, in his quest for ideal beauty, he began to work on an ivory statue of a girl who satisfied him in every way. Even before this statue was finished, he would lay the chisel and stare at his work for an hour or so, tracing in his mind the beauty that had as yet only partly unfolded itself. By the time, the ivory statue was completed, Pygmalion could think of nothing else. In his very dreams, the girl in the statue haunted him and seemed to wake up for him and come alive. The mere contemplation of the finished statue filled him with exquisite pleasure. He would sit gazing at the maiden, whom he had given the name Galatea. Often he imagined that he saw her move and asked himself what a joy it would be if she were actually living. In this obsession with the beauty of his dreams, Pygmalion wore out and became pale and exhausted.

The Blessing of Aphrodite

After long labour and careful patient working, the statue was actually finished. The legend has it that half the night Pygmalion gazed at the beautiful image then with a hopeless sigh he went to bed, haunted as ever by his dreams. Then came the day of the festival of Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty. Pygmalion had always felt a special devotion for this goddess because he, by his very nature, was a seeker after beauty. He had, therefore, never failed to give Aphrodite the honour that was due to her.

To put it more truly, he had lived all his life in the worship of the goddess. As custom had it, the devotees of Aphrodite offered her many splendid gifts. This time when Pygmalion approached the altar, he prayed earnestly and saw the fire that burned there leap suddenly in flame. This excitement stirred him and he came back to his statue though without knowing as to what he would encounter on his return. His Galatea was as he had left her. He looked at her longingly once more, and as on several former occasions, he seemed to see her move. On a sudden impulse, he approached Galatea and held her in his arms.

Pygmalion-Galatea Marriage

Certainly by the animating grace of Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty, the statue was really moving. He felt the hard ivory grow soft and warm like wax in his clasp. He saw the lips grow red and the cheeks blush faintly pink. Then Galatea opened her eyes and looked at Pygmalion. The red lips parted slightly and as their creator kissed them, they pressed against his own. Pygmalion’s dream became a perfect reality, when Galatea stepped down from her pedestal into his arms as a flesh and blood girl. In course of time, the two were happily married

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The next day Pygmalion went with his lady love Galatea to pray at Aphrodite’s shrine. The beloved thanked the goddess for the gift of love, the lover expressed gratitude that his dreams and prayers had been fully answered and his lifelong devotion to the goddess of beauty had been rewarded in a most befitting manner.

The Cinderella Fairy Tale

Bernard Shaw has mixed the Pygmalion myth with the Cinderella fairy tale. After the death of his wife, a rich merchant married a woman with two fair but evil daughters. The child of the first marriage was set to do all the work and to sleep among the asses. One day the king gave a grand ball. The step sisters dressed and set off, but Cinderella was left behind weeping. However, a white bird brought her a lovely dress and Cinderella went to the ball where she at once won the prince’s heart. As she rushed back to her home, she dropped her slipper and the prince vowed he would wed the maid who owned it. One step-sister cut off her toe, the other her heel to make it fit, but the prince was not deceived, and he ultimately married Cinderella.

Shaw’s Treatment of the Legend: Differences

In Shaw’s play, Higgins is Pygmalion and Galatea is Eliza Doolittle, an uneducated girl who sells flowers in a London Street. Professor Higgins keeps the flower girl for six months in his laboratory. She is well trained and becomes a perfect, refined lady of London. The experiment of Higgins has succeeded and Eliza Doolittle can pass for a duchess. Thus Higgins is the creator of a new Eliza, but he does not marry his creation, as Pygmalion does in the Greek legend.

Reason Why Higgins-Pygmalion and Eliza-Galatea Are Not Married

Thus Shaw has not followed the Greek legend. Eliza Doolittle is the creation of Professor Higgins. But when she becomes a refined and cultured lady, she shows no inclination to marry Professor Higgins. The Professor also does not like to marry her. He neglects her after the experiment is over. Eliza Doolittle then leaves the place as a free woman. Professor Higgins is quite unsentimental and unromantic in his approach to Eliza Doolittle. He has lived a life of a scholar and his approach to sex is quite different. Mrs. Higgins, his mother, has influenced the life of his son so much that he does not love any other woman except his own mother. Of this strange behaviour of Professor Higgins, Bernard Shaw says

“If an imaginative boy has a sufficiently rich mother who has intelligence, personal grace, dignity of character without harshness, and a cultivated sense of the best art of her time to enable her to make her house beautiful, she sets a standard for him against which very few women can struggle, besides effecting for him a disengagement of his affections, his sense of beauty, and his idealism, from his specifically sexual impulses.”

As Freud would say, it is Oedipus complex which comes in the way of Higgins’ marriage with Eliza, his Galatea, his own creation. According to Shaw’s philosophy, Eliza-Galatea could not have married Higgins who is old, the Life Force would prompt her to marry Freddy who is much younger, and is likely to make a better father to her children. In the conflict between genius (Higgins) and Life Force (Working through Eliza) genius is defeated, and obeying the dictates of the Life Force. Eliza turns to Freddy and marries him.

Blending with the Cinderella Fairy Tale

Thus Shaw has made the Pygmalion legend the basis of his play, but he has considerably deviated from it and modified it to suit his purposes. He has also mixed it up with the Cinderella fairy-tale. The name Cinderella has now come to stand for any girl who achieves happiness and success after leading a miserable life. Like Cinderella, in the fairy-tale of that name. Eliza leads a wretched life for a long time. Her step-mother does not love her and her father compels her to earn her own living as she is old enough to do so. Hence we find her to be a poverty-stricken girl selling flowers at the corner of Covent Garden. But then suddenly a change comes in her life. She is created into a cultured lady who can easily pass off as a Duchess, and is then loved by Freddy, a handsome youngman, who marries her, and with whom she leads a happy life. He is the prince of the Cinderella story who enters the life of Eliza, marries her, and makes her happy and comfortable.


Thus the title of the play is apt and suggestive because Higgins ‘creates’ a new woman, a duchess out of a shabby flower-girl, just as in the Pygmalion legend. Galatea was created out of marble. But Shaw has modified the Pygmalion legend and mixed it up with the Cinderella fairytale. The play is based on the Pygmalion legend but with a difference.

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