Summary and Analysis
The scene shifts to Higgins' laboratory in his home in Wimpole Street. It is eleven o'clock the next morning, and Higgins has been giving Pickering some demonstrations of the types of equipment that he uses in recording sounds which can then be studied at leisure in a scientific manner. As Higgins finishes his demonstration, Pickering admits that he is impressed, but he hasn't been able to follow more than half of what Higgins has shown him. Mrs. Pearce, the housekeeper, enters to announce that there is a strange girl, "quite a common girl," downstairs asking for the professor. Higgins is puzzled, but he thinks that this would be a good opportunity to record her in Pickering's presence, particularly since she is reported to have an unusual accent. He will thus be able to show Pickering how he makes records, using various pieces of his equipment that he has been demonstrating.
Eliza, the flower girl from the preceding evening, enters. She is now dressed in an outlandish outfit, consisting of, among other things, three ostrich feathers of orange, sky-blue, and red. When Higgins recognizes her, he orders her away because he has already recorded enough of her type of "Lisson Grove lingo." Eliza, however, has come in a taxi, with a proposition. Higgins is not impressed and rudely inquires: "Shall we ask this baggage to sit down, or shall we throw her out of the window?" Pickering is more solicitous, and so Eliza turns to him and reveals that she wants to obtain a job as a lady in a flower shop, but she won't be hired unless she can speak in a genteel, ladylike fashion; thus, she has come to take speech lessons from Higgins because last night, he bragged about his ability to teach proper speech to anyone. She is even willing to pay as much as a shilling an hour (about twenty-five cents an hour, an absurdly ridiculous sum — so absurdly low, in fact, that it appeals to Higgins' imagination). Higgins calculates that Eliza's offer is a certain proportion of her daily income, and therefore represents, for her, a large payment. While he is considering the arrangement, Pickering, whose interest has also been aroused, makes a wager: "I'll bet you all the expenses of the experiment," he tells Higgins, that the professor cannot teach Eliza to speak "like a duchess" in six months' time and pass her off at an ambassador's garden party as a "lady." Furthermore, Pickering says, ironically, "And I'll pay for the lessons," since the lessons are only twenty-five cents an hour. Higgins is indeed tempted — the challenge is tremendously great because Eliza is "so deliciously low — so horribly dirty — ." Thus he decides to do it: He "shall make a duchess of this draggletailed guttersnipe" in "six months — in three if she has a good ear and a quick tongue." He then orders Mrs. Pearce to take her away, to scrub her down, to burn her clothes and to get her new ones. And if she makes any noise, he says, Mrs. Pearce should "wallop her."
Both Eliza and Mrs. Pearce are horrified over these suggestions. Mrs. Pearce suggests that perhaps the girl is married or that perhaps she might have parents who would object. But, as it turns out, Eliza's parents turned her out to earn her own living over two years ago. Once again, Higgins bullies the girl, ordering her about and ignoring her feelings to the point that Pickering reminds him that Eliza "has some feelings," but Higgins ignores the possibility and concentrates on the immediate problem with Eliza: it is not the pronunciation; it is the grammar that will be the problem.
Mrs. Pearce, before leaving, wonders what is to become of Eliza when they have finished with her. Higgins' response is a vague question about what will become of her if he leaves her alone; to him it makes no difference — when they are through, "we can throw her back into the gutter, and then it will be her own business again." When Eliza begins to revolt, Higgins tempts her with some chocolates and with the thought of some young man wanting to marry her. Eliza relents, and Mrs. Pearce takes her away to be washed.
Following up on Mrs. Pearce's suggestions, Pickering suddenly becomes interested in the morality of their adventure. He questions if Higgins is "a man of good character where women are concerned?" Higgins admits that he has never known how to deal with women, because the moment you "let a woman into your life," she becomes "jealous, exacting, suspicious and a damned nuisance." Furthermore, he says, the moment he becomes friends with a woman, he becomes "selfish and tyrannical." Thus, he is "a confirmed old bachelor" and plans to remain one, and he assures Pickering that he will not take advantage of Eliza.
Mrs. Pearce returns with Eliza's hat, which Eliza wants saved, and she asks Higgins to watch his behavior around the young girl; that is, he should try to cease swearing, use better table manners and try to act more like a gentleman. Mrs. Pearce then answers the doorbell and informs Higgins that a dustman, Alfred Doolittle, is outside and that he maintains that Higgins has his daughter inside. Pickering warns Higgins that this might be a trap, that Doolittle might be a scoundrel. Higgins is not perturbed and has the man sent for.
Doolittle is an elderly but vigorous man with a remarkably expressive voice. To the contrary of all expectations, there is no dissension because when Doolittle announces that he wants his daughter, Higgins agrees thoroughly; he tells Doolittle to "take her away at once." This both shocks and surprises Doolittle, who definitely does not want his daughter; after all, he has taken the trouble once to get rid of her, and he certainly doesn't want her back now.
When Higgins maintains that it is "a plant — a plot to extort money by threats," Doolittle retracts. He maintains that he hasn't seen the girl for two months. As Doolittle talks, Higgins is captivated by the old man's Welsh accent and also by his "mendacity and dishonesty." Doolittle clearly does not want his daughter back; all he wants is a five-pound note in order to go out with his common-law wife and get drunk. When Pickering asks Doolittle if he has no morals, Doolittle quite honestly answers that he can't afford morals, and, furthermore, "What's a five-pound note to you? And what's Eliza to me?" Higgins is delighted with Doolittle's cynical view of middle-class morality as Doolittle proclaims himself to be a member of the "undeserving poor"; there has been too much attention paid to the deserving poor, he says, and it is time for the likes of him, who are undeserving, to reap some of the benefits of money. "Undeserving Poverty" is his motto, and if Higgins and Pickering give him five pounds, he promises that he will not save it; by Monday, he will have spent the entire five pounds on one single drunken spree with his "missus." Higgins finds the idea and the person irresistible; in fact, he considers giving the man ten pounds, but Doolittle demurs, saying that ten pounds might cause him to feel prudent, whereas five pounds is just enough for a spree. Delighted, Higgins hands Doolittle five pounds and, at that moment, Eliza enters, dressed in a new Japanese kimono. Her father doesn't recognize her at first and is genuinely surprised that she could ever get herself cleaned up to look as good as she does. Eliza immediately warns them all that her father has come for no other purpose than to wheedle money out of them in order to get drunk. Eliza is willing to drop her relations with her father and also to lord it over her old friends, but Higgins warns her not to drop her old friends too quickly. New clothes arrive then for Eliza, and she utters one of those unspeakable noises as she rushes out to see the new clothes: "Ah-ow-oo-ooh!" Both Higgins and Pickering acknowledge that they have indeed taken on a "stiff job."
Whereas the first act gave us only a cursory view of Higgins, this act begins to round out many aspects of his personality. Shaw calls him the energetic type who is "violently interested in everything that can be studied as a scientific subject." Consequently, this clue in the printed discussion of his character should warn the reader that Higgins' relationship with Eliza will be based upon scientific experiments and that the human element will not be foremost in his mind. Likewise, Shaw tells the reader that Higgins fluctuates from genial bullying and good humor to a stormy petulance when things go wrong. Above all, Higgins is totally frank and devoid of any artifice or malice. On the stage, however, Shaw has to present these character concepts to the audience. He does this by having Mrs. Pearce, who has been Higgins' housekeeper for a long time, constantly speak about his character and his habits. The arrival of Eliza and, later, Higgins' instructions concerning Eliza allow Mrs. Pearce to make pertinent observations about Higgins' deportment, manners, language, and conduct. When she announces that a very common girl is at the door, we know immediately, from Higgins' reaction, that he is a bit eccentric. When he begins his dealings with Eliza, for example, he sees her not as a human being but as a "bit of baggage." In contrast, Colonel Pickering is more tender and solicitous. At one point, he reminds Higgins that the girl might have some sensitive feelings, despite her "guttersnipe" exterior. This basic contrast between the two men will continue throughout the drama.
Eliza's reactions during this first visit by her father is indicative of her character. As is consistent with her class, she believes that if she can pay for the lesson, then Higgins has to be polite to her. Furthermore, she is determined that she shall not be cheated (her offer of a suitable fee for an hour's lesson is, to her, very serious; of course, to us and to Higgins, it is comic); as the scene progresses, Eliza is wary of Higgins; she is suspicious of being mistreated, drugged, seduced, or rejected.
After Higgins decides that he will accept the challenge of teaching Eliza to become a lady, two matters emerge. First, Mrs. Pearce wonders "what is to become of her when you've finished your teaching? You must look ahead a little." This is the ultimate question for a practical woman, and it is a question repeated later by Higgins' mother. At the end of the play, it becomes the central point in Eliza's revolt from Higgins. Never during the course of the play does he seriously consider what is to be done with Eliza. Here, for example, he merely says that when he is done with her, "we can throw her back into the gutter." This view, however, will become the main topic for Eliza's later consideration, for by that time she will be trained in such a way that she will no longer be able to function in the gutter. Thus, already Higgins is insensitive and blind to his moral responsibility to another human being. The second matter involves not merely Higgins' teaching Eliza how to pronounce words correctly, but in teaching her the proper words to use and also the proper grammatical form. This concern will also prove to be the essence of the comedy in the next scene, when Eliza will narrate a story about the death of her aunt with impeccable pronunciation, but her choice of subject matter will be deliciously low and vulgar.
The original Pygmalion theme is now fully introduced. The creator, Higgins (Pygmalion) has found his stone Galatea in the person of Eliza (this sack of baggage, this squashed cabbage) — whom he will "carve" and mold into a great duchess, someone whom he can control and command.
When Mrs. Pearce takes Eliza away, we are hardly prepared for the immediate appearance of her father. The audience and Higgins alike expect an irate father, anxious over the safety of his youthful daughter; we expect him to demand honorable protection for his offspring. Alfred Doolittle, however, is just the opposite — and he is also one of Shaw's most delightful creations. At the time of Doolittle's appearance, Mrs. Pearce has been lecturing Higgins on manners and etiquette: If Eliza is to be in the house, Higgins must watch his language, stop appearing in house robes, cease wiping his hands on his clothes, refrain from cursing, and begin performing other acts of proper manners. With the appearance of Doolittle, the questions of social manners become parodied. The subject is replaced by the idea of social morality and especially middle-class morality (or low-class morality).
As noted above, when Doolittle first appears, we expect the virtuous father, and we see the hypocritical blackmailer. When the blackmail plot is obviously going to fail, we are exposed to Doolittle's supposedly righteous indignation, and then we see it fade, and he becomes an unscrupulous and ingratiating pimp, willing to sell off his daughter's virtue for a mere pittance. Again, his bumbling attempts fail. But by now, Higgins is attracted to the resourcefulness of this intended blackmailer and to Doolittle's picturesque language; when Higgins demands an answer from Doolittle, the old man's rhetorical retort pleases Higgins. Doolittle says: "I'm willing to tell you. I'm wanting to tell you. I'm waiting to tell you." For Higgins, and for Shaw (who likes to take digs wherever possible), this sentimental rhetoric accounts for the Welsh dialect and also for Doolittle's mendacity and dishonesty.
When all else fails, thus, Doolittle resorts to speaking the plain truth, but it is a truth so original that it captures the imagination of both Higgins and Pickering. Whereas most charity goes to the "deserving poor," Doolittle dispenses with traditional morality and charity; he argues for some consideration of the undeserving poor. In a fanciful flight of philosophical oratory, Doolittle maintains that his type of people has been ignored, and it is now time to contribute money to someone like him who will take the money, go out on a weekend binge, spend it all on booze, and then be ready to go back to his miserable job on Monday. He maintains that he too has a right to this type of debauch, and yet he has been denied it by the narrow-minded prejudices of middle-class morality.
Higgins is so taken aback by this unique, bizarre logic that he offers to give Doolittle ten pounds, but Doolittle rapidly rejects this offer because that large a sum would entail middle-class responsibility, whereas the smaller sum would be just enough to go out on a binge with no regrets and no responsibilities. The irony of Doolittle's logic is that at the end of the play, Doolittle will be forced to accept middle-class responsibilities and morality because by then he will have inherited enough money that he will be encumbered for the rest of his life and will have to forever abandon his free and easy ways as a member of the "undeserving poor."
With Eliza's re-entry on the stage, Shaw returns to his social criticism. Elias father doesn't recognize his daughter because he "never thought she would clean up as good looking as that. . . . She's a credit to me, aint she?" Since Shaw didn't believe in a genuine poor class, he is making a gentle point that the possession of "hot and cold water" and "woolly towels," soft brushes, and soap can make a ragamuffin look entirely different. This scene emphasizes the basic difference between Eliza and her father: Doolittle likes being a part of the "undeserving poor," while Eliza yearns, above all, to escape from this class and to join the respectable middle class. This is the reason why she has come to Higgins: to take lessons in order to escape the stigma of her class. We are now able to review what we have read and see the significance of Eliza's howling when Higgins says that if Eliza misbehaves they will simply throw her in the dustbin — that is, her father's job is collecting the ashes and refuse of dust bins, and since he has already thrown Eliza out many years ago, she has no desire to be "collected" by him again. In fact, at the end of the drama, one of the options that is open to Eliza is that she can return to her father, but she resolutely refuses to do so. And at the end of this particular act, Eliza shows her first bit of humorous class snobbism: now that she is clean, she would like to ride back to her old district and parade in front of her old cronies and lord it over them now that she "has risen in the world."