Shaw's story of the flower girl from the slums who was taught to speak so properly that she was able to pass as a duchess at an ambassador's garden party is perhaps one of the best known works by Shaw, partly because of the popularity of the play which, in turn, inspired a more sentimentalized version in a popular movie and, later, became one of the world's most popular musical comedies, My Fair Lady, using Shaw's broad outlines, but turning the play from a study in manners to a sentimental love story between pupil and master.
The character of Eliza is best seen by the progression which she makes from "a thing of stone," "a nothingness," a "guttersnipe," and a "squashed cabbage leaf' to the final act where she is an exquisite lady — totally self-possessed, a person who has in many ways surpassed her creator. In the opening act, the audience cannot know that beneath the mud and behind the horrible speech sounds stands the potential of a great "work of art." This carries through the Pygmalion-Galatea theme in which a crude piece of marble is transformed into a beautiful statue. It is not until the third act, when Eliza makes her appearance at Mrs. Higgins' house, that we know that Eliza possesses a great deal of native intelligence, that she has a perfect ear for all sorts of sounds, an excellent ability at reproducing sounds, a superb memory, and a passionate desire to improve herself.
In the first act, Shaw takes great pains to hide all of Eliza's basic qualities. He shows her not only as a person who completely violates the English language, but, more important, he shows her as a low, vulgar creature — totally without manners. We see her initially as a low-class flower girl who vulgarly tries to solicit money from a well-dressed gentleman, Colonel Pickering, and then as a young girl who is vulgarly familiar to another gentleman (Freddy Eynsford-Hill, who ironically wants her to be familiar with him when she becomes a lady); last, we see her as a person who is obnoxious in her protestations when she thinks that she is about to be accused of prostitution. Thus, what Shaw has done is to let us listen to a flower girl who totally violates the English language and who is a total vulgarian in terms of language. The change in Eliza's pronunciation will come about because of Higgins' lessons in phonetics, but the important change, and the real subject of the play, is the change that will come about in Eliza's manners — something which even Higgins cannot teach her because he has no manners himself.
Eliza arrives at Higgins' laboratory-living room for rather ironic reasons. She wants to adopt middle-class manners that both Higgins and her father despise. Eliza's ideal is to become a member of the respectable middle class, and in order to do so, she must learn proper pronunciation and manners. But then we notice that in spite of the original motive, Eliza's monumental efforts to master her lessons have their bases in the fact that she has developed a "doglike" devotion to her two masters — a devotion which Higgins will ultimately reject and which Eliza will ultimately declare herself independent of in the next stage of her development.
In both Acts IV and V, Eliza is seen as a completely transformed person, outwardly. She is poised, dignified, in control of her once spitfire temper, and she has rejected all of the old common vulgarity of her past life. She is no longer willing to be Higgins' creation; she now asserts her own independence. But it is an independence which demands values from life which Higgins cannot give her. Unlike Higgins, who wants to change the world, Eliza wants only to change herself. Unlike Higgins, who can and does stand apart from the common aspects of life, Eliza can be content with Freddy, who simply needs and wants her as a compassionate human being. And whereas Higgins can get along without anyone, Eliza and Freddy need each other. In contrast, Higgins will continue to try to improve the world, while Eliza will make a comfortable home for herself and Freddy.