The Mobility of Social Class

14 Apr

George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion comprises various topics and themes. The most dominant and obvious, however, is concerned with social class, particularly class distinctions. Through his use of different characters, Shaw clearly presents the distinction between different classes. Throughout the play, he represents the different factors that drive the wedge between classes, which include language, appearances, decorum, education and wealth. The satire mainly lies in the factor of language, as the play is centered on the fact (or theme) that simply changing one’s way of speaking or accent enables class mobility. Higgins, the professor of phonetics (and one of the protagonists of the play) believes wagers that he can turn Eliza Doolittle, a common flower girl, into a lady within six months, merely by working on her speech.

“You have no idea how frightfully interesting it is to take a human being and changer her into a quite different human being by creating a new speech for her. It’s filling up the deepest gulf that separates class from class and soul from soul,” says Higgins to his mother (3. 223-224).

Thus, one can sense the folly Shaw is presenting with class distinctions, and that they can be based on the most superficial, negligible things. This is especially reinforced by Higgins’s lighthearted, experimental attitude towards this project, which he treats as a “bet”. Shaw even goes further to reveal that intra-class distinctions are just as existent as inter-class distinctions. This can be represented by the Enysford Hills, who he represents as the “genteel” poor. They may have the social etiquette and appearances of the middle class, but in terms of wealth, they are more like Eliza. Hence, they represent the “lower middle class”.

Today, such class distinctions still exist. In the United States, there are so many different opinions of the social strata that are present. Some believe in the “three-class theory”, which includes the rich, middle class and the poor. Others believe that many more social strata exist, particularly within classes. Nonetheless, unlike Shaw’s play, class mobility in the States, and probably most other countries, is not as easy or enabled by something as simple as changing your manner of speaking. In other words, society is not as easily “fooled” by shallow things such as appearances and speech as Shaw’s society is by Eliza. In the U.S., class distinctions are more fixed, based more on income, the family you are born into and education. When a people are born into lower class families, they are often stuck in those conditions, as they are more limited in wealth, and therefore, education. Of course, there are countless stories of people born into poor families who become successful and manage to get quality education, but one cannot simply ignore their background and the family in which they have been raised. The reality is that it requires much more work and yearning to transform to a higher class, at least, more than the few months that it took Eliza to develop her speech.

 

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