Summary of Act Two
It is 11:00 a.m. In Higgins's language laboratory in his flat on Wimpole Street. There are machines and diagrams of vocal organs. Higgins has been showing Colonel Pickering around his lab when Mrs. Pearce, the housekeeper, announces a young woman to see him. It is the flower girl dressed in all the finery she has, a large hat with an ostrich feather. Higgins recognizes her and says he has all he needs of her dialect. He tells her to go. She replies she knows he gives lessons, and she has come to have them. Instead of being polite, Higgins says he ought to throw the baggage out. The girl, Eliza Doolittle, runs in fear. Pickering addresses her kindly. Eliza explains she wants to speak more genteel so she can be a lady in a flower shop instead of selling on the street.
Mrs. Pearce tells her she cannot afford the services of Higgins, but Eliza is not put off. She says she knows what lessons cost because a friend of hers gets French lessons, and he cannot charge that much to teach her her own language, so she will pay a shilling.
Higgins does not laugh. He tells Pickering that it is a tremendous percentage of her daily income, comparable to a millionaire offering sixty pounds. Eliza starts weeping she cannot pay sixty pounds. Higgins threatens to beat her with a broom if she does not shut up. Pickering dares Higgins to teach Eliza and pass her off as upper class at the ambassador's garden party. He will pay for the experiment and the lessons. Higgins is excited and agrees. He orders Mrs. Pearce to take Eliza away and clean her and burn her clothes.
Eliza objects. Higgins ignores Eliza's objections and tempts her with chocolates, telling her she shall have new clothes, taxis, and chocolates if she will obey. Mrs. Pearce interrupts, saying Higgins cannot walk over people in this way; she could be married or have parents. Eliza says no one wants to marry her. Higgins paints fantastic pictures of her future, saying the streets will be full of her suitors before he is through. She thinks he is crazy, and tries to run out, but between Higgins's bullying, Pickering's kindness, and Mrs. Pearce's insistence on being reasonable and responsible, Eliza is willing to try. She has nothing to lose, for her parents threw her out to fend for herself. Mrs. Pearce takes her upstairs to give her a bath.
A scene change shows Mrs. Pearce trying to give Eliza a bath and her wailing complaints. She has never had a bath and believes she will die if she takes her clothes off and gets wet.
While Eliza is screaming in the bath, the scene changes to Pickering and Higgins downstairs in the study. Pickering is serious as he asks Higgins his real intentions towards the girl. Is Higgins “a man of good character where women are concerned?” (p. 49) Higgins replies no man has good character where women are concerned. In his case, he finds when women make friends with him, they become jealous, and when he makes friends with them, he becomes tyrannical. They are two different species; that is why he is a bachelor.
Mrs. Pearce comes in and requests that Higgins will not swear in front of Eliza and that he will improve his slovenly habits. He is offended but gets the point that he has to change if he wants her to learn to be a lady.
Meanwhile, Alfred Doolittle, a common dustman, and Eliza's father, has come to the door. Alfred comes in and demands his daughter. Higgins says of course, take her away at once. Doolittle is taken aback. Higgins claims he should be a good father and take her away. Doolittle answers, “The girl belongs to me. You got her. Where do I come in?” (p. 54).
Higgins takes the offensive and accuses Doolittle of sending Eliza to him so he could blackmail Higgins, otherwise, he could not have known she was there. Doolittle says the taxi boy told him about it when Eliza sent for her things and said she did not need her clothes. He came with the taxi. Higgins asks why he brought Eliza's things if he wanted to take her away. Doolittle admits he does not want to take her away. He wants to be paid five pounds for her: “What's a five pound note to you? And what's Eliza to me?” (p. 57). Higgins is revolted that Doolittle would sell his daughter for five pounds.
Doolittle then gives a magnificent speech about how he cannot afford morals, for he is not of the middle class. He is one of the undeserving poor. Even though morally undeserving, he has needs too, and all he wants is enough money for a good time for himself and his missis. Higgins is enthralled with Doolittle's voice, rhetoric, and persuasive logic, saying he could make him fit for parliament or for a pulpit. As he is leaving, Eliza comes in bathed and dressed in a kimono. Doolittle is amazed at how good she looks. She knows he has come for money to get drunk on. Liza leaves the room, and Higgins and Pickering admit they have a stiff job in front of them.
The scene changes, and the stage directions explain the following will be a sample lesson of Liza's. Higgins is pacing up and down giving orders to her to repeat her alphabet, while he corrects her pronunciation. They go over and over it until Eliza is in tears. Higgins keeps bullying her, but Pickering gets her to continue by praising her. This is the kind of lesson she gets for the next six months until we see her again in London society, undergoing her test.
Commentary on Act Two
This is a great comic act which at the same time makes Shaw's points on class prejudice and speech. Eliza and her father are doomed to their places by their speech and behavior, but they are not the stereotyped poor that Higgins expects. Neither is Higgins the upper-class gentleman trying to seduce the flower girl that Doolittle expects. Shaw knows that great comedy consists in subverting conventional melodramatic plots. He uses this to advantage to gain attention for his serious social message.
Shaw reverses the assumptions of all the characters in this act. Higgins stereotypes the poorer classes when he assumes if he gives Eliza a salary, she will drink. She points out she may live in poverty, but she does not drink, and she is not a prostitute. She does not go to Higgins to pander her sex, which is what her father assumes. Doolittle can think of no reason two gentlemen would want Eliza except for a sexual arrangement. He has no idea of self-improvement or education. Eliza also jumps to a conclusion when Higgins is trying to make her stay, burn her clothes, and give her chocolates. She says she has heard of girls being drugged by gentlemen. This idea is funny when we consider Higgins and Pickering, who are the opposite of romantic.
Comic paradoxes abound in this scene; for instance, Higgins has to clean up his own act if he wants to make a lady of Eliza, for he acts below his social class in his manners, especially in terms of slang and swearing. Higgins knows that the proper sounds can be taught, and manners can be taught, even grammar can be eventually learned, but the content and attitude cannot be taught. He worries about these things showing in Eliza's speech, yet his own behavior and speech seem beyond curing, for he is rude, inconsiderate, blunt, and swears. This fact seems to undercut Higgins's own grand ideas about language and class, for what he demonstrates is that if you are of the right class and credentials, are educated and have money, you may do whatever you like, and society will accept it. He does not have to speak correctly, be polite or feeling with others because he is a type of the educated genius. Mrs. Pearce scolds him for walking all over others and not thinking ahead. Higgins cannot condescend to think of these things when he is in the middle of an experiment.
The great surprise of the scene, however, is the way in which Higgins and Alfred Doolittle are alike, despite their class differences. Both of them are persuasive great talkers. They manipulate others through speech. Higgins goes beyond the science of speech to use it for his own selfish ends. An example is his brilliant bullying and storytelling to get Eliza to accept his terms. If she is good, she will get clothes and chocolate and be presented to the king as a lady, but if she is lazy or found out, she will “sleep in the back kitchen among the black beetles” (p. 45) and be sent to the Tower of London. Higgins seems incapable of speaking in a normal register. That is perhaps why he is impressed with Doolittle's fantastic lecture.
Doolittle says society tries to control him through a morality which characterizes the middle classes who protect their property through such institutions as marriage, parenthood, religion, and work. Doolittle whose name symbolizes his attitude, avoids work, marriage, parental responsibility, and religious morals.
Higgins is equally contemptuous of society's control and knows he is stepping all over propriety every time he opens his mouth. He forgives himself for this by believing he is on a mission to change society to be more just. He admits that he has never felt “grown up and tremendous like other chaps” (p. 52). As we see in Act III, he is something of a mama's boy, expecting her to coddle him.