Monday, March 3, 2014

The Middle Class and the Outliers

“What is middle class morality?  Just an excuse for not giving me anything,” says Alfred Doolittle, a character in Bernard Shaw’s play, Pygmalion [which became the celebrated movie, My Fair Lady.]  Doolittle thinks that the middle class deprives people like him of many things like good food or some pleasures of life.  So Doolittle is an outlier.  An outlier, according to the dictionary, is “a person or thing situated away or detached from the main body or system.”

Professor Higgins in the same play is also an outlier.  If Doolittle is below the middle class in hierarchy, Higgins is above it.  Doolittle needs the middle class for his financial needs. He needs the job provided by the middle class even if it means carrying the trash of that class.  He is only happy to receive charities from the middle class organisations.  Higgins does not care for the middle class any more than he would care for people like Doolittle.  In fact, Higgins wouldn’t care for the King or the Queen him-/herself.

Some familiarity with the play or the movie will be necessary to understand what I’m going to discuss.  Let me summarise the plot in brief.  Eliza Doolittle [Alfred’s daughter] is a flower seller who speaks a crude version of English.  Higgins, a phonetician, rather carelessly and callously remarks that he could make a duchess of her by teaching her to speak properly “the language of Shakespeare and Milton and The Bible.”  Eliza rises to the occasion and wants to raise her social status by entering the middle class.  Higgins proves his word; Eliza becomes as good as a duchess in about 6 months.  At least she has learnt the lingo and the deportment of the middle class.

Like the other people of the middle class, Eliza has ambitions and aspirations.  “I want to be a lady in a flower shop stead of selling at the corner of Tottenham Court Road,” she tells Higgins when asked what she wanted?  She has the moral scruples of the middle class; “I always been a good girl.”  She follows the power structures in relationships that are typical of the middle class; either be a slave to the other or enslave the other.  She will happily fetch Higgins’ slippers for him provided he is ready to accept her in his life; she will also equally happily make Freddy (a silly young man) carry her slippers if she can’t have Higgins.  Higgins thinks that that kind of relationship is “commercialism”. Eliza thinks that’s life; she judges the world in correlation to herself, just as all the middle class people do. 

Power structures and egos play vital roles in the middle class relationships.  One-upmanship is the fundamental characteristic of the class’s behaviour.  Alfred Doolittle doesn’t belong there.  Even when he is put there by a conspiracy of circumstances, he is ill at ease.  Higgins doesn’t belong there; he lacks the hypocrisy and moral scruples of the class.  “A woman who utters such depressing and disgusting sounds has no right to be anywhere – no right to live,” he has no qualms about uttering such opinions.  He knows that life is “but a series of inspired follies.” He is a totally disagreeable person in any middle class gathering.  He has little feelings and emotions; he is driven more by his brain.  For him there is little difference between a duchess and a flower girl: “The greatest secret, Eliza, is not having bad manners or good manners or any other particular sort of manners, but having the same manner for all human souls; in short, behaving as if you were in Heaven, where there are no third-class carriages, and one soul is as good another.”

Higgins invites Eliza to live with him in the end, not as his wife but as a friend: a bachelor and a spinster.  Good friends who don’t make use of each other.  No power structures in that world.  Don’t come back to me for fetching my slippers, he tells Eliza.  “No use slaving for me and then saying you want to be cared for: who cares for a slave?  If you come back, come back for the sake of good fellowship...” 

Eliza doesn’t understand that; she belongs to the middle class that can’t ever understand fellowship.

Eliza belongs to the middle class.  Her father, Alfred, doesn’t.  He is inferior to it; he has no sense of morality.  Higgins is superior; he has transcended morality.

Alfred Doolittle and Professor Higgins are both outliers as far as the middle class is concerned.  Let the middle class reign supreme.

PS: In the movie, My Fair Lady, Higgins marries Eliza.  In Shaw’s drama, Higgins leaves the door open like a silly child!

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  1. Very deep analysis.I saw the picture long back.

    1. Thanks, Indu. When I read the play for the first time, some 20 years ago, I didn't understand even a fraction of what I've written here. Age makes the difference, I guess.

  2. "Higgins invites Eliza to live with him in the end, not as his wife but as a friend: a bachelor and a spinster." Is this really possible?

    1. Shaw was a confirmed bachelor to the end, Pankti. He was a teetotaler, a vegetarian, and non-smoker... He could have done that!- live with a woman who would have been nothing other than a friend!


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