In Shaw’s Pygmalion, Prof. Higgins and his mother Mrs. Higgins are both members of the Victorian upper class, but they represent two very different lifestyles and attitudes. Shaw clearly illustrates their distinct ways of living by describing the rooms in their separate homes in which the play takes place. Not only does Shaw use these rooms to show the differences between mother and son, but he also uses them as a way to characterize each of the two characters. Prof.
Higgins’s room characterizes him as an unsociable scientist engrossed in his work, while Mrs. Higgins’s room portrays her as an active aristocratic socialite. There are a few similarities between the rooms of Prof. Higgins and Mrs. Higgins. Both Prof. Higgins and Mrs. Higgins receive guests in their drawing rooms, which were rooms used in Victorian England to receive and entertain guests. Both of their rooms have the same basic components: a writing desk, a fireplace, and chairs. The fact that they both have drawing rooms characterizes them as members of the affluent upper class.
However, there are many significant differences between their rooms which serve to contrast their different personalities.
One area in which the rooms of Prof. Higgins and Mrs. Higgins are dissimilar is their different locations in London. On one hand, Prof. Higgins’s home is located in Wimpole Street, a street in the London borough of Westminster. Westminster was, and still is, a culturally important area of London, being the home of Buckingham Palace, 10 Downing Street, and the Houses of Parliament, all important political centers of England.
The fact that Prof. Higgins lives in this area shows that he is wealthy and somewhat influential. Furthermore, Wimpole Street remains an important street for the medical field, housing the Royal Society of Medicine since the early 1900s. Thus, Prof. Higgins lives in an area where he can practice his profession of phonetics, which could be closely associated with medical practices. Mrs. Higgins’s home, however, is located on the Chelsea Embankment of the River Thames. The London borough of Chelsea is also culturally important but differently.
Instead of being politically significant, Chelsea is the hub of pop culture where celebrities and artists live and work. In Victorian England, Chelsea was known as a borough of artists, being home to a great number of painters, writers, and thinkers. The fact that Mrs. Higgins lives in this borough indicates that she is affluent like her son, but she is also concerned with keeping up with the changing styles and fashions in the social sphere. Unlike Prof. Higgins, whose home is located in an area that suits his work-related needs, Mrs. Higgins lives in an area that suits her social needs.
Their rooms also differ in the different objects that Prof. Higgins and Mrs. Higgins keep in their drawing rooms. Prof. Higgins’s room contains various scientific tools that pertain to phonetics. He has a writing table which he uses to display “a phonograph, a laryngoscope, a row of tiny organ pipes with a bellows, a set of lamp chimneys […], several tuning-forks of different sizes, a life-size image of half a human head, showing in section the vocal organs, and a box containing a supply of wax cylinders for the phonograph.” These items are all tools that Prof.
Higgins would use it in his study of phonetics. The phonograph would be used to play records of sounds and patterns of speech, the laryngoscope would be used to medically examine the vocal cords of his student and s, and the organ pipes and tuning forks would be used to produce certain pitches to aid his students in producing certain accents, and the anatomical model of the human head would be used to scientifically study the structure of human vocal organs. All of these objects in Prof. Higgins’s room show that he scientifically mindedded with little regard for social customs that dictate the actual purpose se a drawing room. This idea is even suggested by Shaw when he introduces the room not as a drawing room, but as “Higgins’s laboratory.” These objects characterize Prof. Higgins as a devoted scientist. However, Prof. Higgins isn’t focused only on his studies; his room also includes a grand piano, on which he places a “dessert dish heaped with fruits and sweets, mostly chocolates.” Although a piano could be used to study phonetics by being used to produce certain pitches, it is on the side of the room opposite Prof. Higgins’s phonograph table and scientific tools. This fact, along with the presence of desserts, suggests that Prof. Higgins uses the piano mostly for his pleasure. Thus, Prof. Higgins is characterized as a person who takes pleasure in simple activities that he can enjoy alone. All of the objects in Prof. Higgins’s room show that he does not typically receive guests in his drawing room; rather, he mostly uses the room for his purposes.
Mrs. Higgins’s room, on the other hand, contains objects that reflect her aristocratic lifestyle and tendency to receive visitors. Instead of being “crowded with furniture and little tables and nick-nacks” like her son’s room, Mrs. Higgins’s room simply contains a few fashionable pieces of furniture. These pieces include a large ottoman, a Chippendale chair, and an Elizabethan chair, all of which represent various styles of furniture originating from different periods that were all popular in Victorian England. Mrs. Higgins also has a “divan cushioned in Morris chintz,” which is a couch decorated with printed fabric in the style of William Morris. Morris, as well as his partner Edward Burne-Jones, was a prominent figure in decorative arts in Victorian England. Morris and Burne-Jones were pre-Raphaelite artists who were heavily influenced by the styles of medieval art, and they became immensely popular in the late 1800s. Much of Mrs. Higgins’s furniture, as well as her carpet and window curtains, is decorated in the style of Morris and Burne-Jones; clearly, Mrs. Higgins is very concerned with keeping up with the styles and fashions of her time. The objects in Mrs. Higgins’s room characterize her as a woman who takes very much pride in her fashion and style. This lifestyle that Mrs. Higgins enjoys is significantly different from the lifestyle of Prof. Higgins, who doesn’t find it important to conform to the fashions of his social class. Mrs. Higgins’s desire to embrace the popular fashions of Victorian England distinctly sets her apart from her son.
Another important difference between the rooms of Prof. Higgins and Mrs. Higgins is how both of them arrange their rooms. In Prof. Higgins’s room, the “middle of the room is clear.” Furthermore, there are very few chairs. Typically, those who are expecting visitors would have chairs in the center of the room to encourage visitors to sit down and have a conversation. The fact that Prof. Higgins has not arranged his room in such a way indicates that he is not accustomed to accommodating many guests. This fact is also apparent in the way that Prof. Higgins decorates his room. His room is cluttered with many other objects, including filing cabinets, a cabinet with a telephone, an easy chair, and a newspaper stand. This clutter shows that Prof. Higgins does not care much about keeping his room neat and organized. The walls of Prof. Higgins’s room are decorated with “engravings: mostly Piranesi’s and mezzotint portraits.”
Piranesi was an artist who was well known for his engravings of buildings and architecture, and mezzotint is a method of printmaking using engravings. These styles of art are monochromatic and black-and-white, giving Prof. Higgins’s room a cold, unwelcoming atmosphere. From his engravings, it is clear that Prof. Higgins is not used to receiving visitors very often, which characterizes him as a very solitary and unsociable person.
By contrast, Mrs. Higgins’s room is very purposefully arranged to feel warm and comforting to guests. The windows are open, allowing more air circulation, and there is a balcony with flowerpots overlooking the River Thames, providing a pleasant view. In addition, her room is very uncluttered, making the room feel open and welcoming, because of her desire to display her styles and fashion; she considers her furniture and decorations to be “much too handsome to be hidden by offs and ends of useless things.” Another significant difference between her room and her sons is the presence of a handful of colorful paintings, including a landscape by Cecil Lawson, a painter renowned for his paintings of nature and flowers. There is also “a portrait of Mrs. Higgins as she was when she defied fashion in her youth in one of the beautiful Rosettian costumes,” a flowery and ornamented style of dress. This portrait emphasizes the fact that Mrs. Higgins has always been concerned about keeping up aesthetic appearances and fashion. All of these paintings are vivid and colorful, unlike Prof. Higgins’s engravings, and they serve to make Mrs. Higgins’s room seem more lively and welcoming. Thus, Mrs. Higgins’s drawing room would be a good place for her to receive and entertain guests, and Mrs. Higgins is characterized as an aristocrat who is very sociable and friendly. This characteristic sets her apart from her son, whose room is not designed in any way to receive and entertain guests.
In Pygmalion, Shaw outlines the similarities and differences between Prof. Higgins and his mother Mrs. Higgins by describing the characteristics of the rooms in their separate homes that are shown in the play. Both characters are members of the affluent upper class in Victorian England, but their personalities and ways of life significantly differ. While Prof. Higgins is shown to lead a private life focused on his studies, Mrs. Higgins is portrayed as a sociable aristocrat. By contrasting the drawing rooms of Prof. Higgins and Mrs. Higgins, Shaw serves to define both of them as very different and distinct characters.