Today, May 20th, is Eliza Doolittle day and in Act I of My Fair Lady (the musical adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion) Eliza sings “One evening the king will say, ‘Oh, Liza, old thing — I want all of England your praises to sing. Next week on the twentieth of May, I proclaim Liza Doolittle Day.” On such a day, I have a good excuse to discuss what has become a prominent trope in literature and art – and that is the trope of ‘passing’.
In Pygmalion, professor Henry Higgins bets that he can transform poor, cockney, uncouth Eliza into a duchess by all appearances. Eliza appears seamlessly a member of the elite to Higgins’s acquaintences but the veneer falls away when Eliza is confronted by her family, falling back into her commoner’s dialect. The challenge to help Eliza transcend social boundaries is not unfamiliar – think of Cinderella, where her dreams are made true by going to the ball. In both, we see women transcending social classes to be seen as their authentic selves, but in both, this authenticity is only gifted once the truth is revealed about their origins.
This notion of ‘passing’ is primarily political; Shaw’s play was intended to comment upon the freedom of women and their bodily autonomy, as well as a critique of the rigidity of the British class system. He toyed with the blurred nature of class categories, and with it, how women were mobile throughout these categories based on superficial values. By passing as the elite, Eliza was the elite. Cinderella at the ball looked the part; so she was the part.
Both Cinderella and Eliza gained access to different power structures by virtue of appearing differently to how they normally would. In this case, their transformation was largely class based. If we look to Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and Woolf’s Orlando, however, we can explore transformation of another kind: gender. In Twelfth Night, Viola establishes herself as a man, owing to her twin brother’s absence from the majority of the play. In doing so, she finds herself the object of Countess Olivia’s affections. In Orlando, Orlando’s sudden, supernatural shift overnight from man to woman puts him in the gaze of many arduous men, finding that a glimpse of his ankle almost sent a sailor to his death. In both texts, the access to another gender means desirability. In this case, passing is not a directional good, meaning that whether passing as a man or passing as a woman, both characters found positive desire in their change.
Passing in literature generally, however, is very much directional in power; in Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper, Prince Edward passes as a pauper boy but the resolution is his restoration to power, and pauper Tom ascends to a titled position under the King; it would be much less well-received had Twain chosen to abandon both boys to the perils of poverty.
In examining any trope of passing in literature, you should think about what the trope is telling you. Was Orlando better off as a woman or as a man in their journey throughout history – does Woolf think that it even matters? Should we feel more sorry for Tom the beaten pauper or Edward, the heir to the throne? And finally, does Eliza’s transformation tell you that being rich is a universal aspiration, or that it is a shallow division in society? Eliza’s story is not an uncommon one, and you should consider why an author chooses to use it. While it can often seem like a convenient plot device to layer intrigue and mystery, dig a little deeper and consider what the author is saying about race, gender, class, and other forms of identity politics which will influence any reading of a novel.
N.B. For those of you who like to digest themes in film form, see Roman Holiday and My Fair Lady to see both sides of the rags to riches theme; She’s The Man for a take on Twelfth Night; and Working Girl and The Associate for two different takes on the inaccessibility of Wall Street to women.