Pygmalion’s Metamorphosis and Galatea’s Revenge: Feminist Revisions of Ovid’s Pygmalion Myth in British and American Literature since the 20th Century

Bachelor Thesis 2010 40 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Literature


Table of Contents

I Introduction

II The Genuine Pygmalion: Ovid’s Version of the Myth in the Metamorphoses

III The Myth and Its Reception Until the End of the 19th Century
1. Reception of Pygmalion Until the 19th Century: From Idolator to Artistic Genius
2. The Victorian Reception of Pygmalion
3. The Representation of Galatea

IV Retelling Pygmalion: New, Feminist Conceptions in the 20th and 21st Centuries
1. Critical View on the Educator Pygmalion
1.1 George Bernard Shaw’s Drama Pygmalion (1912)
1.2 Willy Russell’s Drama Educating Rita (1980)
2. Pygmalion as Pervert: Angela Carter’s Story “The Loves of Lady Purple"
3. Pygmalion Outwitted: Carol Ann Duffy’s Poem “Pygmalion’s Bride” (1999)
4. Role-reversal: Neil LaBute’s Drama The Shape of Things (2001)

V Conclusion


I Introduction

The myth of Pygmalion as told by Ovid in his Metamorphoses contains, according to Geoffrey Miles, “one of the most potent male fantasies” – that is the creation “of a perfectly beautiful woman designed to the lover’s specifications and utterly devoted to her creator”.[1] The fact that Pygmalion’s literally man-made lover comes to life at the end of the story probably was the reason for artists’ fascination with the myth. Ever since antiquity, patriarchal literature produced countless renarrations of the story about Pygmalion’s love for his statue, and most of them were especially intrigued with the erotic potential of Ovid’s tale. Yet this leads to the question how the awakening of feminist thought since the early 20th century influenced the myth’s reception. More precisely, how did feminist versions of the tale alter its content and the relationship of its protagonists?

This question forms the basis of this thesis paper which will examine, by means of several Pygmalion versions of the 20th and 21st centuries, the myth’s development from a patriarchal towards a feminist tale. First, it will be necessary to have a closer look at Ovid’s original myth which was the source for all future Pygmalion versions.[2] Further, the reception of the myth from antiquity until the end of the 19th century should be considered as it explains the development and the shifting interpretation of the protagonists and their roles. The main part of this paper, however, will focus on several examples of Pygmalion stories of the 20th and 21st centuries, from works of George Bernard Shaw to Neil LaBute. Due to the high amount of Pygmalion adaptations it is not possible to do all of them justice. Therefore, some of the best-known and most original feminist versions have been chosen to highlight the myth’s development. Although Neil LaBute’s Pygmalion-inspired drama is not really a feminist piece it is worth to be discussed due to its original dealing with the tale’s gender roles.

II The Genuine Pygmalion: Ovid’s Version of the Myth in the Metamorphoses

In Book X, 243-297 of the Metamorphoses Ovid tells the story of Pygmalion, both a sculptor and the king of Cypris, who falls in love with his own creation, a woman carved from ivory. Due to the intervention of the goddess Venus, this statue comes to life and Pygmalion makes her his wife. While most of the stories in the Metamorphoses derive from Greek mythology, the source of the Pygmalion myth is uncertain. Ovid’s version is commonly seen as its first literary adaptation[3], the myth might even “be essentially his invention”[4]. In this sense, Heinrich Dörrie explains that Ovid tells a story beyond Greek mythology.[5] On the one hand, the origin of the tale can be seen in the sacral background of the mother-goddess of Cypris that later was equalled with the Greek Aphrodite or the Roman Venus.[6] On the other hand, a report by the early Hellenic author Philostephanos about Pygmalion’s love for an ivory statue of Aphrodite probably was a source for Ovid. This text is lost now but was mentioned by early Christian authors like Clement of Alexandria.[7]

In the Metamorphoses, the tale of Pygmalion and his statue is anticipated by the story of the Propoetides. The Propoetides are female inhabitants of the island of Cypris who do not worship Venus and consequently are punished by the goddess: they become the first women “to prostitute their bodies’ charms”.[8] Due to their shameful business, they finally lose their humanity and turn into stone. Ovid explains Pygmalion’s decision to stay a bachelor by the negative example of the Propoetides:

Quas quia Pygmalion aevum per crimen agentis viderat, offensus vitiis,

quae plurima menti femineae natura dedit, sine coniuge caelebs vivebat.[9]

– Pygmalion had seen these women spend their days in wickedness, and horrified at all the countless vices nature gives to womankind lived celibate.[10]

As no real woman is entirely flawless, Pygmalion denies himself the company of women. Instead, he starts to carve a statue from ivory “and gave it perfect shape, more beautiful than ever woman born”[11], thus creating the image of an ideal woman to his taste. Obviously, Pygmalion’s misogyny is only directed against vicious women but not against women in general since he madly falls in love with the ivory woman created by himself. Her innocence is implied by Ovid’s description of the statue looking as if she “wished to move – but modesty forbade”[12]. This beautiful, modest image of a woman, or rather girl, formed by his very own hands, represents the only female being the king of Cypris is able to fall in love with.

In the following verses, Pygmalion’s courtship and efforts concerning his beloved statue are described: he touches the work of art as if it were a girl of flesh and blood and even fears to bruise it[13] ; he flatters the ivory girl with compliments and presents, adorns her body with valuable clothes and jewellery. Finally, he carefully beds his lover on soft cushions and calls her his bedfellow.[14]

After this episode, the attention turns towards a festival held for Venus during which Pygmalion prays to the gods for a wife being “‘[t]he living likeness of my ivory girl’”[15]. In fact, he desires that his statue herself would become his wife but does not dare to utter this wish. Venus, however, grants him his ardent wish and turns the statue into a living girl. When Pygmalion returns to his ivory lover and kisses her, she has already become warm and finally also grows soft.

“[T]emptatum mollescit ebur positoque rigore subsidit digitis ceditque, ut Hymettia sole cera remollescit tractataque pollice multas flectitur in

faceies ipsoquue fit utilis usu.”[16]

– “beneath his touch the flesh grew soft, its ivory hardness vanishing, and yielded to his hands, as in the sun wax of Hymettus softens and is shaped by practised fingers into many forms, and usefulness acquires by being used.”[17]

Ovid’s comparison of the softness of the ivory girl’s body to formable bees wax speaks for itself. This part of the myth might be regarded as key to later interpretations of the tale, both patriarchal ones in which man forms woman to his taste and feminist variants which strongly disapprove of the forming of the female body and mind like wax.

Finally, Pygmalion’s kiss awakens the statue and the first things she sees when opening “her bashful eyes”[18] are the sky – and her lover. As Dörrie points out, Pygmalion represents the girl’s fate.[19] He must seem like a god to her: becoming alive she does not only see the sky, realm of the gods, but also her creator, who therefore takes on the role of a god. In this regard, Pygmalion unites the role of the creator, father and husband in himself. For Susanne Frane this means that first, woman is excluded from the act of creation which is established as male, and second, woman is mortified as a passive and devoted substance to male dominion.[20]

Further, the statue’s characterisation is of interest: until the end of the tale, she remains nameless and speechless. Apparently, she is to be seen as nothing else than Pygmalion’s creature and a peripheral figure of the story. Her feelings or her opinion concerning the situation are of no interest.[21] She is characterized as an innocent, bashful being, which is emphasised by the fact that she “blushed”[22] when feeling Pygmalion’s kisses. Regarding her attitude as well as her metamorphosis, the statue is clearly presented as a counter-model to the Propoetides. While the latter are defined by their petrification, Pygmalion’s innocent creation leaves its lifeless, so to speak petrified, existence behind by becoming animated.[23] Read in the patriarchal context of antiquity, this virtuous statue-woman, created by a man and turned into flesh by a goddess who both reject the behaviour of the Propoetides, appears to be not only the ideal wife for the king of Cypris but for all men alike.

III The Myth and Its Reception Until the End of the 19th Century

Ovid’s tale of the artist falling in love with his own creation has influenced occidental art and literature ever since. According to Kai Merten, it has become a myth at the core of western, male representation.[24] But also the relation between nature and art or especially art and artist were of interest for authors throughout the centuries. The reception of the myth from antiquity until the early 19th century is rather diverse and the focus of the adaptations changed with every epoch. The English Pygmalion reception differs from the French and German ones, which developed similarly. While the heyday of the Pygmalion story was during the 18th century regarding German and French literature, English literature produced a likewise significant amount of adaptations of the tale especially during the 19th century.[25] The recipients’ main interests about Pygmalion were his role as an artist but also his efforts to shape and educate a woman. In the following, I will describe the development of the myth’s interpretation and significance since antiquity. My special attention will be towards English literature, but some non-English works of influence will be considered.

1. Reception of Pygmalion Until the 19th Century: From Idolator to Artistic Genius

The early reception of the myth happened within a Christian context. Therefore it is unsurprising that Pygmalion’s worship of a statue is considered negatively. Early Christian writers like Clement of Alexandria (2nd century AD) or Arnobius of Sicca (4th century AD) used the tale to warn the heathens of worshipping statues and images of gods. According to them, Pygmalion’s behaviour, that is loving a liveless work of art, is both irrational and sinful.[26]

After a thousand years of silence about Pygmalion, the tale was revived in the late Middle Ages as a result of the renaissance of Ovid’s work in the 13th century.[27] In his Confessio Amantis (1390/93), John Gower uses Pygmalion as a positive example of a lover who does not give up and dares to speak of his love. As a consequence of his speaking up, Pygmalion eventually “hadde al that he wolde abbede”[28] – his wish is granted and the statue comes to life. The moral of this version of the myth is a rejection of the sin of sloth (“For Slowthe bringth in alle wo”[29] ). Gower demands that lovers take initiative. Thus his Pygmalion story is a “moral fable for lovers about the need of perseverance”[30].

Another noteworthy interpretation of the myth was offered by William Caxton, the first English printer and publisher. In 1490, Caxton wrote a prose paraphrase of Ovid’s Metamorphoses which he commentated for his readers. In his commentary on Pygmalion, he compares Ovid’s sculptor to a nobleman who “might have a maid or servant in his house” whom he “clothed, nourished and taught”.[31] After the transformation of the servant girl into a lady, “he loved her so much that it pleased him to espouse her and take her to his wife”. This new reading of the myth “as a fable about social class” was a decisive step towards the Pygmalion versions of the 19th and especially 20th century where Pygmalion appeared again as an educator.[32]

After Gower and Caxton’s positive views on the myth, “there is a striking change of tone” in Renaissance adaptations.[33] In English Renaissance literature, the story of Pygmalion and his statue is a popular subject[34] but, in the tradition of the early Christian writers, Pygmalion is again regarded as an idolator, the “keywords [being] ‘dotage’ and ‘idolatry’”. The tale is moralised once more and is used as an expression of misogyny and satire.[35] In “Pygmalion’s Friend and his Image” (1576) by George Pettie Pygmalion is a knight who devotedly serves the wife of a friend, Penthea, but is disappointed by the change of the lady’s affection. The betrayal of Penthea here substitutes Ovid’s motif of the Propoetides. It leads to Pygmalion’s becoming a misogynist; his embittered lamentations about women’s infidelity form the central part of the text.[36] The rest of the story follows the model set by Ovid: Pygmalion creates a female statue, falls in love with it and is – after Venus’s divine intervention – finally able to make her his wife.[37]

Two decades later, in 1598, John Marston tells the tale of “The Metamorphosis of Pygmalion’s Image” with a much more ironic tone and full of erotic hints. Pygmalion’s passionate love for the statue, his restless “viewing, touching, kissing”[38] result in its coming alive. The poem mockingly states: “Tut, women will relent / When as they finde such moving blandishment.”[39] Here, Marston obviously mocks and rejects the Petrarchan poetry of his contemporaries, which portrays cool and chaste women who do not relent to any “moving blandishment”.[40]

While Shakespeare merely used the motif of the animated statue for The Winter’s Tale but put it into the context of his own distinct story[41], most authors of his time and later epochs, rewrote Ovid’s version by sticking closely to the given story line. In the foreground of these adaptations stands the lover Pygmalion, and many poets compared their own efforts about their mistresses to his efforts about the statue.[42] The popularity of the myth resulted in its reception in art forms other than literature and painting. The increasing tendency of Renaissance and Baroque literature to eroticise and aestheticise the myth led to its introduction as theatrical and musical material.[43] Since 1640, a countless number of Pygmalion plays, operas or ballets were performed on European stages.[44]

Following this fashion and at the same time countering it, Jean-Jacques Rousseau created his melodramatic scene Pygmalion (1762). Although this piece was accompanied by music, it was not designed as mere entertainment like other Pygmalion stage works of the time; the musical interludes were meant to express the depth of Pygmalion’s sentiment.[45] Thus, Rousseau’s scéne lyrique marks a new development in the myth’s interpretation. Now, in the sensitive eighteenth century, Pygmalion’s characterisation as a lover changes towards his perception as a sensitive artist. He is presented as an artist in doubt about his creativity and genius who utters his qualms in a long monologue. By looking at his female statue, called Galathée or Galatea, he tries to find inspiration. Yet instead he realizes that this perfected work of art triggers his vanity and admiration for himself, the creator of this beautiful piece.[46] With the statue’s animation, however, his desperation comes to an end; she even starts to talk after having stepped down from her pedestal. Venus’s intervention is not needed here, only the artist’s sentiment for his work caused the transformation from marble to flesh.

Heinrich Dörrie and Claudia Weiser interpret this metamorphosis and the artist’s role sightly differently. For Dörrie, the statue comes alive because of Pygmalion’s love for his creation; the power of his sentiment substitues divine intervention.[47] Weiser is less focussed on Pygmalion’s love for his work than on his role as an artist. In her regard, the crucial change in comparison to Ovid’s sculptor is the new relationship between artist and work of art: Rousseau allows the artist to express himself in his work. He receives admiration and even immortality in exchange, as he lives on in his creation.[48]

Undoubtedly, Rousseau’s Pygmalion marked a turning point in the myth’s reception. From now until the early 19th century, authors focussed on the relation artist – work of art. Rousseau’s Pygmalion became the prototype of the ‘new’ Pygmalion of the age of sensibility and the Romantic movement. The former sinful idolator was transformed into a creative, sometimes even godlike genius.[49]


[1] Geoffrey Miles, ed. Classical Mythology in English Literature. A critical anthology. London: Routledge, 1999, 332.

[2] Still, one should not forget that “Pygmalion stories are often contexts for each other” as Essaka Joshua points out. The renarrations were not only influenced by the Ovidian source but also by other Pygmalion versions. See Pygmalion and Galatea. The history of a narrative in English literature. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2001, xix.

[3] See Susanne Frane. Frauen aus Männerhand. Ein Paradigma in der englischen und amerikanischen Literatur des 19. und 20. Jahrhunderts. Studies in English literary and cultural history 34. Trier: Wissenschaftlicher Verlag Trier, 2008, 13: “Die Forschung ist sich darin einig, dass es sich bei Ovids Version […] um […] die erste literarische Variante handelt.“

[4] Miles, 332.

[5] See Heinrich Dörrie. Pygmalion. Ein Impuls Ovids und seine Wirkungen bis in die Gegenwart. Opladen: Westdeutscher Verlag, 1974, 11: „Pygmalion steht in keiner Verbindung zu anderen Gestalten des Mythos, die [...] durch eine gleichfalls mythische Genealogie miteinander verbunden sind; [Pygmalions] Name [ist] den mythographischen Handbüchern der Antike durchaus fremd.“

[6] Dörrie, 12.

[7] See Dörrie, 24 and Miles, 348-9.

[8] Ovid. Metamorphoses. Book X. c. AD 10. Miles, 346.

[9] Ovid. Metamorphosen. Epos in 15. Büchern. Ed. and trans. Hermann Breitenbach. Zürich: Artemis, ²1964, 685.

[10] Ovid, Miles, 346, lines 293-96.

[11] Ovid, Miles, 346, ll. 300-1. See also Ovid, Breitenbach, 684, ll. 248-9: “formamque dedit, qua femina nasci nulla potest”.

[12] Ovid, Miles, 346, l. 304. See Ovid, Breitenbach, 684, l. 251: „si non obstet reverentia, velle moveri”.

[13] Ovid, Miles, 346, ll. 310-12: “He […] caresses it, believes the firm new flesh beneath his fingers yields, and fears the limbs may darken with a bruise”.

[14] See Ovid. “Bk X: 243-297 Orpheus sings: Pygmalion and the statue” Ovid. Metamorphoses. A complete English translation and Mythological index. Trans. A. S. Kline. Poetry in Translation. 1 Novembre 2000. <http://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Latin/Metamorph10.htm#_Toc64105572>: “He arranges the statue on a bed […] and calls it his bedfellow”.

[15] Ovid, Miles, 347, l. 334.

[16] Ovid, Breitenbach, 688.

[17] Ovid, Miles, 347, ll. 342-47.

[18] Ovid, trans. A.S. Kline.

[19] Dörrie, 24.

[20] Frane, 19.

[21] See Frane, 19.

[22] Ovid, Miles, 348.

[23] See Gerhard Neumann. “Pygmalion. Metamorphosen des Mythos”. Pygmalion: Die Geschichte des Mythos in der abendländischen Kultur. Eds. Mayer, Mathias and Gerhard Neumann. Freiburg im Breisgau: Rombach, 1997, 15: “Dieser Geschichte der Propoetiden […] antwortet nun Ovids Pygmalion-Erzählung mit dem [] Gegenmodell der Animation des Unbelebten”.

[24] See Kai Merten, Antike Mythen – Mythos Antike. Posthumanistische Antikerezeption in der englischsprachigen Lyrik der Gegenwart. München: Wilhelm Fink Verlag, 2004, 271.

[25] See Annegret Dinter. Der Pygmalion-Stoff in der europäischen Literatur. Rezeptionsgeschichte einer Ovid-Fabel. Heidelberg: Winter, 1979; Miles, 337.

[26] See Miles, 348-50. However, as Dörrie emphasises, Clement does not point out Pygmalion’s guilt; instead he presents art as a means to deceive innocent humans (Dörrie, 31).

[27] See Dörrie, 32 and Dieter Martin. “Pygmalion”. Antike Mythen und ihre Rezeption. Ein Lexikon. Ed. Lutz Walther. Leipzig: Reclam, ²2004, 224.

[28] John Gower. “Confessio amantis”. c. 1390. Achim Aurnhammer and Dieter Martin, eds. Mythos Pygmalion. Texte von Ovid bis John Updike. Leipzig: Reclam, 2003, 24.

[29] Gower, Aurnhammer and Martin, 26.

[30] Miles, 334.

[31] William Caxton. “Six Books of Metamorphoseos”. c. 1480. Miles, 353.

[32] Caxton, Miles, 352-53.

[33] Miles, 334.

[34] See Dinter, 53.

[35] Miles, 334-35. See also Martin 2004, 225.

[36] See Dinter, 55.

[37] See George Pettie. “Pygmalion’s Friend and his Image”. 1576. Miles, 353-58.

[38] John Marston. “The Metamorphosis of Pygmalion’s Image”. 1598. Aurnhammer and Martin, 34.

[39] Marston, Aurnhammer and Martin, 37.

[40] See Dinter, 57-58.

[41] In Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale (first published 1623) the jealous King Leontes accuses his wife Hermione of infidelity. The grief about her unjustified depiction as an adalterous woman finally causes her death but in the end of the play, a statue of Hermione comes alive and steps down from her pedestal. According to Klaus Reichert, Shakespeare uses the myth of the animated statue to show the dangers of making up an image and taking it for real. See Klaus Reichert, “Die Wirklichkeit des Eingebildeten oder Kunst und Trick. Zu Shakespeare’s Arbeit am Pygmalion-Mythos”. Mayer and Neumann, 498.

[42] See Miles, 336.

[43] See Aurnhammer and Martin, 254; Martin 2004, 225.

[44] Bettina Brandl-Risi presents an impressive listing of Pygmalion adaptations in music-theatre from the late 17th century until 1992. See Bettina Brandl-Risi. “Der Pygmalion-Mythos im Musiktheater. Verzeichnis der Werke”. Pygmalion: Die Geschichte des Mythos in der abendländischen Kultur. Ed. Mayer, Mathias and Gerhard Neumann. Freiburg im Breisgau: Rombach, 1997, 672-719.

[45] See Dörrie, 55: “Vor allem an dieser Behandlung des Musikalischen zeigt sich, in wie hohem Maße mit dem bisher Üblichen gebrochen werden sollte. [...] Die neue Form des Melodramas erlaubt es, die Tiefe der Empfindung auszudrücken.”

[46] See Jean-Jacques Rousseau, “Pygmalion. Lyrische Szene”. Aurnhammer and Martin, 94: “Ich werde nicht müde, mein Werk zu bewundern; […] mich selbst bete ich an in dem, was ich geschaffen”.

[47] Dörrie, 56.

[48] See Claudia Weiser. Pygmalion. Vom Künstler und Erzieher zum pathologischen Fall. Eine stoffgeschichtliche Untersuchung. Frankfurt a. M.: Europäischer Verlag der Wissenschaften, 1998, 43-44.

[49] See Miles, 338-39.


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Title: Pygmalion’s Metamorphosis and Galatea’s Revenge: Feminist Revisions of Ovid’s Pygmalion Myth in British and American Literature since  the 20th Century