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Friday Five: 5 Greatest Pygmalion Stories & The Pleasure Merchant

Hello all! It’s me, Molly. You may have seen me posting that Roald Dahl blog series over the course of this year. Now I’m doing my very first Friday Five.

I’m doubly excited, because this Friday Five is also my official announcement of my second full-length novel: The Pleasure Merchant; or, The Modern Pygmalion. (Follow the link for a brief description on my home website.) It’s due out next autumn from Lazy Fascist, the same publisher that put out my first collection, A Pretty Mouth. I really can’t say how thrilled I am about this!

As you can tell from the title, The Pleasure Merchant will be part of the grand tradition of Pygmalion retellings. The original myth is of course one of the ancient world's most famous: the sculptor Pygmalion, disgusted with all the ladies of Cyprus, carves himself ideal girl. During the process he falls in love with his creation, but everything turns out all right in the end (at least, for Pygmalion) because Aphrodite transforms the sculpture into a real woman. They live happily ever after.

Modern treatments of the Pygmalion myth sometimes explore Pygmalion’s side of things; others, the perspective of his lady (named Galatea much later by Jean-Jaques Rousseau). Irrespective of the point of view, Pygmalion stories always focus on the idea of making someone into someone else. Sometimes this metamorphosis (or attempted metamorphosis) is played for comedy, sometimes for drama, or straight-up horror. Whatever any particular case may be, there’s something undeniably and enduringly fascinating about the central idea; given the volume of Pygmalion retellings out there, it was quite a challenge to narrow down this list to five. But, here they are:

My fair ladyMy Fair Lady 

Yes, this 1956 musical is admittedly the low hanging fruit—I mean, the George Bernard Shaw play on which the show is based is… well it’s literally titled Pygmalion.

Yet even being such an obvious choice I couldn’t keep it off this list, because not only was the film version with Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison my first exposure to modern Pygmalion retellings…  I also really like it. I know, I know. There are a million problematic elements to the story. At least. I shan't waste anyone's time by denying their validity. But, what keeps me coming back to this version of Pygmalion is (for me) its curious lack of a classically romantic ending. 

Some will say that Galatea-figure Eliza Dolittle’s return to Pygmalion stand-in Henry Higgins is romantic, but I don’t see it. Higgins’ multiple lyrical rants about why women should be more like men seems a little, you know… "coded." And Eliza certainly doesn’t evince any romantic feelings toward Higgins, in spite of, or perhaps because he "created" her. Their relationship seems built, rather, on companionable compatibility more than anything else—by the end of the show they’ve become accustomed to one another’s faces, as the song goes.


Hannibal is an ongoing television drama airing on NBC, about the famous cannibal-psychiatrist Hannibal Lecter, though it’s only loosely (at this point) based on Thomas Harris’ novels.

For those familiar with the Hannibal "canon" (canonibal? canonbal?), so far the series exists kinda-sorta before the events of Red Dragon. Instead of eliding over the time between when Will Graham catches Garret Jacob Hobbs and goes chasing after Francis Dolarhyde, the series explores his relationship with Hannibal Lecter. In fact, Hannibal becomes Will Graham’s shrink. Hilarity ensues.

I’m not sure how to talk about Hannibal without revealing major plot spoilers for the uninitiated… so suffice it to say, Season 2 of the show is less a police procedural where characters chase after ridiculous serial killers, and more a cat and mouse game between Will and Hannibal, one where it’s uncertain who is making the other into something else—a version they prefer instead of the reality of what is. Harris fans know metamorphosis is a major theme in his work; Hannibal takes that even further, exploring the very nature of what makes us who we are, and how that can be altered. It’s amazing.

DorianThe Picture of Dorian Gray 

Oscar Wilde’s only novel is a tale in the Faustian tradition, yes, but it also has resonance with the Pygmalion myth. But who is Pygmalion, and who is Galatea? There are several candidates, of course, for either role… and I would argue the motif is repeated across multiple relationships. Basil Hallward, who paints the famous portrait, could be a sort of Pygmalion figure, as an artist who tries to create an ideal to suit his fancy. And Dorian himself could be a Pygmalion, too, during his courtship of Sibyl Vane.

I believe Dorian is actually the Galatea of the novel, however. The real Pygmalion figure is Lord Henry "Harry" Wotton. Upon meeting Dorian, Wotton decides to try to corrupt the innocent boy into a hedonistic decadent libertine just like himself, and he succeeds in re-shaping Dorian as wholly as any sculptor wielding a chisel.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show

Dr. Frank N. Furter is kind of the ultimate Pygmalion figure, and given his… appetites… he has more than one Galatea.

The most obvious of Frank N. Furter’s creations is, of course, Rocky Horror himself, the muscle man with blonde hair and a tan, made in seven days (maybe? It’s unclear) by the doctor, for the purpose of relieving of his… tension. But Brad and Janet are also Galateas, forever molded by their exposure to the transsexual Transylvanian. Pygmalion is evoked more overtly than other adaptations when Frank N. Furter flips the switch on his Medusa Transducer, which in spite of his claims doesn’t seduce anyone, but rather transforms his disobedient creations into statues…

DayHow to Create the Perfect Wife: Britain's Most Ineligible Bachelor and his Enlightened Quest to Train the Ideal Mate

The 'ineligible bachelor' referenced in the title of Wendy Moore's history is Thomas Day (who is also the real-life inspiration for certain characters and events within my new project). Most know Day for being an abolitionist and the author of the famous and celebrated 18th century children’s book Sanford and Merton. But Day was also a philosopher; he loved Rousseau, and after reading Rousseau’s speculative work on education, Emile, he decided to try several educational experiments of his own.

Perpetually unlucky in love, Day’s most notorious experiment was his attempt to train a wife for himself. How? Well, Day fudged a lot of legal paperwork and adopted two orphan girls of about 13 years old (an heir and a spare, as the saying goes). He took them to France in order to isolate them and teach them everything he thought the perfect wife should know.

Unfortunately for "our hero," Day was  less successful than Pygmalion when it came to creating his ideal woman. Day required his future wife to care nothing for her appearance, but still be beautiful and tidy of dress; she must work hard but never complain about her trials and tribulations; she would be educated and intelligent, but perfectly obedient to his will and accepting of his every opinion. This was rather a lot to ask of two high-spirited teenagers, and in the end, neither worked out. Though, it should be noted, both girls went on to live happy and successful lives after their extraordinary time in Day’s, er, "care."

Day’s experiment is detailed in How To Create The Perfect Wife. It’s a wonderful, lively read, and I highly recommend it if you enjoy pop history, the 18th century, women’s studies, or some combination of the above. Let me put it this way: rare is the work of nonfiction that makes me cry at the end. It's extraordinary.