Frank is typing and drinking when Rita comes in, twirling around in her new (second hand) clothes, beaming. She says London and summer school were fantastic; she’d met a group of people that she stuck with and they all went to the theater and out drinking. They still worked, though; there were lots of essays to write. She said she was scared at first, and recounted a story of how she wanted to make a flippant remark when a tutor asked her a question about a poet, but she decided not to. She even asked the professor a question one time in lecture, and never felt weird about it again.
She asks Frank how France was and he says there is not much to tell. He says it was hot and brings out a gift for her -- cigarettes -- but she says she quit. He says Julia left him, stemming from something to do with eggs. Now, though, he’s back and Julia’s back.
Rita mentions a woman named Trish in the conversation, who is her new flatmate. She describes her as “dead classy” and full of taste (57). Then she pulls out a gift for Frank -a pen engraved with “Must only be used for poetry," which she laughingly explains is supposed to get him back into his writing.
He thanks her and is quiet. Rita says she wants to study a great dead poet and suggests going down to the grass to sit but Frank doesn't want to do that. She then tries to open his window but it’s shut tightly; she talks about needing to air out the room because it’s like a plant. Frank gently but rudely mocks her analogy, mentioning soil and water as well.
As Frank pulls out a poet for her, she espies his whiskey bottle and asks if he is still on the stuff. She does not understand why, and he says “Life is such a deep and fantastic whirl that I need the drink to help me step delicately through it” (60). Frank sadly says what shall he do when Rita is no longer there once she has “reformed” him? She protests that she is not going anywhere but he says it is inevitable. Nevertheless, he will be glad to see her go because she shouldn't stay in a room like this.
Rita is quiet, then says he can be a “real misery sometimes” (61) and has ruined her good mood. Frank pulls out William Blake and says maybe that will cheer her up, but is surprised when Rita says she has read and studied it all; she even recites a poem from memory.
Frank is marking up essays. Rita comes in and apologizes for being late. Her voice is different and Frank asks about that. She says she has decided to talk properly now, thanks to Trish’s counsel and help. Frank sighs and says she ought to be herself, and she says that she is.
Frank notices grass on her back and she says she was sitting with the students on the lawn talking after she’d been bold enough to go up to one loud-mouthed one and tell him he could not possibly defend his thesis that Lady Chatterley's Lover was better than Sons and Lovers. She said the others agreed with her and one invited her to come with them to the South of France for Christmas.
Surprised, Frank says she can’t go because of exams, then when she corrects him on their date says she has to wait for his result. Rita says she can’t go anyway. She muses that one of the crazier ones is named Tyson but everyone calls him Tiger.
Frank asks if there is a point to going over his essay if she will just fall in love and go off to the South of France. Appalled, Rita says she is not in love at all, and Frank says she ought to stop going on and on about Tyson.
She says she is not, and then asks about her essay. He grudgingly admits it would fit in with the rest of them.
When Rita comes in she sees a very drunk Frank tottering around his room, angry and flustered. He says some of his students reported him for being drunk and the university has encouraged him to go on a sabbatical (because they were lazy and would never actually fire anyone unless it was a more grandiose crime). He might go to Australia, which he suggested himself as a joke.
Rita muses that it might have been fairer to the students if he was so drunk that he was falling off his rostrum; it may have been for his own good. He complains about the students.
Rita moves to leave and says they will talk about her essay later but he retains her and says he wants to talk to her about her response to “The Blossom,” which she interpreted to be about sexuality. He tells her it is a straightforward poem and rather simple and uncomplicated. Furrowing her brow, Rita says there is “concealed meaning” (69) in it and asks if it is wrong. Frank says no, but he does not like it. Rita retorts that he is being subjective.
Frank shrugs and says she has regurgitated other people’s views and not put her own in here -that it’s all “up to the minute, quite acceptable, trendy stuff about Blake” (69). Annoyed, Rita says that he told her to be objective and do research and not to not have a view, so that is what she did. She talked to people and did her work after consulting many opinions.
She asks indignantly if she is allowed to have a mind of her own and that she is not an idiot anymore. She does not want to be treated as one, and now understands the difference between Thomas Hardy and Rita Mae Brown. Frank is quiet and sad and says he understands.
After a moment Rita apologizes, and Frank says there is no need to. He adds that he read Rubyfruit Jungle and quite liked it. Rita laughs and says it is good for what it is but is not excellent.
Act II signals a major shift for Rita, and for the characters’ relationship. It is implied that in the months since Act I’s close, Frank has, albeit grudgingly, “reformed” Rita through his tutoring. When she comes back from a break, she has changed in overt and subtle ways. She has a new flatmate named Trish whom she admires for being “classy”, new friends with whom she spent time with at summer school in London, a new job (we find out about this in a later scene), a new name (we also find out about this later, but Rita has gone back to Susan), a potential new lover named Tyson/Tiger, and a desire to talk “properly” by trying to excise her Liverpudlian accent. She has even quit smoking, a minor but nevertheless impactful change.
Most obvious and important, however, is her newfound confidence and the concomitant lack of a need for Frank’s tutelage. She tells him how she avoided her defense mechanism of a sassy retort to a question, and then how she got up the nerve to ask a question in class and never thought twice about it again. Her work has improved dramatically, and she now seems completely fluent in classic literature and poetry, as evinced by her Blake familiarity. Her enthusiasm and passion for studying are even more pronounced than normal, as they are now rooted in actually comprehending what she is studying and being able to respond to it appropriately.
As for Frank, it is clear that he has not changed, and, if anything, is starting to see his situation worsen. He explains that his trip to France was uneventful, and that he and Julia split (but came back together for now). He is still drinking heavily, and in Scene 3 is even technically suspended from the university for this behavior -in particular, falling off the lectern while lecturing.
The conversations between Frank and Rita concerning this suspension as well as other changes reveal just how estranged the two of them are now. Rita is somewhat sympathetic to Frank when he says he is forced into a sabbatical, but also, now that she is a student and seeing things from that perspective, wonders if he doesn’t have a debt to his students and would thus be better off taking time away. Frank clearly sees this as a mini-betrayal, and responds in an injured tone. His bitterness seeps into his comments about Rita’s love life, claiming that there is no point in her taking an examination if she’s just going to fall in love and go to the South of France. This is wholly inappropriate for a tutor to be saying to his student, but it has been apparent for some time now that Frank is romantically interested in Rita (at least a little bit) and that he has also been projecting his own depression and discontent onto her. It is a very recognizable but lamentable human trait to wish others to identify fully with us and then become frustrated when they do not, or start off identifying but move away from it. Frank is stuck in the same place but Rita is moving on, and this is galling to him.
The space between them is also apparent in their discussion of Rita’s work on Blake. Rita is proud of her response because she knows it is well done and has avoided all of the problems she suffered from earlier on in her education, such as subjectivity and brevity, but Frank cannot help but see it as unoriginal, as parroting the work of critics. Russell’s brilliance comes in allowing us to identify with both perspectives. Frank is right in his cynicism, for a lot of academia is not about expressing oneself or thinking originally, but incorporating and synthesizing the long-held views of others. On the other hand, this is what it takes to succeed in academia and thus the wider world, and demonstrates one’s ability to research and think critically. Objectivity and synthesis are what he has consistently asked of Rita, and now he appears hypocritical and resentful in his comments to her.
There is more at stake, though, as their personal relationship factors in. Rita, who finally felt comfortable to challenge Frank’s ideas, feels that he is objecting to her opinions because she finally has opinions of her own. Frank maintains that is not the case, and that he merely wants her to think critically for herself. As the audience/readers, we clearly see both perspectives and why the characters possess them.