Rita and Frank are from different social classes -working and middle, respectively -and this is readily apparent in their manners of speaking, social mores and behavior, extracurricular pursuits, views on the world, and more. Frank’s intellect and education place him firmly in the middle class, but he seems to take it for granted, and to be aware of the hollowness of such an existence. Rita’s working class existence is rough in a very different way, but instead of languishing in apathy and self-pity, she proceeds with zest and ambition. Her desire to move up the social ladder is the core of the play, but is fraught with complexities and questions. She may end up in an elevated class, but whether or not she possesses true and lasting happiness and self-fulfillment are left unanswered by Russell.
Education is arguably the most important theme of the text, but the role it plays is ambiguous. For Rita, education is a means to jump social classes, to escape a lackluster life, and to act as an arena in which she can make her own choices and be her own person. Through her education she does indeed achieve all of these things, but education is not a panacea. Frank’s comments and behavior reinforces the fact that education can shape a person in certain ways, but can also be a superficial, rigid structure in which a person’s individuality is swallowed up. Educated people have their own mores, norms, and codes of behavior and thinking that are just as limiting as those of the working class. Education, as Frank believes and as Russell may be asking us to consider, cannot transform a person’s inner being. On the other hand, education is the mark and maker of a civilized person, and being “civilized” offers many more opportunities than the other options available. Thus, there are multiple relevant messages about education within this text.
Rita and Frank are diametrically opposed when it comes to personal growth. Rita is fervently interested in bettering herself no matter how difficult or humiliating it might be. She succeeds in educating herself, moving up the social ladder, and freeing herself from the limitations of her old world. Frank, though, does not change at all. In fact, his drinking and his bitterness over Rita’s forward movement lead him to regress; he is temporarily removed from his job, loses his girlfriend, and prepares to leave for Australia. Russell leaves it open to interpretation if this disparity in personal growth is due to the characters’ ages, backgrounds, or inherent characteristics.
Rita views literature as more than just the study of writers, books, and ideas. She sees it as liberation, as something that feeds her soul and makes her whole. She scoffs at Frank’s idea that she should study politics, preferring to delve into the works of great writers and poets because they speak to her soul more directly. She isn’t interested in large-scale activism -just her own personal development. As with other themes, though, Russell’s views on literature are not entirely clear. It’s obvious Rita believes that she is being “fed," but by the end of the text it seems like all she has done is memorize the works of others rather than come to any understanding of who she is. On the other hand, literature did allow her to break free of certain shackles, so it may as liberating as she believes it to be, albeit in a different way.
Frank and Rita have a classic mentor/mentee relationship at the beginning of the text; after all, the play is based on Pygmalion. Frank gets to mold and shape Rita in his image, and Rita gets to leave behind the constraints of her working class past through his tutelage. This relationship proceeds as expected throughout the play, for eventually Rita becomes independent of Frank, which engenders bitterness on his part and frustration on hers. That is the essence of Pygmalion as well as what traditionally happens in mentoring, especially when the mentor comes to the relationship with his or her own expectations. Frank’s impact on Rita is undeniable, but he also complicates it immeasurably through his own personal failings.
Part of Rita’s learning entails seeing a performance of Macbeth, which leads to a discussion about tragedy. Frank explains to her what this means as any good professor would, but there is a lot more to his words. He talks of the character and his tragic flaw that makes his fate inevitable, which is very much a way to talk about Frank himself. Frank is very much a character who is ossified -he has traits that he cannot and will not reform, he does not evolve and grow even when it behooves him to do so for both professional and personal reasons, and he becomes resentful of Rita moving on while he does not. Frank’s tragic flaws are his apathy, his cynicism, and his depression, and his loss of Julia and his job by the end of the play seem inevitable.
Authenticity is a prickly question in the text. Rita believes that her working-class background is not authentic and that she can change herself. Once she is educated, she believes that is who she really is. Frank differs, believing that she was truly authentic initially, and did not need to change anything about herself. He stops short of telling her that she has not really changed, but that is certainly a question to ask. Rita's lasting change, and whether she is truly in another class or just pretending, remains ambiguous at the end of the text.
Educating Rita Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Educating Rita is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.