Sitting at his desk, Frank reads one of Rita’s essays as she rushes into the room and apologizes for being late. Accepting her apology, he asks her about the piece she wrote. He says, “In response to the question, ‘Suggest how you might resolve the staging difficulties inherent in a production of Ibsen’s Peer Gynt,’ you have written, quote, ‘Do it on the radio’, unquote.” This, he tells Rita, is not a sufficient answer because it’s too short. Defending herself, Rita says that she didn’t have much time to focus on the assignment because the salon was busy this past week and she can’t work on her writing at home because Denny, her husband, “gets really pissed off” if she does academic work at home.
The fact that Rita is unable to devote time to her academic studies when she’s at home illustrates that her background and the people closest to her are weary of her efforts toward personal growth. Indeed, Denny “gets really pissed off” when she does schoolwork, a sentiment that aligns with Rita’s previous statement about the widespread negative attitude toward education that she encountered while growing up. Unfortunately, Denny seems to have carried this mentality into his adult life, thereby inhibiting Rita and compromising her ability to secure an education.
Frank tries to get Rita to see that she won’t pass her exams if she writes such short answers, even if they’re technically correct. He asks her to sit down and write a new response. After only a few moments of writing, though, she starts talking again, saying, “Y’know Peer Gynt? He was searchin’ for the meaning of life, wasn’t he?” She then tells Frank that she was doing a client’s hair the other day and started talking about Peer Gynt, telling the woman the entire plot. “An’ y’ know somethin’, she was dead interested,” Rita says. “She said to me, this woman, after I’d told her all about it, she said: ‘I wish I could go off searchin’ for the meanin’ of life.’ There’s loads of them around by us who feel like that. Because there is no meaning!”
When Frank tells Rita that she has to elaborate upon her answer even though the idea itself is valid, he once again emphasizes that there are certain standards and expectations inherent to institutionalized education. However, Rita’s genuine interest in the subject material—the play Peer Gynt—is perhaps even more valuable than learning how to formulate a conventional essay. After all, she has clearly internalized the play’s major themes, thinking about the work so much that she even talks about it to a client.
Still contemplating the “meaning of life,” Rita posits that people from her background don’t have a “culture,” suggesting that there’s no such thing as “working-class culture.” In turn, Frank suggests that she should perhaps open her eyes to her surroundings. “I do,” she says. “But I don’t see any culture, I just see everyone pissed or stoned tryin’ to find their way from one empty day to the next.” She then outlines a theory that everybody’s always trying to acquire new things, going through life with a “Got-to-Have” mentality that never results in true “contentment.” She calls this way of living a “disease,” saying that she herself suffered from this mentality when she was buying dresses instead of seeking meaningful change.
When she says that the working-class is completely devoid of “culture,” Rita degrades her own background and fails to recognize that “culture” isn’t a fixed concept. Indeed, her blue-collar origins don’t align with the kind of “culture” she associates with high-society people, but that doesn’t mean there’s no such thing as a “working-class culture.” Rita’s notion that consumerism is a “disease” points back to when she told Frank during their first meeting, “You’ve got to challenge death an’ disease.” At the time, Rita was referring to cigarettes, but the sentiment remains the same. Rita is committed to “challeng[ing]” the conventions that surround her.
Listening to Rita’s ideas about “contentment” and society’s “Got-to-Have” mentality, Frank suggests that she should take a politics course, but she says she hates politics. She insists that what she learns about art and literature from Frank sustains her throughout the week, even though Denny tries to stop her from coming to the lessons. “He hates me comin’ here,” she says. “It’s like druggies, isn’t it? Addicts hate it when one of them tries to break away. It makes me stronger comin’ here. That’s what Denny’s frightened of.”
By comparing Denny to a drug addict who hates seeing one of his fellow users get clean, Rita suggests that upward mobility is a sensitive concept in the working-class. Because she wants to pursue an education and thus improve her sense of self-worth, Denny is “frightened” that she’ll completely leave him behind. As such, he makes it clear that he “hates” it when she goes to study with Frank, since to him this symbolizes her discontentment with the existence she leads—an existence he is very much a part of.
Hearing Rita move from talking about Peer Gynt to “contentment” to her problems with Denny, Frank quotes Howards End, saying, “Only connect.” Rita scoffs at this, begging Frank not to go into Forster again, but Frank points out that she has been connecting ideas to her own life. In turn, Rita finally sees the merit of Howards End, understanding one of the novel’s key themes. “Why didn’t you just explain that to me right from the start?” she asks. “I could have done,” Frank replies. “But you’ll have a much better understanding of something if you discover it in your own terms.” Satisfied, Rita stops talking and focuses on her answer to Frank’s question about Peer Gynt. When she shows him what she’s written, she’s proud to have finally properly addressed the prompt.
In this moment, Frank praises the benefits of experiential education, or a style of teaching in which the student’s process of discovery is just as important as the answer itself. Rather than simply telling Rita how Forster’s phrase “Only connect” pertains to the book and life itself, he waits for her to come to this realization on her own.