When the lights come on, Frank is in his office looking out the window. After approaching the bookcase several times but refraining from looking for scotch, he says, “Oh, sod it!” to himself and starts searching for a bottle behind the books. As he does so, he hears Rita outside the door—she is oiling the tricky handle. She then enters and starts walking through the room and inspecting things, telling Frank that she loves his office because there’s nothing “phoney about it.” She wants a space like this someday, she tells him. When she asks if he’s been drinking, Frank says that he hasn’t, and she asks, “Is that because of me? Because of what I said to y’ last week?” In response, he says, “What? You think where so many others have failed, you have reformed me!”
When Rita asks if Frank has stopped drinking because of what she said the previous week, the audience senses that a little bit of time may have passed between scene one and scene two. Nonetheless, Rita and Frank still have more or less the same dynamic at play in their mentor-pupil relationship—Rita still admires Frank, and Frank is still a disenchanted professor who openly embraces his alcoholism. One thing worth noting is that Rita’s oiling of the door handle is in many ways symbolic, as she goes out of her way to enable herself to more easily access Frank’s office, a place that represents the kind of elite educational realm she wants so badly to inhabit.
Rita looks out the window and speaks admiringly about the campus and its students, telling Frank about her own experience in school. She explains that when she was younger, she couldn’t focus on her studies because doing so would have been out of step with what everybody around her was doing. She says that everybody always said school was “useless an’ irrelevant,” instead paying attention to “things like music an’ clothes an getting’ pissed.” She admits that she acted like this, too, but eventually she paused to consider what she was doing. “One day, you just stop an’ own up to yourself,” she says. “Y’ say, ‘Is this it? Is this the absolute maximum that I can expect from this livin’ lark?’” She explains that when she asked herself this question, she knew she had to decide between “another change of dress or a change in [herself].”
Yet again, Rita illustrates the ways in which she feels held back by her working-class background, where nobody seems to value education or encourage the kind of personal growth that can come out of academic pursuits. Instead of focusing on her studies, Rita has spent her life pursuing superficial things like buying new dresses. In keeping with her earlier assertion that a person has to change “from the inside” in order to actually make a difference in his or her life, Rita has now determined to remain true to her desire to attain the “absolute maximum.”
Rita explains that she’s not going to get a new dress until she passes her first exam, at which point she’ll get “a proper dress, the sort of dress you’d only see on a educated woman.” Changing the topic, Frank and Rita discuss an essay Rita wrote about Rubyfruit Jungle. Frank tells her that her work was really more of “an appreciation” of the book than it was a piece of “analytical criticism.” “But I don’t want to criticise Rubyfruit Jungle!” Rita says. “Because I think it’s brilliant!” In response, Frank explains that there’s a difference between “analytical criticism” and “being critical in a censorious way.” In this regard, he tries to get Rita to approach literary criticism as “being purely objective,” telling her that calling a book “brilliant” is subjective and thus doesn’t qualify as “analytical.”
This is the first time Rita encounters the various expectations and conventions that come along with institutionalized education. Indeed, Frank tries to show her that she has to adhere to a certain standard when writing essays. In this case, that means remaining “objective” when discussing literature, even if she thinks a book is “brilliant.” Of course, this doesn’t come naturally to Rita, who is strongly opinionated and wants to express her thoughts in her own manner rather than adhering to a conventional form.
In light of what he has just said about literary criticism, Frank asks Rita to write an analysis of E.M. Forster’s Howards End—an assignment that annoys Rita because she disliked the book, finding it difficult to care about its characters or themes. As Frank tries to convince her that she’ll have to learn how to write intelligently even about books she hates (if she wants to pass her exams), she interrupts him by asking if he’s married. Frank tells her that he’s not, explaining that he’s divorced because one day, his then-wife pointed out that he had spent fifteen years writing poetry about nothing but the beginning of their relationship. “Are you a poet?” Rita asks, and he says. “Was—an extremely minor one—and so, to give me something fresh to fire the muse, she left me.” Instead of writing new poems, though, Frank stopped writing altogether.
Russell clarifies the nature of Frank’s disenchantment in this moment, showing the audience that his defeated mentality is the result of his failed past not only romantically, but also in terms of his work as a poet. What’s more, the fact that his conversation with Rita about Howards End quickly transitions into a highly personal discussion of his history with love and literature shows once again the fluidity of his and Rita’s rapport. In the same way that everyday conversations can quickly turn into academic lessons, literary discussions also morph into intimate topics, ultimately suggesting that the process of learning can’t be confined to only one realm. Rather, a true education is wide-ranging and doesn’t always adhere to the boundaries put in place by conventional pedagogical methods.
Rita asks if she can buy some of Frank’s poetry, but he tells her that his books are out of print, and that she wouldn’t like them because they depend upon literary allusion, rendering them difficult to understand. “So d’you live on your own now?” she asks. “No!” he replies. “I live with someone; an ex-student, she’s now a tutor here. She’s very caring, very tolerant, admires me enormously.” While telling Rita about his girlfriend, Julia, Frank reveals that he often “stops out” for several days at a time. “If you were mine an’ y’ stopped out for days, y’ wouldn’t get back in!” Rita declares, and Frank says, “Ah, but Rita, if I was yours would I even consider stopping out for days?”
This is a pivotal moment in Educating Rita. First of all, Frank reveals that he is romantically involved with a former student, meaning that he doesn’t mind transcending the standard boundaries between a mentor and a pupil. Second of all, he makes it clear that he harbors certain romantic interests for Rita, saying that he wouldn’t “stop out” on her if they were together. By saying this, he suddenly shifts the dynamic of their relationship, essentially erasing the distance between teacher and student and implying that he thinks about her in a romantic way.
Rita asks if Frank even likes Julia, and he says, “I like her enormously. It’s myself that I’m not too fond of.” In response, she says, “But you’re great.” Nonetheless, he assures her that there’s “less to [him] than meets the eye.” Missing the point, Rita says, “See—you can say dead clever things like that. I wish I could just talk like that, it’s brilliant.”
Frank’s low self-esteem resurfaces, as he says that there’s “less to [him] than meets the eye.” What’s more, it’s worth noting that Rita thinks Frank is “brilliant” because he can say “clever things.” Considering the fact that Frank is clearly interested in Rita romantically, it’s significant that she admires him. However, her admiration is tied to his intelligence—his “clever[ness]” and “brillian[ce].”
At this point, Frank tries to direct Rita’s attention back to Howards End, but she refuses, telling him that sometimes talking freely is important. “That’s what they do wrong in schools,” she says. “They get y’ gin’ and then y’ all havin’ a great time talkin’ about somethin’ that’s dead interestin’ but the next thing is they wanna turn it into a lesson.” Going on, she tells him about a fieldtrip she took once as a young student. On this trip, she spotted a beautiful, exotic bird. Just when she was about to tell the teacher about it, a fellow-student shushed her, saying, “Keep y’ mouth shut or she’ll make us write a bleedin’ essay on it!” Hearing this story, Frank says, “Yes! It’s what we do, Rita; we pluck birds from the sky and nail them down to learn how they fly.”
After Rita says that she admires Frank because he can say “clever things,” Frank seemingly recognizes that her admiration has nothing to do with romance. As such, he refocuses on the lesson plan. When does so, though, Rita objects, saying that educators are too quick to disregard the benefits of paying attention to things that exist outside the scope of their lesson plans. Since Frank is so suspicious of higher education and its rote methods, he’s delighted by this idea. Indeed, he agrees that teachers often make interesting things boring, even finding ways to ruin the beauty of, for example, an exotic bird. In this way, Russell suggests that institutionalized education is preoccupied with its own pedagogical approach and that this narrow-mindedness can be the detriment of a student’s educational journey.
“You’d think there was something wrong with education to hear you talk,” Rita says, and Frank suggests that “perhaps there is.” Rita then asks why Frank’s teaching her. “Because it’s what you wanted,” he says. “If it was up to me, what I’d like to do is take you by the hand and run out of this room for ever.” Rita takes this as a joke, saying, “Oh, be serious!”, but Frank pushes on, saying, “I am, Rita. I am! Right now there are a thousand things I’d rather do than teach—most of them with you, young woman.” He then laments that Rita didn’t walk into his office twenty years ago. “I know,” Rita says. “But it’s not twenty years ago, Frank. It’s now—you’re there an’ I’m here.” In response, Frank says, “Yes and you’re here for an education. Now come on! Forster.”
When Frank says that “there are a thousand things” he’d like to do with Rita, he insinuates that he’d like to have sex with her. Despite the fact that this transgresses against the boundaries between a mentor and a pupil, Rita finds a way to brush off Frank’s interest. She does this by reminding him of the circumstances that separate them, saying, “You’re there an’ I’m here.” This phrase essentially emphasizes the distance between the two of them, as Frank is an older professor, while she is a young pupil. By forcing him to acknowledge the context and nature of their relationship, she succeeds in shutting down the possibility of romance. Thankfully, Frank recognizes this, ultimately turning his attention back to an appropriate subject: Rita’s education.