In Educating Rita, Willy Russell demonstrates that a person’s sense of self-worth doesn’t always correspond to tangible measures of success. When Rita first enrolls in Open University to study with Frank, she does so because she wants to realize her full potential. Fortunately, she achieves this goal, but she soon realizes that many of the people around her—even those who have accomplished much more in terms of academic success—are miserable or think quite lowly of themselves. For starters, her highly educated and cultured roommate, Trish, tries to commit suicide. Even Frank, an accomplished poet and scholar, seemingly loathes himself and deals with this insecurity by drinking heavily and disparaging his own work. As such, Russell suggests that one’s self-worth shouldn’t (and doesn’t) necessarily depend upon standard metrics of success or accomplishment, but rather on an inherent capacity for self-esteem and personal value.
In the play’s first scene, Rita comes to Frank and tells him why she wants to secure an education for herself. When he asks what led her to “suddenly” pursue this, she explains that her husband, Denny, wants her to get pregnant and that “everyone” around her “expects” her to start thinking about motherhood. “See,” she says, “I don’t want a baby yet. I wanna find myself first, discover myself.” Rather than simply accepting the idea of becoming a mother even though she doesn’t want to, Rita decides to follow her aspirations to become an educated woman. The fact that she wants to “find” herself suggests that she believes there is something lurking in her that is worth looking for in the first place. Indeed, she wants to “discover” her own potential, a notion that emphasizes the belief and confidence she has in herself.
While Rita seeks to “discover” herself by expanding her intellectual horizons and becoming an educated person, Frank lacks even the smallest sense of self-worth. Even though he teaches at an esteemed university and has published several collections of poetry, he doesn’t seem to value himself at all. He makes this clear when he disparages himself to Rita, telling her that he can’t possibly impart anything of worth to her. “Everything I know,” he says, “is that I know absolutely nothing.” This attitude underlines how deeply he doubts himself, even in the context of academia—an environment in which he has already garnered success. Unfortunately, this success does nothing to improve his self-worth, and so he wallows in his low opinion of himself by drinking heavily and claiming that his talents amount to nothing.
When Rita passes her examination, she comes back to Frank’s office to thank him for teaching her. During this conversation, she admits that proving herself academically hasn’t necessarily given worth or meaning to her life. Frank commends her on her high marks, and she says, “Yeh. An’ it might be worthless in the end. But I had a choice. I chose, me.” By saying this, she recognizes that academic success isn’t valuable in and of itself. Suggesting that her educational triumphs might be “worthless in the end,” she acknowledges that such achievements don’t automatically lead to a sense of self-worth. However, the reason she sought an education in the first place wasn’t simply to pass exams or earn accolades, but to prove her personal agency to herself. Indeed, she wanted to “discover” her potential. By “choosing” to work hard for herself—to pursue what she wants in life, not what her husband and society thinks she should want—Rita has acted on the belief and confidence she has in herself. Because Rita is the only person in Educating Rita who demonstrates even a modicum of self-worth, Russell shows that true personal value comes not from arbitrary accomplishments, but from a genuine belief in oneself that underscores a one’s agency and inherent worth.
Self-Worth Quotes in Educating Rita
Well, then you shouldn’t have prepared supper, should you? Because I said, darling, I distinctly recall saying that I would be late…Yes, yes, I probably shall go to the pub afterwards—I shall no doubt need to go to the pub afterwards if only to mercifully wash away some silly woman’s attempts to get into the mind of Henry James or Thomas Hardy or whoever the hell it is we’re supposed to study on this course…Christ, why did I take this on? …Yes, darling, yes, I suppose I did take it on to pay for the drink… Determined to go to the pub? When did I need determination to get me into a pub…?
They expect too much. They walk into the hairdresser’s and expect to walk out an hour later as a different person. I tell them, I’m just a hairdresser, not a plastic surgeon. See, most of them, that’s why they come the hairdresser’s—because they want to be changed. But if you wanna change y’ have to do it from the inside, don’t y’? Know like I’m doin’…tryin’ to do. Do you think I will? Think I’ll be able to do it.
I’ve been realisin’ for ages that I was…slightly out of step. I’m twenty-six. I should have had a baby by now; everyone expects it—I’m sure my husband thinks I’m infertile. He’s always goin’ on about havin’ babies. We’ve been tryin’ for two years now; but I’m still on the pill! See, I don’t want a baby yet. I wanna find myself first, discover myself. Do you understand that?
Yeh. They wouldn’t round our way. I’ve tried to explain to my husband but between you an’ me I think he’s just thick! No, not thick; blind, that’s what he is. He can’t see because he doesn’t want to see. If I try an’ do anything different he gets a gob on him; even if I’m just reading or watchin’ somethin’ different on the telly he gets really narked.
I’ll make a bargain with you, yes? I’ll teach you everything I know…but if I do that then you must promise never to come back here…because there’s nothing here for you! You see I never…I didn’t want to teach this course in the first place; allowed myself to be talked into it. But I knew it was wrong and seeing you only confirms my suspicion. My dear, it’s not your fault, just the luck of the draw that you got assigned to me; but get me you did. And the thing is, between you, me and the walls, I’m really rather an appalling teacher. Most of the time that doesn’t really matter—appalling teaching is quite in order when most of my students are themselves fairly appalling. And the others manage to get by despite me. But you, young woman, you are quite, quite different, you are seeking a very great deal indeed; and I’m afraid I cannot provide it. Everything I know—and you must listen to this—is that I know absolutely nothing.
Rita: See, if I’d started takin’ school seriously then I would have had to become different from my mates; an’ that’s not allowed.
Frank: Not allowed by whom?
Rita: By y’ mates, y’ family, by everyone. So y’ never admit that school could be anythin’ other than useless an’ irrelevant. An’ what you’ve really got to be into are things like music an’ clothes and getting’ pissed an’ coppin’ off an’ all that kind of stuff. Not that I didn’t go along with it because I did. But at the same time, there was always somethin’ tappin’ away in my head, tryin’ to tell me I might have got it all wrong. But I’d just put the music back on or buy another dress an’ stop worryin’. ’Cos there’s always something that can make y’ forget. An’ so y’ keep on goin’, tellin’ y’self that life is great—there’s always another club to go to, a new feller to be chasin’, a laugh an’ a joke with the girls. Till one day, you just stop an’ own up to yourself. Y’ say, ‘Is this it? Is this the absolute maximum that I can expect from this livin’ lark?’ An’ that’s the really big moment that is. Because that is when you’ve got to decide whether it’s gonna be another change of dress or a change in yourself.
There is no contentment. Because there’s no meanin’ left. (Beat.) Sometimes, when y’ hear the old ones tellin’ stories about the past, y’ know, about the war or when they were all strugglin’, fightin’ for food and clothes and houses, their eyes light up while they’re tellin y’ because there was some meanin’ then. But what’s…what’s stupid is that now…now that most of them have got some kind of a house an’ there is food an’ money around, they’re better off but, honest, they know they’ve got nothin’ as well—because the meanin’s all gone; so there’s nothin’ to believe in. It’s like there’s this sort of disease but no one mentions it; everyone behaves as though it’s normal, y’ know, inevitable, that there’s vandalism an’ violence an’ houses burnt out and wrecked by the people they were built for. But this disease, it just keeps on bein’ hidden; because everyone’s caught up in the ‘Got-to-Have’ game, all runnin’ round like headless chickens chasin’ the latest got-to-have tellies an’ got-to-have cars, got-to-have garbage that leaves y’ wonderin’ why you’ve still got nothin’—even when you’ve got it. (Beat.) I suppose it’s just like me, isn’t it, y’ know when I was buyin’ dresses, keepin’ the disease covered up all the time.
I’m all right with you, here in this room; but when I saw those people you were with I couldn’t come in. I would have seized up. Because I’m a freak. I can’t talk to the people I live with any more. An’ I can’t talk to the likes of them on Saturday, or them out there, because I can’t learn the language. I’m an alien. I went back to the pub where Denny was, an’ me mother, an’ our Sandra, an’ her mates. I’d decided I wasn’t comin’ here again. I went into the pub an’ they were singin’, all of them singin’ some song they’d learnt from the jukebox. An’ I stood in that pub an’ thought, just what in the name of Christ am I trying to do? Why don’t I just pack it in, stay with them, an’ join in with the singin’?
Well, I did join in with the singin’, I didn’t ask any questions, I just went along with it. But when I looked round, my mother had stopped singin’, an’ she was cryin’. Everyone just said she was pissed an’ we should get her home. So we did, an’ on the way I asked her why. I said, ‘Why are y’ cryin’, Mother?’ She said, ‘Because—because we could sing better songs than those.’ Ten minutes later, Denny had her laughing and singing again, pretending she hadn’t said it. But she had. And that’s why I came back. And that’s why I’m staying.
Rita (angrily): What d’ y’ mean be careful? I can look after myself. Just ’cos I’m learnin’, just ’cos I can do it now an’ read what I wanna read an’ understand without havin’ to come runnin’ to you every five minutes y’ start tellin’ me to be careful. (She paces about.)
Frank: Because—because I care for you—I want you to care for yourself.
Rita: Tch. (She goes right up to Frank. After a pause.) I—I care for you, Frank…But you’ve got to—to leave me alone a bit. I’m not an idiot now, Frank—I don’t need you to hold me hand as much…I can—I can do things on me own more now…And I’m careful. I know what I’m doin’. Just don’t—don’t keep treatin’ me as though I’m the same as when I first walked in here.