An Education Educates On the Experience of Being a Woman

"The life I want, there is no shortcut."

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It’s been about 10 years since An Education was released, which seems like the perfect time to bring it centre-stage again. This movie might not have been on your radar despite the well known cast attached to it, with the likes of Dame Emma Thompson and Alfred Molina on board.

It is also the movie which launched Carey Mulligan’s career, with critics lauding her as the next Audrey Hepburn after her performance. It is easy to see why. There is such a bright luminous quality to her where she does so much with so little, communicating the youth and naivety of her character Jenny. She was 24 at the time, but completely believable as a 16 year old schoolgirl who gets caught up in an infatuation with an older man.

Jenny is all set for a path towards Oxford, until David (Peter Sarsgaard) shows her his exciting world of auctions, performances at the West End, the race tracks and weekends away at Paris. For a girl who exists in such a sterile suburban setting, what David offers is extremely seductive. She becomes his object of sorts, the innocent schoolgirl transformed into a worldly adult woman, only she isn’t.

We see glimpses that all is not as glittery as she believes, with David earning his money through cunning and manipulation, and his slimy demeanour shining through as we see him orchestrate things to get her into bed with him. We wonder when it will happen, yet when he finally succeeds, Jenny’s description makes it sound like a disappointing experience, which she then proceeds to shrug off – lovemaking cannot be the stuff of poetry she supposes.

The film does a great job at subverting the passionate lovemaking we are expecting, because this is not a romance. The image of her gazing out the window forlornly while having a cigarette after their lovemaking is the picture of a weary woman, so beaten down by the ways of the world. He, like the vampire that he is, has drained her of her youthful innocence and rose-coloured lens, dragging her into his seedy, corrupt world of fallen dreams and empty promises.

This is where reality sets in, where Jenny begins to think that this is what life is for a woman. After the lofty goal of Oxford, there still awaits the expectation of marriage and a domestic set-up. What is the point then of seeking an education, if that is the inevitable end point? Her parents reinforce this, happy to entertain David’s proposal because of his wealth and charm. If a man has wealth and desires you, you would be a fool to turn him down.

This is quite the switcheroo from her father’s earlier desire to get her into Oxford, whatever the cost. He is often seen lecturing her on her Latin, the subject that is holding her back from her Oxford dreams, but this is all forsaken when a rich man comes a-knocking. If her parents are so taken by him, and are so equally fooled, then what chance does a 16 year old impressionable young girl have?

It is especially apt that Jenny is studying Jane Eyre in her English class. After all, Rochester is precisely like David. He is rich, charming, older and more worldly compared to Jane. Similarly, he forges a romantic relationship with Jane despite his married status. Both Jenny and Jane sever ties with these men after this discovery, toeing the moral line. They then face the devastating consequences of giving their hearts and bodies to men who promised them the world; Jane is forced to leave the only home she has ever known and nearly dies, while Jenny has to deal with the fall-out of abandoning her education.

As a teacher, it frightens me when young women become so blind in their relationships, giving so much of themselves and getting so distracted that they sneer at the importance of education. Why bother when there is a possibility of a short-cut? After all, isn’t it our lot in life to make a good marriage and have babies?

Jenny eventually comes to see that an education is more than just a stepping stone for a career or job. An education gives us something for ourselves; it is the platform for an independent life and our own forays into intellectual thought, a stepping stone towards agency more than anything else. So when we do have relationships and get married, it is on our own terms and not at the whims of another.

Jenny gets into Oxford and gets a reboot of sorts with University life, where she gets to date “boys”, the word choice indicating herself as the more experienced one now. Jane marries Rochester, who has gone blind and lost his property and wife to a fire – allowing them to enter into a relationship of equals. An Education is a movie that emphasizes choice and agency – choose the educated life that you want, establish a space for yourself, then invite someone in, if you want.

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