Mona Lisa Smile

Introduction | Plot Summary | Characters | Commentary & Analysis | Key Events


Many great thinkers have perceived the essential role of conflict and competition in human development. The famous British historian Arnold Toynbee described the advance of civilizations as a continuous process of challenge and response.

Mona Lisa Smile movie poster

Sri Aurobindo has explained how life presents exactly those conditions which are required for human beings to discover their hidden potentials and evolve spiritually. This process often takes the form of a conflict between the individual and society or between established social norms that are receding and new ideas and values that are emerging.

The film realistically depicts the process of social development, described in Theory of Social Development, with regard to the transition of American women from social character to social individuality. It brings into clear focus the role of the pioneering individual in breaking new grounds, the organized opposition and resistance of the conservative orthodoxy, which view the progress as a retrograde step, the factors leading to a change in attitude, and early stages of imitation as the new behavior acquires greater social approval.



This process is beautifully portrayed in Mona Lisa Smile. The film is about Katherine Watson, a college lecturer from liberal-minded California, who manages to get a teaching position in the Art History Department at Wellesley, a prestigious, conservative, and elite private women's college situated at the opposite end of the country in Massachusetts. The girls who attend Wellesley are drawn from some of the most wealthy, influential, and upper class families in America. Massachusetts is a conservative place where the upper class strives to preserve their distinctive superior position, and Wellesley is an institution dedicated to this cause.

Girls were sent there to learn good grooming, traditional values, and respectable behavior deemed appropriate for a life in high society during the early 1950s. That was a time and place where it was still believed that the ideal path for respectable women was to get a good education to prepare them for marriage, tending a house, and raising a family. This was the aspiration of the girls who attended Wellesley. This is what their families wanted for them and this is what the college prepared them for.


Then along came Katherine. She's from progressive California where class distinctions have lost importance, tradition is disregarded, and women aspire for freedom to think for themselves and act according to their own values rather than merely conform to a traditional role as dependents. What made a liberal young Californian to seek employment at a stodgy old college and what prompted the conservative college to employ her? Perhaps it illustrates the principle that we are subconsciously attracted to our opposites because they present us with the best opportunities for self-discovery and personal growth.



Certainly, that proved to be the case for Katherine and the college. In almost every way, Katherine and Wellesley rubbed each other the wrong way. The college insisted that she should strictly adhere to the lesson plan and textbook, which the students were adept at memorizing; whereas, Katherine wanted to provoke the students to think for themselves and arrive at their own judgements of things. The college insisted that social interaction between men and women should maintain ‘proper' appearances, even when actual behavior was far from ideal. Katherine disdained false appearances and insisted on the freedom to express what she really thought and felt without concealment. The students startled Katherine by their high intelligent and rude snobbery in dealing with one who was not drawn from their class. Katherine startled the students by challenging their mindless conformity to the traditional role of woman as dependent housewife and their refusal to seek careers in which they could fully develop and express their intellectual talents.


One student named Betty, whose influential and dominating mother was the head of the alumni association, chose the traditional ideal of an early marriage to a respectable man. Betty was appalled by the values and attitudes which Katherine exemplified and openly stirred up opposition to Katherine among the students, parents, and college administration. Katherine was equally appalled by Betty's thoughtless conformity and tried to convince other students that they need not follow the same path. Ultimately, Betty became disillusioned with woman's traditional role when she discovered that her husband was having an affair and her mother urged her to silently endure it in order to maintain proper appearances. Finally, she broke away from her mother's dominating influence, sought divorce and moved to New York City to start a career. Like many of us, Betty's path to progress involved the pain of rude awakenings and disillusioned dreams. In retrospect, her staunch opposition to Katherine concealed a subconscious urge for her own progress.

In spite of Wellesley's strict rules of behaviour and profession of high moral standards, Katherine discovered that people's conduct was far from admirable. Bill Dunbar, an Italian professor, had affairs with several of his own students and fabricated a story about fighting in World War II in order to impress Katherine and gain her affection. The college nurse was fired after 20 years of service for providing contraceptives to girls who asked for them. The college president, succumbing to pressure from Betty's mother to ensure continued financial support from the wealthy alumni, wrote to Katherine that her term of employment would be extended only if she accepted the most rigorous constraints on her freedom as a teacher and an individual.

The story depicts American society in a transition period in which women are casting off the shackles of their traditional role as socially dependent and intellectually inferior to men. Katherine represents the newly emerging values; Wellesley, the old that resist social change. Despite the apparent opposition, she manages to awaken her students to think for themselves and aspire beyond their traditional role. Her classes become so popular that they attract record enrolment for the following semester. Her students come to respect and adore her, even though they cannot fully accept her values or way of life. So successful is she in winning their hearts, that the college is compelled to extend her term of employment subject to strict conditions. Though she has a deep affection for the students and attraction for the challenge of changing those around her, ultimately she realizes that greater challenges and opportunities for growth lie elsewhere and she departs from Wellesley to pursue her process of self-discovery in Europe.

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