How do you solve a problem like Maria?
Easy. Just hire Julie Andrews to play her.
After the film's release, when a lot of high-profile film critics were busy hating, they still agreed that Julie Andrews' energetic performance kept the film from sinking into a miserable, sentimental muck.
Maria is one of the most memorable characters in musical-film history—a joyful, playful, optimistic person who's had some sadness in her life, but whose love of music and nature buoys her along. She tells us all about herself in the opening scene:
MARIA: The hills fill my heart with the sound of music.
My heart wants to sing every song it hears.
[…] I go to the hills when my heart is lonely.
I know I will hear what I've heard before.
My heart will be blessed with the sound of music
And I'll sing once more.
Singing seems like a spiritual experience for her. We soon find out why.
While Maria's been filling us with the sound of music in that opening scene, she's really playing hooky. She's supposed to be back at the abbey for Vespers prayers.
Yep—our happy, tuneful nature lover is also a novice nun at an abbey in Salzburg. So now we know she's really sweet and virtuous. She's totally devoted to God. But there's a catch: She can't seem to keep her focus on becoming a nun. She sings (not allowed in the abbey), she wanders, and she's late for everything. Her presence in the abbey is starting to be a little…disruptive.
NUN #1: When I'm with her I'm confused, out of focus and bemused
And I never know exactly where I am.
NUN #2: Unpredictable as weather. She's as flighty as a feather.
NUN #4: She's a darling.
NUN #3: She's a demon.
NUN #4: She's a lamb.
NUN #1: She'll out-pester any pest, drive a hornet from its nest.
NUN #2: She can throw a whirling dervish out of whirl!
The nuns love Maria but don't know what to do with her… except sing about it.
NUNS: She climbs a tree and scrapes her knee.
Her dress has got a tear.
She waltzes on her way to Mass and whistles on the stair.
And underneath her wimple she has curlers in her hair.
I've even heard her singing in the abbey!
[…] How do you solve a problem like Maria?
How do you catch a cloud and pin it down?
[…] How do you keep a wave upon the sand?
Maria knows her faults more than anyone. She knows she's flighty and can't stop singing and speaking her mind. She tells the Reverend Mother how awful she feels about it.
MARIA: You know how Sister Berthe makes me kiss the floor after a disagreement? Lately, I kiss the floor when I see her coming to save time!
Reverend Mother adores Maria, but thinks she might not be suited to the contemplative life; her mind just won't sit still. Not wanting Maria to make a seriously bad career move, she suggests that maybe the abbey isn't the right place for Maria just now. Her energy and lively nature might be a better fit somewhere else.
Maria balks, but when the Reverend Mother describes it as the "will of God" that Maria leave, how can she refuse? Maria's even less thrilled when she hears that the Reverend Mother is sending her to be a governess for a widower with seven children. But God's will, etc. She reassures herself that "Whenever God closes a door, somewhere He opens a window."
Nobody Solves a Problem Like Maria
Maria's a super positive person, so she decides to take on her new assignment with the von Trapps with a "can do" attitude. It works, but not without a few bumps early on. The captain can't even stand the sight of her at first. He doesn't like her clothes. Maria doesn't seem too self-conscious, though; she's got a good reason:
CAPTAIN VON TRAPP: Put on another dress before meeting the children.
MARIA: But I don't have another. When we enter the abbey, our worldly clothes go to the poor.
CAPTAIN VON TRAPP: What about this one?
MARIA: The poor didn't want it.
Maria's not that intimated by the stern Captain von Trapp. She thinks his policy of summoning her and the children with whistles is just nuts, and she doesn't mind telling him so as soon as they meet:
MARIA: Oh, no, sir. I'm sorry, sir! I could never answer to a whistle. Whistles are for animals, not for children. And definitely not for me. It would be too humiliating.
CAPTAIN VON TRAPP: Fräulein, were you this much trouble at the abbey?
MARIA: Oh, much more, sir!
Turns out, Maria and and the captain, who's extremely controlling and bossy, disagree about everything related to the children. We talk more about the captain in his Character Analysis, but basically, he treats his kids exactly as he'd treat a crew on one of his ships. Maria, in contrast, wants to get to know them and nurture them, and has crazypants ideas such as wanting to make the children some clothes that they can play in—which the captain vetoes immediately.
She does it anyway.
The children give Maria a hard time when she first arrives, switching their names, insulting her clothes, and pulling the old frog-in-the-pocket trick to scare her. We see what a decent person she is because she doesn't tell their father what they've done.
MARIA: I'd like to thank you all for the precious gift you left in my pocket today.
CAPTAIN VON TRAPP: What gift?
MARIA: It's a secret between the children and me.
CAPTAIN VON TRAPP: Then I suggest you keep it, and let us eat.
MARIA: Knowing how nervous I must have been, a stranger in a new household, knowing how important it was for me to feel accepted, it was so kind and thoughtful of you to make my first moments here so warm and happy and pleasant.
That gets her some serious cred with the kids. In fact, a couple of them sob with guilt.
The kids warm up to Maria quickly enough. Conveniently, there's a thunderstorm that first night, and they end up in her room looking for comfort. First the little ones, then everyone. Maria cheers them up with stories about how she handles being sad and afraid by thinking about her favorite things. Personally, we're not crazy about schnitzel, but whatever.
It only takes Maria something like 12 hours to win them over. Maria's a total natural with kids, and we don't know how she got that way… other than plot necessity. The nuns think of Maria as a child at heart—maybe that's why she can relate.
Anyway, Maria learns from the housekeeper that the captain is intending to marry his girlfriend, Baroness Schraeder. Now she sees what God was up to:
MARIA: Dear Father, now I know why You sent me here. To help these children prepare for a new mother.
After the captain leaves for a business trip, Maria starts transforming the atmosphere in the home. She makes the kids playclothes (out of her old curtains, since the captain refused to pay for the fabric), teaches them how to sing, and just generally gets them to loosen up and have fun.
The captain returns home with his sweetie the baroness to find that Maria has been allowing his kids to run around town in old curtains, climbing trees and falling out of boats. In the heated argument that follows, Maria's not afraid to tell him off for only interacting with his kids long enough to boss them around. She's passionate about this:
MARIA: Kurt acts tough to hide the pain when you ignore him, the way you do all of them. Louisa, I don't know about yet. The little ones just want love. Please, captain, love them all!
CAPTAIN: I don't care to hear more.
MARIA: I am not finished yet, captain!
He's shocked. Nobody talks to him like that. She's sacked on the spot.
Just in the nick of time, he hears the children in the distance singing a song Maria taught them to welcome the baroness. He's transfixed by the sound, suddenly realizing that keeping joy and music out of the house after his wife's death was wrong, wrong, wrong. Maria's brought it back. She's un-sacked.
And… we have our turning point.
A Girl Who Will Never Be a Nun
Once they get over their initial mutual disdain, Maria and the captain slowly develop respect for each other. And since this is a movie musical, that respect morphs into romance. Maria doesn't even really notice until the baroness helpfully points it out:
BARONESS: Now where is that lovely little thing you were wearing the other evening? When the captain couldn't keep his eyes off you.
MARIA: Couldn't keep his eyes off me?
BARONESS: Come, my dear, we are women. Let's not pretend we don't know when a man notices us.
MARIA: The captain notices everybody.
BARONESS: There's no need to feel so defensive, Maria. You are quite attractive, you know. The captain would hardly be a man if he didn't notice you.
MARIA: Baroness, I hope you're joking.
This totally throws Maria off balance; falling in love wasn't on her agenda. She packs her bags and flees the von Trapp house without saying goodbye, hoping that the abbey will take her back for good. Which is exactly what the baroness hoped would happen.
That doesn't work, though, because the Reverend Mother soon realizes that Maria is just running away from her feelings about Captain von Trapp. She forces Maria to go back and face her feelings. She does. He does. There's a gorgeous, awesome wedding at the cathedral in the abbey, and the nuns celebrate their wayward novice, who finally found what God meant her to be. Maria takes one last look at the nuns behind their gate and turns to walk into the church and start her new life. It's as if she still can't believe all this has happened to her.
She's definitely said yes to a fabulous dress. As she walks down the long aisle, there's a reprise of the song "A Problem Like Maria."
But this time? Problem solved.
The Good Wife
Marriage changes Maria. She comes back from the honeymoon and seems to have a new serenity and seriousness about her. No more frolicking or falling out of rowboats. She's wearing a tailored suit and looks every bit the grownup. It's as if she's learned a lot about life and love in just a few weeks. When Liesl confides in her about the problems with Rolfe, she says,
MARIA: Gone are your old ideas of life. The old ideas grow dim.
Lo and behold, you're someone's wife, and you belong to him.
(Listen, it's 1938. Get over it.)
This completes Maria's character arc. For the rest of the film, she's the loving wife and mature, steady presence who stands by her man and comforts her children. When Max begs her to talk the captain, for his own good, into cooperating with the new regime, she just replies,
MARIA: Max, I can't ask him to be less than he is.
Maria calmly talks her way into the music festival to help the family escape Austria. When the captain's overwhelmed with emotion while singing "Edelweiss," she steps forward to accompany him. She comforts and reassures the children as they hide in the abbey and start their trek over the mountains into Switzerland.
The music she's brought to the family ultimately saves their lives.