The movie Nell (1994) is a perfect example of the negative impact of social behavior that isolation has on small children. Portrayed by Jodie Foster, Nell is a young girl brought up only in contact with her mother and late twin sister. Due to the isolation, Nell is not taught real life relationships, social norms or loneliness. After her mother’s death she is discovered by Dr. Jerry Lovell (Liam Neeson) and taking an interest in her well being, he and psychology student Paula Olsen (Natasha Richardson) begin to study her behavior.

Due to these circumstances of isolation, Nell was not taught about real relationships, social norms and loneliness. When examining the mother’s body, Jerry and a local police officer named Todd, soon encounter the effects of this isolation as Nell begins violently kicking and screaming at the intruders in her secluded home. Unable to speak English, Nell has trouble understanding what the men are saying and can only respond herself with guttural noises, gestures and emotions. In order to make Nell more comfortable around him, Jerry returns regularly.

In doing so it allows Nell to open up enough to try and communicate with him in her own way, and own language, which the doctor begins the task of deciphering. Jerry soon gains Nell’s trust and is able to communicate with her to a small extent; Nell calls Jerry her “Ga’inja” meaning her guardian angel that came out of nowhere. She looks at Jerry and Paula as a couple, a kind of parent relationship she looked up to. In this case, Nell was not given the opportunity to go to school and make friends as a child normally will, but was kept in isolation for around twenty-five years.

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With only her mother and dead twin sister as company Nell was unable to learn and develop emotionally. Consequently “children need friends for emotional growth” (Haaland, & Schaefer, 2009) in being unable to obtain friends as a child, she was not able to grow emotionally and had a maturity of a young child which was “hardly human in a sense” (Haaland, & Schaefer, 2009). In this particular case, “nature versus nurture” (Haaland, & Schaefer, 2009) plays a large part because the lack of relationships made in Nell’s lifetime, nurture was almost nonexistent and only nature took its place.

This results in her lack of knowledge and an emotional underdevelopment. Because she is an older woman with no knowledge of the folkways of society, as well as informal norms that are known from a young age in normal circumstances, introducing Nell to social norms was daunting. Informal norms are norms that are not recorded but are common knowledge (Haaland, & Schaefer, 2009). In Nell’s case, she did not grow up knowing these. She had much difficulty understanding some of the behaviours that are acceptable in this society.

For instance, Nell did not know it was inappropriate to pull up your dress in a pool hall. She had never been around that many people in her life and so did not realize that it is fine for a guy to lift his shirt up but it’s very unacceptable behaviour for a woman to lift her shirt (especially if she isn’t wearing a bra). By contrast, folkways are norms that govern everyday life (Haaland, & Schaefer, 2009). For instance, when Nell first visited the city, a young boy stuck his young out at her so she reacted playfully and stuck her tongue out bad but that made him cry.

Without realizing what she did, it is a folkway that to children, adults don’t normally do such behaviour toward children because the folkway of the society would consider it rude and inappropriate on her part. Although it was fine for a child to do, it wasn’t appropriate for an adult to copy this behaviour. In this sense, Nell will have difficulty adapting to the social norms of this society because she grew up in such isolation where she was not taught about such behaviours in the everyday society.

In Romania, many Romanian orphans are left alone in their cribs for about twenty hours a day with little interaction with the caretakers for the first five years of their lives. The children became fearful of human contact and are highly anti-social in many cases (Haaland, & Schaefer, 2009). With Nell’s case, it is very similar due to little human interaction creating emptiness. This results in loneliness and the similar anti- social behaviour.

Nell had a strong “fear of strangers and reacted like a wild animal when confronted with a unfamiliar persons” (Haaland, & Schaefer, 2009) and because of this, she secluded herself and feared the worst. She did not know how to react to these people coming into her home and was not used to the social interaction that she was deprived of at a young age. When children are discouraged in having friends or interacting with peers at an early age, they will miss out on the social interactions that are essential for the growth and stability of emotional and personal growth as a human being (Haaland, & Schaefer, 2009).

In doing so, missing out on social interactions at a young age will have negative effects on human to human interactions, social behaviour and stable emotional growth. In conclusion, the movie Nell (1994) is a perfect example of the negative impact of social behaviour that isolation has on small children. Portraying this isolation, Nell is not taught real life relationships that came with growing up as a healthy emotionally stable child. She was not able to understand and establish standards of behaviour maintained by society with such norms like folkways and informal norms.

She was anti-social and had little human contact so she was unable to fully develop emotionally and stability because of her strong fear in strangers and the outside world. After her mother’s death and the surrounding circumstances of isolation, Nell will have to adapt to understand the relationships, social norms and learn how to interact normally to be able to perform in everyday society.


Haaland, B. , & Schaefer, R. (Ed. ). (2009). Sociology: a brief introduction. Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson. nell


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