The Graduate is a 1967 comedy-drama directed by Mike Nichols, based on the 1963 novel by Charles Webb. The film stars Dustin Hoffman in a career-making role as Benjamin Braddock, a 20-21-year-old who has just graduated from an unnamed university in the American northeast, and has returned to his home in Pasadena, California. As the tagline in the movie ad reads, “He’s a little worried about his future.”
The film also stars Anne Bancroft as the seductive, scheming Mrs. Robinson (after whom the famous Simon and Garfunkel song is named), and Katharine Ross as the Robinsons’ daughter, Elaine (Benjamin’s love interest). While the song ‘Mrs. Robinson’ wasn’t yet in its final form for the movie, a truncated version was used, and other songs by Simon and Garfunkel were also used, most notably “The Sound of Silence,” their version of “Scarborough Fair/Canticle,” and “April, Come She Will.”
The American Film Institute in 1998 ranked the film #7 in its list of the 100 best films of all time; then in the 10th anniversary list, it was made film #17. It was also listed the #9 comedy, “Mrs. Robinson” was listed the #6 song, and these quotes made the top 100 movie quotes:
“Plastics.” –Mr. McGuire, to Benjamin (#42)
“Mrs. Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me. Aren’t you?” –Benjamin (#63)
The main themes of this movie include: parental dominance (and by extension, that of the “[don’t trust anyone] over thirty” generation); rebellion against authority (which came naturally in any late Sixties movie); alienation and isolation (which came naturally in the 20th century), and the loss of innocence.
Motifs in the film include water (the fish tank, the swimming pool, the rain), light and darkness (including their extremes, black and white), plants (flowers or ‘jungle’ plants), and clothes with animal designs, or designs suggestive of animals (leopards, giraffes, or zebras, worn by Mrs. Robinson and, to a lesser extent, Benjamin’s mother).
[This analysis is largely my own, but I owe a big debt to the influence of Howard Suber’s analysis of the film. The analysis is only available on the Criterion Edition Laserdick of the film that, I believe, was released in the 90s for a year or two, and is now rather hard to find.]
The movie begins with Benjamin in an airplane, being passively taken along, going where others would have him go. “The Sound of Silence” begins with the line, “Hello darkness, my old friend.” Benjamin is alone among all the other passengers, then in the airport he is seen on a treadmill, once again having something else move him instead of him directing his own movements.
The movie’s very use of “The Sound of Silence” is significant in itself, since the song’s about how people fail to communicate properly, “People talking without speaking/People hearing without listening.” The paradoxical title expresses this idea aptly. “And the people bowed and prayed/To the neon god they made,” but they paid no attention to its message, that “The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls and tenement halls.” One of Benjamin’s biggest problems is how neither his parents nor any of the older people, those in authority, ever listen to him.
In his bedroom at home, he sits alone in the dim light (for darkness, suggesting a loss of innocence he will soon experience, and ultimately be liberated by, is his “old friend”), avoiding the mature guests at a graduation party his parents have arranged…more for themselves than for him. Behind Benjamin is a fish tank, a symbol of the trap he’s found himself in. All those fish swimming in that small space, unable to swim anywhere else; also, there’s a small black figurine of a scuba diver sitting at the bottom of it.
His father, not at all listening to him when he discusses his worries about his future, makes him go downstairs to meet the guests, all his parents’ mature friends and none of his own (indeed, Ben is so isolated and alienated that he seems to have no friends), of his graduation party. The party is clearly to give face to his parents, it’s not for his sake; Benjamin, academic success and athletic star, is his parents’ jewellery, to be shown off to impress the neighbours.
One guest, Mr. McGuire, has one word to say to Ben: “Plastics.” Apparently, there is a great future in plastics, an unnatural, man-made material. In other words, Ben’s future will be successful, but also fake and phoney, hence his fears about it. It’s all for his Mom and Dad, and not one bit for his own sake.
After putting up with the guests as best he can, Benjamin goes back up to his room. Mrs. Robinson walks into the room suddenly, pretending she’s looking for the washroom. She manipulates him into driving her home even after he’s given her his car keys. Significantly, instead of just giving them to him, she throws them into the fish tank. Keys, symbols of a way to freedom–they’re for opening doors or driving cars–have been tossed into Ben’s trap symbol. In spite of her intentions, the sexual trap she’s luring him into will ultimately, and ironically, lead him to his freedom.
The key to Ben’s freedom is for him to lose his innocence, to go from boyhood to manhood (and be a graduate in a different sense), and feel himself so constricted by both the dominance of his parents and that of his symbolic parents, the Robinsons, that he must rebel against their authority to be free. The only way he’ll be motivated to rebel–through his love for Elaine Robinson–is to be compelled to snatch her from those who forbid him to be with her, her parents. And while his parents want to match him to her–for the sake of their own agenda, to create a bond between the Braddocks and the Robinsons (oddly, Mr. Robinson, Mr. Braddock’s partner in a law firm, doesn’t attend Ben’s graduation party!)–Ben would marry her for his own sake.
Ben dislikes his own parents’ oppressiveness so much that, at first, and despite his nervousness around the sexually aggressive Mrs. Robinson, he finds the Robinsons to be replacement parents in a kind of family romance. Indeed, there is much Freudian symbolism in this movie, and Ben’s affair with Mrs. Robinson (his mother dresses similarly in some respects to her, and is similarly attractive and domineering), a woman twice his age, is clearly Oedipal.
In her home, at the back by the window to the backyard, Mrs. Robinson gives Ben a drink (not listening to his wish not to have one, let alone his wish to leave immediately) and plays some soft mood music. The ‘cougar woman’ is wearing a dress with a zebra design, and a bra and slip with a leopard design (we’ll see the bra and slip later when she’s undressing in the bedroom); and looking out the back window whose awning has a zebra-like striped design, we see plants that make us think of the jungle.
His nervousness over her continuing seduction of him, with her spread legs, is Oedipal in how, deep down, he is as turned on as he is afraid. (Later, she asks him if he wants her to seduce him.) When he asks her if she’s trying to seduce him, we see him asking in a shot through her opened legs, which frame him in a triangle, trapping him in her sexuality.
A child’s Oedipal relationship with his mother can be a source of her dominance over him; and Mrs. Robinson, Ben’s symbolic mother here, is manipulating this Oedipus complex expertly. When she asks him to bring her purse up to the bedroom, he’d rather leave it at the foot of the stairs; but the undressing beauty angrily commands him to bring it into the bedroom. And there she displays her nakedness to his horrified–and horny–face.
When Mr. Robinson arrives, and obviously doesn’t know what his wife has just done, he becomes Ben’s symbolic father: he even tells Ben that he thinks of him as a son, and advises him to relax by chasing some girls.
On Benjamin’s 21st birthday (the year he comes of age), Mr. and Mrs. Braddock throw another party…but it’s clearly not for him–again, it’s for themselves, to gain face before their neighbours. Benjamin is made to dress in a black scuba diving outfit (his birthday gift, it would seem) and go into the backyard swimming pool, an enlarged version of the fish tank, and he is an enlarged version of the scuba diver figurine at the bottom of the fish tank. Similarly trapped, Ben lets himself sink to the bottom of the pool, and he passively sits there.
At the same time, though, we see the beginnings of Ben’s rebellion against his parents’ authority (like his avoidance of the guests at the graduation party), for instead of swimming about and putting on a show to entertain the neighbours, he just sits there at the bottom, like the figurine in the fish tank. There is a dialectical tension between his increasing feeling of being trapped, and of his push to freedom.
As mentioned above, Ben was shocked at Mrs. Robinson’s attempted seduction of him, but also aroused. He calls her from a hotel and asks her to join him. Nervous as always, his id urges to have his symbolic mother are in a battle with his superego’s chiding him for acting out his taboo Oedipal fantasies.
After being annoyed by elderly guests, other symbolic authority figures, he sees Mrs. Robinson, who is wearing a leopard-skin coat, and we see them sit in an area decorated with more ‘jungle’ plants, appropriate for the ‘animal’ act they’re about to engage in.
After this commencement of their affair, and Ben’s loss of virginity (and innocence), he is now a man, and he lies on an inflatable raft, floating on the surface of the water in his pool, wearing black sunglasses and looking like a stud. He isn’t trapped under the water of his ‘fish tank,’ so his loss of innocence is the furthering of his liberation, but he’s still in the pool; he must continue striving for freedom to get out completely.
A juxtaposition of images of him in the pool, with his parents, or with Mrs. Robinson ensues, suggesting the association between the Robinsons (his replacement parents in the family romance) and his actual parents. This association also suggests his Oedipal relationship with his replacement mother. The montage ends with Ben jumping on the inflatable raft, a visual that quickly switches to the hotel room, with him landing on Mrs. Robinson in bed: his affair with her, his loss of innocence, equals being on top of the pool water, freed (at least relatively) from his trap, the big fish tank that is the swimming pool.
His father is clearly unhappy with his free floating on the pool, drifting instead of ‘swimming’ under the water, if you will, for courses in graduate school. The Robinsons, his substitute parents, then arrive: in the novel, it’s a very straight-forward get-together; but in the film, the scene is glowing, blurred (seen through his sunglasses), dream-like, for this is Ben’s family romance, with the mother of his new Oedipus complex saying hello to him.
His real mother asks him, while he’s shaving, where he’s going every night. Like Mrs. Robinson, his mother is also pretty, and wears attractive clothes suggestive of dark sexuality, including the black top she wears in this scene–black, the colour of lost innocence.
After Ben ends the affair with Mrs. Robinson, who forbids him ever to date her daughter Elaine, his parents start pushing him to take her out. Mr. Braddock is in black and white in the kitchen when he first suggests this (or gives the implied command, actually); then he and Mrs. Braddock pressure Ben some more in the swimming pool, and after Ben tries to resist, his mother says she’ll have to invite all the Robinsons over, causing Ben to fall off his raft and swim deep under the water. He’s trapped again, like those fish in his fish tank.
After taking Elaine out, being rude to her, and quickly regretting his ungentlemanly behaviour, he opens up to her. He soon realizes, for the first time in the movie, that he’s found a friend…someone his own age. Her sweetness is in direct contrast to the vampishness of her mother, who wanted only sex and no conversation. In Elaine, Ben has a most welcome reverse, which is appropriate, since innocent Elaine is the opposite of Mrs. Robinson.
When Ben is driving over to the Robinsons’ house to meet with Elaine, with whom he’s falling in love, Mrs. Robinson rushes over and gets into his car. She threatens to tell Elaine about their affair if he continues dating her, putting Ben back into a trap. Significantly, it’s been raining, and when Ben and Mrs. Robinson run into the house, both of them–two fish submerged in the watery trap of their own fish tank–are soaking wet.
Knowing Elaine hates him now that she knows (or thinks she knows) what happened between him and her mother, Ben contemplates his trap while looking at his fish tank. The song, “Scarborough Fair/Canticle,” can be heard while he’s watching her, separated by hedges and flowers. The words, “Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme,” are heard over and over; they rhyme with the line, “She once was a true love of mine.” Innocent Elaine is the flower Ben loves, and her innocence is preventing him, the loser of his own innocence (and therefore of her), from getting her back.
Note how plants have represented both of Ben’s loves: the jungle plants of Mrs. Robinson, the wild woman, the whore; and the flowers of Elaine, the sweet, innocent virgin (as we can safely assume). When we see Ben on the campus of Elaine’s university in Berkeley, we see an abundance of plants and flowers.
He later tells his parents of his plan to marry Elaine, something that delights them so much that his mother screams for joy (incidentally, Mrs. Braddock is wearing an outfit with a zebra-like design: she’s as wild an animal, in her own way, as Mrs. Robinson is). The irony here is that all this pressure to comply with parental authority (dating a girl forbidden to him by her mother, his symbolic mother, who used her dominance to make him, symbolically her Oedipus, satisfy her sexually) is giving him the impetus to break free; for Ben doesn’t want Elaine for his parents’ sake–he wants her for his own.
Now, Benjamin is finally taking charge of his life, instead of just passively acquiescing to the demands of his parents, literal or symbolic. As for his symbolic parents, the Robinsons, his family romance with them is over with, and his opportunity–and need–to rebel against all authority is fully realized.
And Ben sure has a lot of people to rebel against. He loves Elaine, and even when he convinces her to forgive him and love him back, her parents will never forgive him for his affair with Mrs. Robinson, which has torn her family apart. Mr. Robinson confronts Ben in his room in Berkeley, and here we see the Oedipal hostility between Ben and his symbolic father. Elaine’s parents would have her marry Carl, some soulless, preppy type to ensure her never being with Ben.
But that won’t stop him.
As he’s racing in his car to Santa Barbara, the song “Mrs. Robinson” is heard. Though the song isn’t heard in its final form, the finished lyrics do reflect what’s going on in the movie, and thus are worth referencing: we all wish to help fallen Mrs. Robinson, apparently, telling her to receive Jesus so her sins will be forgiven (in other words, this is salvation by social conformity, submission to authority, and the bourgeois hypocrisy of hiding the affair). Still, she’s lost her innocence, as has Ben, and the symbols of good, heroic America have gone away, leaving us with the same old corrupt politicians, who’ll never change.
As Ben’s car slows and runs out of gas, so does the guitar strumming of the song; and in its turn, so does the hypocrisy of pretending to be innocent (i.e., Mrs. Robinson the whore attending church) run out of gas.
Ben arrives at the church too late: Elaine has already married Carl; but this won’t stop a man in love. He bangs on the glass (rather like the fish tank glass) that separates him from the conformist attendees, who include Mrs. Robinson. Her gloating over his misfortune, in what’s supposed to be a holy place, shows her authoritarian hypocrisy.
But Elaine sees Ben, knowing he truly loves her; and while her parents and Carl are seen yelling angrily at her for looking up lovingly at him, neither we nor Elaine can hear them, for their sound of silence is an oppressive authority we won’t listen to anymore.
Now Ben’s defying the authority of another father, God the Father; and after hitting Mr. Robinson, his symbolic father, Ben picks up a symbol of Church authority, a large Cross, and uses it to defy the authority of everyone in the church. He swings it at the guests so he and Elaine can escape from the church together, then he bolts the front door of the church with it, trapping all the guests inside (we see them through glass, like those trapped fish in the fish tank), while he and his love run laughing to a bus.
The irony of using a crucifix–a symbol of authority–to liberate himself and Elaine from authority parallels how Ben used his parents’ wish for him to marry her as a way to liberate himself from their dominance. Also, we must remember the irony of giving in to Mrs. Robinson’s sexual dominance, which started the chain of events–his loss of innocence, his breaking of social taboos, and his dating of her daughter against her wishes–that has led ultimately to not only Ben’s liberation, but also Elaine’s.
Indeed, though she remains (presumably) a virgin till the end of the movie, Elaine loses her innocence, too, by defying her parents and running off with Ben, right after saying her wedding vows!
With Ben and Elaine at the back of the bus, they laugh and grin in victory; but director Nichols wisely let the camera keep going, and after seeing a shot of mostly (if not all) elderly people staring at the young rebels, we see the two stop smiling, just before the ending credits. This suggests that the movie has ended where it began, with young people passively being taken away instead of moving on their own initiative, and with them uncertain of their future. After all, what will their parents think of what they’ve just done?