‘The Graduate’ – A Timeless Examination of Spiritual Emptiness

In Classic Film Throwback Series, Featured, Reviews, Sam Hendrian by Samuel Hendrian

This article is part of our Classic Film Throwback series

– By Sam Hendrian –

BEN BRADDOCK: “Mrs. Robinson, do you think we could say a few words to each other first this time?”

MRS. ROBINSON: “I don’t think we have much to say to each other.”

This rather pathetic bedroom exchange between the 21-year-old Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) and the middle-aged, married Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft) succinctly captures the poignant thematic core of Mike Nichols’s timeless 1967 film The Graduate. Boosted by the thought-provoking lyrics of Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence” (played no less than three times throughout the course of the movie), each cinematic frame skillfully tells the colliding stories of spiritually-empty souls both young and old who long for sincere love in their lives.

The opening shot of Ben’s restless, melancholy face as he flies home from college is both relatable and quietly unsettling. Newly graduated, he is uncertain about his future and is not looking forward to being barraged with questions about it at his graduation party. Nevertheless, he perseveres through the tiresome festivities, hiding in his room whenever possible. It is there that he is first approached by Mrs. Robinson, the wife of one of his dad’s business partners. She asks if he will drive her home from the party, as her husband is out for the evening, and he reluctantly accepts for fear of being rude.

Upon arriving home, Mrs. Robinson lures the naïve Ben into her house because she “doesn’t like being alone” and makes gradual efforts to appear sexually attractive in his young eyes, eventually locking him in her bedroom momentarily with her clothes off and saying that she is “available to him” anytime. Mortified and a bit scared, Ben leaps past Mrs. Robinson and unlocks the door.  Running downstairs just as Mr. Robinson is opening the front door, he quickly explains that he drove Mrs. Robinson home and that she wanted him to wait with her. The unsuspecting Mr. Robinson thanks Ben for his kindness and politely tells him to sit down for a little chat.

“Sow a few wild oats,” Mr. Robinson advises Ben after pouring him a drink and seeing how worried he seems to be about life in general. “Take things as they come. Have a good time with the girls and so forth.” Little does the well-intentioned but morally-unstable Mr. Robinson know that his “words of wisdom” will have unpleasant consequences for himself in the days to come.

While Ben conscientiously rejects Mrs. Robinson’s seduction this time around, he quickly becomes so bored with his monotonous post-graduation summer that he decides to take her up on her offer, and they begin a series of sexual encounters in a hotel bedroom. Ben feels predominantly uncomfortable and guilty about what he is doing, but the void in his homeless heart is so painful that he does not really care what he fills it with. His youthful thirst for a deeper meaning in everything compels him to ask Mrs. Robinson questions about herself and try to transcend his merely sexual understanding of her, but she only desires to bare her body and not her soul.

As sly and villainous as she can be, Mrs. Robinson is truly a tragic figure who has given up on finding spiritual fulfillment but is desperate to find some sort of physical fulfillment upon her and Mr. Robinson’s coldly celibate status. They only married each other because of an out-of-wedlock pregnancy, and there apparently has never really been a spark of self-giving love between them. Like the protagonist of Simon & Garfunkel’s song “America” who feels “empty and aching” and doesn’t know why, Mrs. Robinson restlessly chases mirages of happiness that only leave her feeling more lost and dissatisfied.

Unlike Mrs. Robinson, Ben has not yet given up on finding genuine love and fulfillment in life, despite his foolish decision to conduct an affair with a married woman. When he meets Mr. and Mrs. Robinson’s college-aged daughter Elaine, he is immediately smitten by her inherent loveliness and graceful charm. Both his parents and Mr. Robinson goad him into asking Elaine out on a date, but he knows that Mrs. Robinson will become infuriated and spill their dirty secret if he takes her out any more times after that, so he fearfully strives to make his and Elaine’s first date as terrible as possible.

In one of the film’s most heart-wrenching scenes, Ben brings Elaine to a strip club on their date and pretends to be an absolutely despicable person by ignoring her and ogling the topless dancer on stage. Elaine’s tearful, affection-seeking face is hauntingly framed between the legs of the stripper in the background, conveying a heartfelt plea for the basic human respect that comes from looking into another person’s eyes. Ben is so moved by the pain and brokenness in Elaine’s eyes that he leaves the strip club with her and explains how he has been putting on a deplorable façade.

Forgiving Ben for his phony persona and immediately connecting to his confusion about what he is supposed to do with his life, Elaine accompanies Ben to a fast-food joint and actually begins to fall in love with him. Ben returns her feelings of affection, but he is terrified of what Mrs. Robinson’s reaction will be, and rightly so. Upon discovering the mutual affection between the two young lovers, Mrs. Robinson reveals her and Ben’s affair to Elaine and Mr. Robinson, inciting a great deal of understandable fury.

While Elaine’s unexpectedly strong love for Ben compels her to forgive him once again, she cannot escape the control of her parents and agrees to marry a nice guy from college with whom she has been going out. Convinced that Elaine is the answer to his quest for spiritual fulfillment and clarity of purpose, Ben impulsively crashes her wedding just as she has uttered her final vows. Equally impulsive and believing that Ben is her true soulmate, Elaine turns her back on her new husband and runs away with the passionate wedding crasher.

“It’s too late!” Mrs. Robinson screams at her daughter as she prepares to flee the church with Ben. Elaine fierily responds, “Not for me!” Although Mrs. Robinson might have been referring to the fact that she has already said her final wedding vows, Elaine is undoubtedly expressing the conviction that unlike her mother, she still has the chance to live happily ever after with a man she genuinely loves. Hopping on a public bus, the runaway bride and her stubborn pursuer laugh and smile at the crazy thing they have just done. However, the glee on their faces gradually fades into a look of uncertainty, and as the bus drives off into the distance, we are haunted by their mature realization that impulsiveness is not usually the companion of lasting joy.

Although some might call it a “dirty picture,” The Graduate is a human picture more than anything else. Ben, Mrs. Robinson, and Elaine are neither angels nor demons, but rather fragile people desperate to be cherished as they are and blessed with a sense of purpose in life. Their moments of ecstasy but ultimate sadness remind us that the fleeting passions and pleasures of Earth will never completely satisfy us. We are each indeed destined to be cherished as we are and blessed with a sense of purpose in life; sometimes, we simply forget Who eternally cherishes us and gave us purpose in the first place.

About the Author

Sam Hendrian is a student at John Paul the Great Catholic University (Class of 2019) pursuing an emphasis in Directing.

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