Although notorious for its narrative content and ultimately rather hopeless, The Graduate deserves points for being a remarkably funny snapshot of early twenties malaise in upper-class suburbia. Dustin Hoffman’s character Ben isn’t stricken with Antoniennui, exactly, as he’s too young too have tasted and become sick with eros. Something resembling this does take place on the film, but that would really miss its point, which is really much more akin to mass rebellion in youth, actually.
Ben rebels against every force with which he comes into contact. And given the expectations imposed upon him, especially as a supposedly straight-laced scholar-athlete in the decade of the sixties, why wouldn’t he resist? One of the first suggestions, if not the first, made to Ben in the film is from a friend of his parents at a party thrown in Ben’s honor upon his return from college. The woman tells him she bets Ben never has any problem finding young (she uses the ironic term “teenage”) girls to have fun with. Ben gives her an obligatory wink and a smile, as if to imply to the viewing audience that, whether it’s true or not, having a woman of this sort suggest the idea to Ben is a little revolting.
Herein are planted the seeds to Ben’s first rebellion. His imminent affair with Mrs. Robinson which begins later that very night, stands for everything Ben’s subset of society is against. The fact that she is his parents’ friend and the mother of the girl they’re trying to get Ben to date creates the perfect opportunity for Ben to run contrary to expectations imposed on him. It’s only once the affair turns mundane and Mrs. Robinson forbids Ben from seeing her daughter that the idea of ending the affair and initiating a more conventional dating relationship becomes appealing to Ben. When Ben takes Elaine out for the first time, she is kind and personable and Ben goes out of his way to be a jerk. Once she gets upset and offended at their date at a strip club, Ben suddenly pulls a 180, apologizing and changing his tune completely. At the film’s finale, when Elaine and Ben are in the bus pulling away from the chapel, we see the mood shift away from the storybook ending we think we’re witnessing. Their smiles fade and their excitement is dispelled. They don’t even look at one another, and the audience is left wondering if the whole runaway bride bit wasn’t just another empty act of rebellion.
There’s no reason to assume happiness in this ending, since every action Ben takes in the film is followed with him changing his mind. He’s a sixties child, disenchanted and bored with the lifestyle of his upper-class parents but out of touch with his own generation. If the audience expects the happy ending that almost takes place, then the audience becomes complicit in imposing the same kind if expectations on Ben that encourage his rebellion. Though the film sorrows in the consequences of Ben’s actions, it does not implicate him. Rather, as films in the sixties were especially good at doing, it’s the parents – their class, their lifestyle, their status quo – that the film condemns. Ben is pitied and celebrated in all his indirection and confusion. It feels at one level silly that the sixties demanded liberation of Ben’s generation from the shackles of their oppressive parents while also excusing the foolishness of youth and blaming the parents. Various cake analogies spring to mind.