Why ‘The Graduate’ Still Resonates Today

Mike Nichols’ 1967 adaptation of Charles Webb’s captivating novel, The Graduate, involves a story that can still easily be applied to young adults in today’s generation. The story is centered on a recent college graduate, Ben Braddock, who, after jut earning a Bachelor’s Degree from an unnamed Northeastern college, returns home to live with his parents in Pasadena, California for the summer. We meet Ben in the airport on his journey home, seemingly in a daze. Throughout majority of the opening sequences, Ben is just as much a viewer to the happenings as the audience. All he can do is simply witness the crazed attention focused on him during his parents’ numerous cocktail parties and get togethers celebrating his achievements in school. Clearly uncomfortable by the incessant questioning about his future plans, he finally escapes to the solace of his room to stare hypnotically into his large aquarium, his eyes fixated on a small plastic scuba diver. This motif of the scuba diver is repeated throughout the film in a repetitive symbolic notion of drowning. Ben himself is drowning. He perceives himself as this small plastic toy, placed under water and seen as nothing but a show piece for his parents to admire and brag about to their neighbors and colleagues.

Ben Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) musing on the purpose of his life beyond the fish tank.

This symbolism is shown in a much more literal sense when Ben’s father boasts about the present he has gotten him for his graduation: a $200 scuba suit. Pressuring Ben to show it off to his house guests, he emerges from the house in the cumbersome suit, acting quite embarrassed and almost like a dancing monkey. There is a significant moment during this scene where Ben attempts to rise from the water after jumping in, but his attempts are futile as his parents quite literally push him under. Obliviously trying to show the use of the suit, this act can be taken figuratively to the pressure they are putting on the recent graduate. Ben eventually gives up trying to fight against his parents and simply sinks to the bottom, in a very noteworthy camera shot. This is a very literal representation of how Ben feels as though he is drowning. He wishes that he could simply disappear at the bottom, never to reemerge at the surface. Simon and Garfunkel’s haunting “Sound of Silence” plays as the perfect backdrop for this scene. Repeated throughout the movie, the song is both musically and lyrically a masterpiece choice to represent the melancholic emotions Ben’s character goes through in the film. The line “People talking without speaking; People hearing without listening” is representative of the feelings Ben has towards those around him. Do these people honestly feel satisfaction from their lives? What is the point of it all? The incredible phoniness and superficial lifestyle Ben’s parents and their neighbors live repulses him. He is searching for any type of simulation in his life to make him feel something – anything.

Ben can’t help but feel as though he is drowning.

Along comes Mrs. Robinson. With her seductive and tempting proposal, we begin to see how this film is considered a counterculture film. The scandalous idea of a married woman engaging in an affair with a much younger man would have shocked audience in the 1950s. The idea of the “bored housewife” is seen here in Mrs. Robinson’s portrayal of another type of person during this time period. She, like Ben, is searching for meaning and stimulation as well. Thinking that the affair might fill a void that is left in her life by her neglecting husband, she propositions Ben, who at first is completely repelled and shocked. Later, once deciding he too needs to find meaning in his days, eventually agrees to begin their affair.

Ben and Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft) begin their affair.

Once Ben’s parents begin questioning him on what he is doing with his days and what his plans are for the future, they pressure him, once again, into calling up Elaine Robinson. As the plot thickens, Mrs. Robinson makes Ben promise he will never take her daughter out on a date. However, once he is threatened by his parents to have the two families meet over dinner, he eventually agrees to call up Elaine. At first, he attempts to repulse her by showing her a horrible night out. Once he finds himself at ease with opening up to her, he cannot deny the chemistry they seemingly have. They are both young and naïve to the world. Both growing up in privileged neighborhoods, neither young adult know much of the world outside their college campuses.

The symbolism of the monkeys is another strongly used theme in the film. Nichols’s utilizes this sight particularly in the scene where Ben attempts to woo Elaine once more after following her to Berkeley where she attends school. During a trip to the zoo, Ben takes a moment to look at the creatures. Two monkeys are shown, holding each other and rocking back and forth. Caged animals – used for nothing but display purposes. This is how Ben feels. He feels that, beyond the cage his parents have placed him in, what is his purpose?

After a whirlwind of Ben revealing his secret affair with her mother to Elaine, her running away back to school, and Mrs. Robinson doing all she can to keep them apart; the story concludes with Ben crashing Elaine’s forced wedding to a short fling of hers to someone her parents found more appropriate. As they dash from the church and onto a public transit bus, they situate themselves on the back seat of the bus. In one of the most iconic shots in film history, Ben’s easy going smile slowly disappears and a much more uncertain looks emerges instead. Elaine, who first turns to smile at her future with Ben, sees this change and her expressions warps to match his. They are traveling into a future where there is no certainty. This compelling dawn of realization hits them in an incredible cinematic moment.

The connection of this film to today’s youth is seen throughout all of the major themes. So groomed to be the “perfect” student, much like Ben, students today feel the pressure to behave, engage, and function a certain way in society. Colleges all over the nation repeatedly stress the importance of being involved, holding a perfect GPA, and staying straight on a chosen path. Warned never to stray, students mindlessly follow the instruction of their parents and teachers, but for what purpose? More kids go to college today than ever before. Why is there such a stigma against venturing off this now seemingly required path post-high school graduation? At the ripe age of eighteen, students are pushed by not only their parents, but society as a whole to enter college, and declare a major. Following graduation, they are then expected to either join the workforce or continue to Graduate school. At what point during those four years does the student really have a say in where they are going? That is why so many students emerging from college are generally more lost than when they first entered.

It can be said that The Graduate is a timeless film in that it’s most obvious and major themes can be applied to audiences still today. Post-graduation, Ben feels more lost than ever. He finds himself wondering, what was the point of college? Is he just going to go into “plastics”, a job which likely has nothing to do with whatever he studied at school? Millions of students today can attest to the notion that, once graduated, very few young adults find themselves in the jobs they saw themselves having freshman year. In the rapidly evolving and struggling job market, adults of all ages are simply trying to stay afloat, let alone hold out for their dream job. So when does one settle for safety or push for their dreams? It is at this crossroad that Ben finds himself placed during the film. Elaine is a similar position, does she finish at Berkeley and attempt being an independent woman during the radical counterculture of the 1960s, or run off with Ben to pursue their strange love connection? These both cultural and personal crossroads are what shapes the overall nature of the film.

The Graduate, although released in 1967, continues to ring true and speaks to the generations of lost, stimulation-seeking millenials of today. What makes this film so brilliant is it applicability to graduates of the current age. Searching for any reason to feel satisfied, this film is a poignant commentary on the idea of being young, confused, naive, and “mixed up”.

Ben and Elaine Robinson (Katherine Ross) enjoy a fleeting moment of bliss before true reality sets in.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Undergraduate at University of Maryland studying Architecture and Film Studies. Favorite Director: Martin Scorsese.

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  1. Turning Page

    There are many films with a similar basic storyline that are much more worth watching, both artistically and intellectually. I’m surprised that so many people love this film.

    • I first saw this movie when I was 17 – and it wasn’t my generation, but I loved it.

      Maybe there’s just so many movies out there now, and every subject of human life has been on film, that some older movies just don’t measure up.

      I still love this, and many older movies. But I can totally understand why some people don’t relate.

      In the past year, I finally saw Citizen Kane, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and Rebel Without a Cause. I couldn’t understand how any of those movies have survived – bored out of my mind. But everything’s subjective.

  2. I really enjoyed this movie. I am 17 and just watched it for the first time this year. Maybe I read too much into the movie, but I felt like all of the sort of “artificial” and “lifeless” things were deliberate and it sort of added to the overall mood and tone. Maybe the premise wasn’t very realistic, but I felt like the emotions behind it were very realistic and I thought this movie was very meaningful.

  3. Ashley Beck

    The Graduate is just as great today as it was in 1967, great direction, screenplay, actors, and of course the iconic soundtrack.

  4. Jessica

    It’s interesting to see why some older movies resonate with people just as much as they did when they first came out. Love the soundtrack to this movie as well.

  5. H

    What a tragic last scene though! I feel like so many people watch it and think it’s a completely happy ending, even though there’s such a strong sense of “Wait, what did we just do?”
    Good stuff!

  6. True indeed. At the same time, the goals of a university education were less job-oriented in the sixties than now and greater student debt today also motivates job-seeking … so I believe students today are more driven toward employment less than ideal for necessary practical reasons. By the way, Charles White signed a contract for his novel that gave him neither the film nor the paperback rights. He got screwed.

  7. Daniel I.

    As film making, I think “The Graduate” is great. Nichols’ direction is great. Considering the fact that this was the second film he directed, he showed a surprising mastery. Perhaps he was influenced by the French new wave and other film makers but regardless of how he managed it, he did it very well.

    On the other hand, I don’t think “The Graduate” has aged well in terms of its story line and characters. It was and is a film for its time and there it remains like a time capsule. I don’t enjoy it like other films that dealt with roughly the same subject matter and made at the same time like Richard Lester’s “Petulia”.

    I saw an interview with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor that was done around the time “The Graduate” was released. They commented on how good “Bonnie & Clyde” was but they thought “The Graduate” was much better. I thought how wrong they were. True, they were friends with Nichols who directed them both in their single great film “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” so they may have been plugging “The Graduate” for Nichols but “Bonnie & Clyde” stands the test of time much better than “The Graduate”.

    • The movie is overrated. I think it gained notoriety because at the time it was a modern take on a fairly taboo subject with some pretty big names attached to it. Like some other films of that era, it doesn’t stand up over time.

      It is a very “60’s” type of film which most boomers love. These people have had an iron grip on what is considered “good” for too long and this film is an example of that. “The Graduate” will be proclaimed to be a great film just as the Beatles will be referred to as the most important band in history until these aging hippies die off.

      For now they still control the majority of the entertainment/media complex so we have to put up with their nonsense for a while longer. I am one of them so I speak from experience. One day my kids will look back on some of these cultural icons and wonder what all of the fuss was about, in fact they already are. That isn’t to say there wasn’t some great artistic triumphs to come out of the 60’s, there was. This film isn’t an example of that however.

  8. Seemie Clark

    I remember this film being a HUGE hit when it came out. Every date I had for months took me to see it. Although I would tell them I already saw it, they urged me to see it again.
    I think it resonated more with baby boomer guys than girls. They. loved the Church scene which was a symbolic “fvck you” to the parents wanting us to conform. It was the beginning of the “anti-establishment” movement shown in one scene.

    It does not have the same impact today. Ben is a bore, uncool and lost. Elaine is a conformist, not very bright and was too quick to forgive Ben for having an affair.with her mom. .Mrs. Robinson, although pathetic, was the only interesting character.

    Ben did not go live on a commune, but probably
    went on to work in Plastics

  9. patrick

    great movie, the music alone made it worthwhile….

  10. This is a classic example of a movie that was relevant for its time. Perhaps the younger viewers have a more difficult time grasping the reality of Ben’s situation: receiving the bad news from Elaine’s friend handing him a note instead of a direct “tweet” and not having a cellphone, smartphone, tablet or laptop when he was desperately trying to track her down. Imagine how radically different the pacing of this movie would have been if it had been produced in the digital era. Hard to believe we actually lived that way.

  11. Meghan Kelly,

    I don’t mean to be an asshole, but you might want to copy edit the essay published online. There is a minor typo in the second sentence:

    “after jut earning a Bachelor’s Degree from an unnamed Northeastern college,”

  12. Sabine

    The Graduate’s continued relevance, your opinion about it notwithstanding, stems from its status as a New Hollywood-era icon in both style and storytelling. It exemplifies the New Hollywood rejection of heroic characters and pleasantly bookended narratives, as well as its cinematographic roots in the French New Wave and Italian NeoRealism and the experimental camerawork that was newly available to filmmakers at the time. These storytelling and stylistic elements make it both relevant to the angst felt throughout history by twentysomethings, and a useful time capsule in terms of understanding the evolution of film.

  13. I saw The Graduate once when I was in high school and again when I was in college. What was interesting is that I felt connected to the movie each time, but with different perspective. The film really grasps both the teenage and young adult experiences

  14. 500 Days of Summer is one of my favorite movies, and its direct references to The Graduate bring into question that last scene on the bus. As the article puts it, “reality sets in.” However the onset time it takes for reality to set varies. In The Graduate, it’s almost immediate. In 500 Days of Summer, it’s five hundred days. In our lives, it is…? But the “reality setting in” doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing. At least, I don’t think so. Of course the story of the The Graduate still resonates today. Somebody created something and that will forever resonate.

  15. Amanda Dominguez-Chio

    A few years ago, I saw the ending of “The Graduate,” and just a few weeks ago I saw the movie in its entirety. In my Film History class, we learned that “The Graduate” was a success to college audiences. After learning this fact and seeing the film, I concur. This film depicts a young college graduate unsure of his future. While Megan Kelly argued that the scene where Ben wears his scuba suit in the pool symbolizing drowning, I believe that the scene reflects a womb. Ben begins to find himself in a situation where he doesn’t want to make his own decisions because he’s become so comfortable. The film’s climax when Ben stops Elaine’s wedding reveals his first major decision: he loves Elaine and wants to spend the rest of his life with her. The ending, however, sadly shows the “now what?” moment. After deciding he wants to spend his life with Elaine, he’s unaware of his next move.

  16. Samira

    My freshman year we made a life map of our four years in high school and what we wanted to do after graduation. It seemed so easy to put down “Go to college” because that was expected of us. If you put down something other than attending college suddenly you were at risk and had no direction. I’m sure they just wanted us to be prepared for whatever life throws at us but if I could go back I would leave the space after graduation blank. Like the end of the film, it’s much more thrilling running off into the unknown (even if you aren’t sure what to do next).

  17. Maltese

    I’m unsure that ‘timeless’ themes can make a movie applicable. Rather the applicability seems to be constructed by your abstract mapping of the 60’s cultural rejection of white middle-class values and social structures. Most youth cult movies follows the logic of rebellion and apathy giving way to passionate ‘deviance’, but does that really make this film ‘brilliant’? The fact that it appeals to the typical sentiment of insecurity and disenfranchisement. Ben had the luxury of rejecting the world he was a part of, is the current generation of post-graduates really even a part of that world to begin with? If the the applicability is independence and risking safety and comfort for one’s dreams, can’t we also then say that Say Anything is a relevant depiction (which at least recognizes class distinctions)?

  18. This may come as a shock to you Boomers. I was born in the 80s, yet I think the storyline, character study, symbolism and overall meaning of “The Graduate” have held up quite well. I remember feeling exactly like Ben when I came home from college. I also think the Beatles were one of the greatest bands ever. I think some of the Boomers on here don’t quite realize just how iconic the 60s really were, especially since me and others from my generation love the music, movies and TV shows from that decade. And as long as the internet and Youtube are around, future generations will be able to experience and find out more about that decade just as I have.

  19. Sarah A.

    Great article! Brings up some things to think about. I’ve been revisiting this film through a lot of articles, and so far I’ve noticed many things I hadn’t in my initial viewing. This is one of the great examples that shows the parallels between today’s generation and the ‘hippie children’ of the 60s.

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