Always the Graduate, Never the Bride

The Graduate, 1967, Mike Nichols

“Ben, what are you doing?”

“Well, I would say that I’m just drifting. Here in the pool.”

This weekend it was too cold to go out to the cinema so I decided to stay in and watch an old movie. For a while I’ve been meaning to watch Oscar-winning psychological comedy The Graduate, and as Valentine’s Day is approaching it seemed an appropriate time to check it out.

Mike Nichols’ iconic deconstruction of love is one that is widely considered an important cog in the great machine of social reform that the 1960s brought into operation. It tells the story of recent college graduate Ben Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) as he drifts through his first years of adulthood, swallowed by a wistful nihilistic despair (made more pointed by the masterful Simon and Garfunkel soundtrack. That’s right, I called Simon and Garfunkel “masterful”).

The film has lots to say about purpose, meaninglessness, and adulthood, but it is the understanding of love that is perhaps most interesting.

Ben’s first encounter of adult relationships comes from the predatory advances of a friend of his parents, Mrs Robinson (Anne Bancroft). He is helpless in the face of her advances, and seemingly powerless to express his emotions. Dustin Hoffman, who was nominated for the best actor Oscar for this role, portrays this powerlessness with great subtlety and finesse.

As the object of Ben’s affections switches in the second act to the more age-appropriate daughter of Mrs Robinson, Elaine (Katharine Ross), the power dynamic is turned on its head. Now Ben is the predator, incessantly pursuing his prey with a psychotic determination. The character transforms from hunted to hunter.

This is not, however, a progression of his own volition. He only understands relationships as power-plays, and only transmits what he learned from Mrs Robinson on to her daughter.


Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft in the film

The question of love is one that has captivated philosophers for centuries, perhaps understandably due to its ubiquitous presence in culture.

The Platonic/Socratic tradition held that love was a search for an objective beauty – an attempt to find an ideal form of beauty to admire. Plato viewed love as something that happens to us.

We are, like Ben Braddock, powerless to stop this entity from overwhelming us and controlling us. Love is something that exists, and our varying romantic relationships throughout life acknowledge this feeling to a greater or lesser degree.

But is love a tangible ideal? Plato’s philosophy of “ideas” or “forms” was a proto-theological one. He speaks of a metaphysical realm in which truth and beauty can be found, not unlike the mystical realities postulated by many modern religious frameworks.

At the turn of the twentieth century, during psychology’s golden age instigated by Sigmund Freud, our understanding of love began to change.

"In restless dreams, I walked alone"

“In restless dreams, I walked alone”

According to psychologist B.F. Skinner (another icon of 1960s progressive reform), love is not a tangible entity that we hope to grasp, but merely a by-product of our behaviours. If someone behaves in such a way that they believe someone in love should behave, then they are in love.

Our graduate, Braddock, in learning what love is, simply mirrors the pushy advances that he experienced from Mrs Robinson, forcing himself into Elaine’s life. He rarely seems to show any genuine affection for Elaine, but rather acts in the way he believes he must in order to function in society. He is not in love, but merely acting the way he believes someone in love should.

Even during the famous climatic scene of the film when Ben bursts into Elaine’s wedding to declare his love for her, he is more psychotic that romantic, screaming and bashing the window of the church like a rabid animal.

Throughout the film Ben doesn’t really know what he wants, but hopes that involving himself in the social construct of romanticism will bring happiness. As Ben and Elaine ride off into the sunset, and Paul Simon’s voice appears intoning “hello darkness my old friend”, we see the futility of his quest.

If Skinner is right that love is just a response to social conditioning, or a behavioural norm that we interpret as something ethereal and “other”, perhaps it is a futile goal.

Ben tries to chase this goal, and ends the film feeling unfulfilled. Perhaps the lesson for all of us is to not try to aim for Hollywood romance, but instead to find our own way of understanding and dealing with our relationships with others. Romance, it appears, is futile. Happy Valentine’s Day.

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