Despite the fact that The Graduate holds everything audiences could want in a movie—beautiful actors and actresses, comedy, plot twists, romance, and sex galore—it’s not your typical coming-of-age story. Upon graduating from university and returning home, the Holden-esque main character, Benjamin, is forced to deal with much more than the stress that most recently graduated college students have to deal with. The movie follows Benjamin as he’s tormented by pressure from his parents and anxiety for the future, seduced by Mrs. Robinson, the wife of his father’s business partner, forced to date Mrs. Robinson’s daughter Elaine (whom he ultimately falls in love with), then accused of rape and left by Elaine for another man. Watching the tale unfold onscreen is enough to make your head spin.
The film captures perfectly the tumultuous, anxiety-filled and hormone-driven stage of human development that occurs in our society, typically right after schooling ends and before “the rest of your life” ensues. Benjamin’s attitude and actions are typical for most young adults going through this strange, not-a-kid-but-not-quite-an-adult phase. As Ben struggles throughout the movie to learn what “growing up” really means, he fights a desperate impulse to return to the comfort of his childhood.
An interesting cinematic and thematic element that helps to represent this struggle is the repetition and prevalence of water imagery throughout the film and Benjamin’s various interactions with these motifs. While watching the movie, it quickly became clear to me that water was symbolic of Ben’s childhood, or a place of calm, peace and isolation that he finds himself struggling to leave behind as he journeys into adulthood.
In one of the first scene of the movie, Benjamin is pictured hiding in his childhood room with his fish tank behind him as his graduation party ensues downstairs. The bubbling of the fish tank is the only sound we hear for the first several moments of the scene, and it’s loud enough to indicate that Ben is stuck in a trance-like state, focused only on the sound. Sickly green-tinted lighting is cast over this shot, conveying a feeling of dread and discomfort. Later in the scene, after he’s forced by his parents to go downstairs to socialize, Benjamin’s questionable mental state becomes more obvious. As soon as he steps downstairs, he’s interrogated by hoards of his parents’ acquaintances; of course, they all ask the same question (to which he has no answer): what are you planning to do with your life now that you’ve finished school?
Benjamin spends the rest of the evening trying desperately to escape to the comfort and isolation of his room, where he can drown anxious thoughts of the future in the calming, familiar sound of his fish tank bubbling away. But of course, Mrs. Robinson comes along and makes it impossible for him to escape.
Another important scene arises when Ben is given a full set of scuba gear for his birthday and is forced to demonstrate its use in front of his parents and several of their friends. At first, the noise of the celebration is apparent and almost obnoxious, filled with cheering, loud conversation, and clinking glasses. Then, the camera suddenly switches to show us Ben’s viewpoint of the situation.
All of the diegetic party noises immediately cease and are replaced by total silence except for the rhythmic sound of Benjamin’s breathing. Though we can still see the excitement and energy going on in the scene, all we hear is inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale. Because this is shot from Ben’s point of view, the audience begins to understand (and even experience) the sense of total isolation he feels. However, it’s not a negative feeling. Rather, it’s a peaceful relief from the obnoxious sounds of his parents’ festivities. It’s a break from the harsh reality that Benjamin endures day-to-day.
Interestingly enough, this water motif evolves throughout the movie alongside Benjamin’s character.
After he establishes his sexual relationship with Mrs. Robinson, he’s depicted floating on a blow-up pool toy in his pool, sunglasses on and beer in hand. Rather than submerging himself and seeking the comfort of isolation he knows so well, he floats above the water. This implies that he’s reached some level of adulthood or maturity where he feels masculine, independent, and comfortable. He no longer tries to hide from the outside world; rather, he embraces it.
…That is, until he faces stress again. When Ben’s parents try to persuade him to take Elaine out on a date, he reverts back into an immature, scared mindset. Although he’s still floating above water, he uses goggles to submerge his face as his parents incessantly nag on either side. Again, we hear what Ben hears and experience what Ben experiences: total silence except for the sound of him breathing, and a sense of profound relief and escape from the world.
“#17: The Graduate.” Maxseesmovies.blogspot.com. Blogspot, 6 Sept. 2011. Web. 19 Nov. 2013.
“Distant Relatives: The Graduate and Fish Tank.” Thefilmexperience.net. The Film Experience, 1 Dec. 2011. Web. 19 Nov. 2013.
“The Diving Suit Scene.” Blog.fan-girl.us. Fangirl, 28 July 2013. Web. 19 Nov. 2013.
Haines, Ryan. “Character Analysis of Holden Caulfield.” Www.hubpages.com. HubPages, 5 Mar. 2013. Web. 19 Nov. 2013.
Prince, Stephen R. Movies and Meaning: An Introduction to Film. 6th Edition ed. N.p.: Pearson Education, 2013. Print.