Benjamin Braddock is a mess.
Anxious, lost, aimless, alienated, disaffected—the character's been called all those things. The film presented his dilemma so well that 35 years later, one writer used the term "Benjamin Braddock Syndrome" to describe a graduate, who, moving back with his or her parents, saw the future as bleak and devoid of possibilities. Forty-five years after the film's release, another writer used Benjamin as Exhibit A in what she termed "Real World Syndrome," which is evidently epidemic among recent college grads who are thrown into the harsh realities of planning a future.
Our guy Benjamin has just graduated from a prestigious college in the east and should have a promising future ahead of him. He's got loving, if a bit overbearing, wealthy parents who are very proud of him; he was a smart, accomplished athlete and student leader back in school; he won a fellowship to graduate school. He even got the most killer sports car ever for a graduation gift.
None of that seems to matter to Benjamin right now. He's just turned 21 and has no idea what to do with is life. He can't see any meaning in his four years of college and he feels alienated from the society he grew up in. He sees his parent's lives as empty and superficial. He wants something "different," but he can't say what.
MR. BRADDOCK: Have you thought about graduate school?
MR. BRADDOCK: Would you mind telling me then what those four years of college were for? What was the point of all that hard work?
BENJAMIN: You got me.
He's in a kind of paralyzing existential panic. It's hard to believe that he was a BMOC just a couple weeks earlier.
At Ben's graduation party, which is otherwise an unbearable experience for him, something "different" arrives in the person of Mrs. Robinson, the wife of his father's law partner. She finds Benjamin attractive and offers to have sex with him. More than offers—she tricks him into going into her bedroom where he finds her naked. He's too anxious and unprepared for this.
But after a particularly humiliating and unbearable experience at his 21st birthday party, where his parents make him perform in front of their guests in his new scuba diving suit, he calls and takes her up on her offer. He's hugely ambivalent about the whole thing, but at least it's something to do; a mini-act of rebellion against what people seem to be expecting of him. As the affair wears on, and both of them seem kind of checked out, it's clear that this isn't the solution he's been looking for. In fact, he goes from feeling controlled by his parents to being trapped in this affair.
Respect Your Elders, Even When You're Sleeping With Them
Part of what gets Ben stuck in his affair—in addition to the fact that he has nothing else going on in his life—is that he's a good kid at heart; he doesn't want to hurt anyone's feelings and he's polite and deferential to a fault. At times he even seems terrified of Mrs. Robinson. There are some hilarious exchanges with her during the curse of the seduction and affair:
MRS. ROBINSON: You've known me nearly all of your life. You must have formed some opinion.
BENJAMIN: Well, I've always thought that you were a very…nice person.
Later, he gets suspicious:
BENJAMIN: Mrs. Robinson, you are trying to seduce me. (pause) Aren't you?
MRS. ROBINSON: Why no. I hadn't thought of it. I feel rather flattered that you –
BENJAMIN: Mrs. Robinson, will you forgive me for what I just said?
MRS. ROBINSON: It's all right.
BENJAMIN: It's not all right, it's the worst thing I've ever said to anyone.
As he gets deeper into it, he looks even more like a polite little boy:
MRS. ROBINSON: Isn't there something you want to tell me?
BENJAMIN: To tell you?
MRS. ROBINSON: Yes.
BENJAMIN: Well…I want you to know how much I appreciate this, really…
MRS. ROBINSON: The number.
MRS. ROBINSON: The room number, Benjamin. I think you ought to tell me that.
BENJAMIN: Oh? You're absolutely right. Absolutely.
He balks at having sex with her, but still can't insult her:
MRS. ROBINSON: Benjamin, do you find me undesirable?
BENJAMIN: Oh no, Mrs. Robinson. I think…I think you're the most attractive of all my parents' friends. I just don't think we could possibly…
After the affair's been going on for a while, he lashes out at her after she's told him he's not good enough for Elaine:
BENJAMIN: You go to hell. You go straight to hell, Mrs. Robinson. Do you think I'm proud of myself? Do you think I'm proud of this?
MRS. ROBINSON: I wouldn't know.
BENJAMIN: Well, I'm not. […] No sir. I am not proud that I spend my time with a broken-down alcoholic. […] Mrs. Robinson, this is the sickest, most perverted thing that ever happened to me. And you do what you want but I'm getting the hell out.
He can't maintain it, though. When he sees she's hurt and starts to leave, he backs down:
BENJAMIN: What are you doing?
MRS. ROBINSON: Well it's pretty obvious you don't want me around any more.
BENJAMIN: Well look, I was kind of upset there. I'm sorry I said those things. […] Oh no. Look…I like you. I wouldn't keep coming here if I didn't like you.
MRS. ROBINSON: But if it's sickening for you –
BENJAMIN: It's not! I enjoy it! I look forward to it. It's the one thing I have to look forward to.
He's still stuck.
Solution v2: Rule Breaker
Enter Elaine Robinson, beautiful daughter of Mrs. Robinson. We learn that Ben knew her in high school but hasn't seen her for five years. He tells his parents that they didn't get along back then, but Ben takes her on a date because his parents have been insisting. He doesn't seem to have trouble treating her terribly at first, acting like a sullen jerk.
ELAINE: You're living at home now. Is that right?
ELAINE: Are you going to graduate school?
Not wanting to have any kind of relationship with her (understandable, considering he's shtupping her mother), he takes a restaurant but still doesn't really talk to her. There's a conversation similar to the one he had with Mrs. R.:
ELAINE: Benjamin, do you dislike me for some reason?
BENJAMIN: No…why should I?
ELAINE: I don't know.
It gets worse. He takes her to a sleazy strip club. But just like with her mother, when Elaine runs out in tears, he feels terrible and apologizes.
BENJAMIN: This date and everything. It was my parents' idea. They forced me into it.
ELAINE: Oh…that's very nice of you to tell me.
BENJAMIN: No. What I mean is…that's why I've been acting this way. I'm not like this. I hate myself like this.
He goes on to spill his guts:
BENJAMIN: I've had this feeling, ever since I've graduated…this… kind of compulsion that I have to be rude all the time. Do you know what I mean?
ELAINE: Yes, I do.
BENJAMIN: It's like I've been playing some kind of…game, but the rules don't make any sense to me. They're being made up by all the wrong people…no, I mean no one makes them up, they seem to have made themselves up. Elaine, I like you. I like you so much. Do you believe that? Do you?
BENJAMIN: You're the first…you're the first thing for so long that I've liked. The first person I could stand to be with. I mean my whole life is such a waste. It's just nothing. I'm sorry. I'll take you home now.
This date marks a real evolution in Ben's development. For the first time, he starts working towards something (i.e., getting Elaine) rather than running away from his anxieties about the future. At least that's what he thinks he's doing. Finally, he's doing something rather than being paralyzed. That's how he presents his marriage plans to his parents.
MR. BRADDOCK: This whole idea sounds pretty half-baked.
BENJAMIN: Oh no, it's not. It's completely baked. It's a decision I've made.
Ben proves himself to be single-mindedly devoted to that decision from that point on, moving to Berkeley to be near Elaine, following her around, pestering her to marry him even after he learns she's considering marrying another guy as well. Mr. Robinson's threats to take legal action against him don't stop him; he's a man on a mission. When he hears that Elaine is actually marrying Carl, he freaks out. In a bold move that had audiences standing and cheering, he races to the church and steals the newlywed bride, fighting off the angry family and running down the bus heading out of town.
In the final scene, Ben's elated. They've done it—broken the rules big-time, stood up to their families, and claimed his prize. But as the scene progresses, the smiles fade and we see the blank look on Ben's face that we've seen so many times before. "The Sound of Silence" plays again. Ben, with Elaine sitting next to him, heads into a still uncertain future.
Will the Real Benjamin Braddock Please Stand Up?
What are we supposed to make of Benjamin?
At the time the film was released, he became a hero for all young people who were tired of living by their parents' rules. They may not have known what they wanted, but they knew what they didn't want. They were a generation of idealists who just knew there was something better out there. Maybe love was the answer.
Mike Nichols had said that he never imagined that Ben and Elaine would really stay together. Maybe Ben's idea was too half-baked after all. The movie leaves us with a lot of questions about our protagonist.
- Was he in love with Elaine or was she just an excuse to stick it to his parents?
- Is he brooding and silent because he's conflicted and deep or is he just dull?
- Is he really all that rebellious? After all, he wans to get married.
- Why on earth did he get involved with Mrs. Robinson?
- How did a guy who looks so clean-cut and polite, who expresses no political views or progressive attitudes come to be a counterculture hero?
- Why didn't he turn to the prevailing counterculture if he wanted to get away from his own conventional environment?
One writer answered all those burning questions so you don't have to:
Ben goes from committing acts of daring out of errant boredom to improvising a happy ending with little more than his heart to guide him. It's progress, and yet still remarkably old-fashioned. That's the secret to Ben Braddock—he's a schlub, a square, forced into the role of the rebel through a combination of circumstance, haplessness, and the sudden realization that true love is the only thing he thinks is worth fighting for. […]at a time when plenty of 21-year-olds were being sucked into movements and lifestyle choices that would define the era (and a generation's image of itself as permanently progressive, questioning, and imaginative), Ben Braddock just wants to sit around and drink Olympia. In this, he's probably a lot more like his scorned parents than most readings of The Graduate would care to admit. (Source)
Regardless of all the inconsistencies in the character of Benjamin Braddock, he spoke, and still speaks, to young people everywhere who are anxious and unsure about what the future holds. He's a decent kid who makes some rash decisions on the path to getting unstuck and figuring out what he wants.
Besides, what 21 year old can say they really know what they're doing?