[During the extended introductory shot, an expressionless and robotic Benjamin stands motionless on the moving walkway in the airport with "The Sound of Silence" playing on the soundtrack.]
In the opening scene, Nichols shows us right away who we're dealing with. Ben looks almost "erased" as a person, just allowing the walkway to move him and having no initiative of his own.
BENJAMIN: I'm just...
MR. BRADDOCK: ...worried?
MR. BRADDOCK: About what?
BENJAMIN: I guess about my future.
MR. BRADDOCK: What about it?
BENJAMIN: I don't know. I want it to be...
MR. BRADDOCK: ...to be what?
Benjamin is confused. He can't really articulate what he wants his future to be, but he knows he wants it to be "different." But different in what way? We know he doesn't see himself as the corporate "plastics" type, and he also doesn't want to have unfulfilled ambitions like Mrs. Robinson. He doesn't really identify with anyone in the adult world. His parents seem to be very comfortable in their own identities, but Ben doesn't want their life.
LADY 3: What are you going to do now?
BENJAMIN: I was going to go upstairs for a minute.
LADY 3: No…I meant with your future.
LADY 2: With your life.
BENJAMIN: Well, that's a little hard to say…
This is another example of Ben not knowing what he wants from his future. He doesn't want to do something he's not passionate about, but it's unclear what he is passionate about. His identity at this point is still more defined by what he doesn't want than what he does want.
MR. MCGUIRE: I want to say one word to you. Just one word.
BENJAMIN: Yes, sir.
MR. MCGUIRE: Are you listening?
BENJAMIN: Yes, I am.
MR. MCGUIRE: Plastics.
BENJAMIN: Exactly how do you mean?
MR. MCGUIRE: There's a great future in plastics. Think about it. Will you think about it?
This is supposed to sound like soulless advice—at least, that's how Benjamin receives it. Mr. McGuire enters the picture to give us an idea about exactly who Ben doesn't want to be. Just think—he could have been on the cutting edge of 3-D printing by now. But it's a huge turn-off for Benjamin. He can't see himself in that world.
MR. ROBINSON: So I hope you won't mind my giving you a friendly piece of advice.
BENJAMIN: I'd like to hear it.
MR. ROBINSON: Ben, I think…I think you ought to be taking it a little easier right now than you seem to. Sow a few wild oats. Take things as they come. Have a good time with the girls and so forth.
Mr. Robinson is correctly diagnosing the fact that Benjamin is pretty anxious about his future. Ben ends up taking this advice in a way that Mr. Robinson would not be happy with at all (having an affair with his wife). He tries on the identity of "cool young man who has an affair with an older woman." It doesn't help. There used to be the idea that sowing one's wild oats was a necessary step in the process of becoming an adult.
BENJAMIN: Because I'm interested, Mrs. Robinson. Now what was your major subject at college?
MRS. ROBINSON: Art.
BENJAMIN: But I thought you…I guess you kind of lost interest in it over the years, then.
MRS. ROBINSON: Kind of.
Mrs. Robinson has just told Ben she doesn't know anything about art, and now he finds out it was her college major. She never got to develop her identity as an artist; her unplanned pregnancy and loveless marriage disrupted her life.
Mike Nichols described Mrs. Robinson to Anne Bancroft as someone who was angry with herself for giving up who she really was for wealth and security. She said she remembered this as she was filming this scene. (Source) Benjamin doesn't want to follow her example. But he already has, in a way—whatever he studied in college means nothing to him at this point, and he didn't come out of school with a sense of who he is and what he wants to be. His reasons are different, but the result's the same.
MR. BRADDOCK: Ben, what are you doing?
BENJAMIN: Well, I would say that I'm just drifting. Here in the pool.
MR. BRADDOCK Why?
BENJAMIN: Well, it's very comfortable just to drift here.
It's totally more comfortable to hang out in the pool than to have to figure out what you want out of life. Nichols' used the pool to symbolize Ben's aimless and amorphous sense of self.
BENJAMIN: I'm good enough for you but I'm too slimy to associate with your daughter. That's it, isn't it? ISN'T IT?
MRS. ROBINSON: Yes.
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.
So much for the identity of "cool guy sleeping with older woman." The affair with Mrs. Robinson has just plunged Ben into greater self-disgust, pointlessness, and uncertainty. Up until now, Ben has only discovered what he doesn't want to be. Meeting Elaine changes that.
BENJAMIN: I've had this feeling ever since I graduated. This kind of compulsion that I have to be rude all the time...It's like I was 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. I mean no one makes them up. They seem to make themselves up.
Here's one reason Ben feels lost as a person: he feels he's living by other peoples' rules. When you're doing this, you don't have to figure out your own rules and your own meaning.
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.
Being around somebody he can finally identify with—who gets him—helps Ben start to see what it is that he might want. His feelings of alienation from other people is what's kept him so confused about where his life should be headed. Up until now, he's been reacting rather than acting. Meeting Elaine dramatically changes this and Benjamin starts taking some initiative—the first step in identity formation.
BENJAMIN: So you don't love him. You wouldn't say you –
MRS. ROBINSON: We've talked enough, Benjamin.
BENJAMIN: Wait a minute. So you wouldn't say you loved him.
MRS. ROBINSON: Not exactly.
BENJAMIN: But you don't hate him.
MRS. ROBINSON: No, Benjamin. I don't hate him. Unhook my blouse.
Mrs. Robinson's marriage lacks emotion, and is pretty short on sex, too. But she doesn't want a serious emotional relationship with Ben, either. It's completely about sex. She's in a pretty sad situation, really—devoid of love and not really all that interested in finding it. This is the kind of sterile life Benjamin dreads.
BENJAMIN: You're the first thing for so long that I like, the first person I could stand to be with.
Elaine shakes Ben out of his inertia. Suddenly, he realizes what he wants to do with his future—sort of. He wants to marry Elaine. Is he grabbing onto the first thing he likes and calling it love? Being "the first person I could stand to be with" sets the bar pretty low for a relationship, dontcha think?
BENJAMIN: Listen to me. What happened between Mrs. Robinson and me was nothing. It didn't mean anything. We might just as well have been shaking hands.
MR. ROBINSON: Shaking hands? Well, that's not saying much for my wife, is it?
BENJAMIN: The point is I don't love your wife, I love your daughter, sir.
This has to be the most awkward possible exchange between a possible future son-in-law and father-in-law. You have to feel bad for everyone involved in this somewhat sordid situation.
MRS. BRADDOCK: What makes you think she wants to marry you?
BENJAMIN: Oh, she doesn't. To be perfectly honest, she doesn't like me.
Oh, no big deal, then. Ben's smitten with Elaine and determined to marry her despite this minor obstacle. He loves her and he's convinced that this will win her over in the end. Is love really this powerful?
BENJAMIN [pounding on glass on second floor of church]: ELAINE!!! ELAINE!!!
ELAINE: … BEN!!!
This is the moment when Ben and Elaine really affirm their love for each other, in the uber-dramatic process of scuttling Elaine's wedding. On the other hand, can this really be love? Could it be just a need to rebel against their parents?
MRS. ROBINSON: Elaine—it's too late.
ELAINE: Not for me!
It's "too late" for Mrs. Robinson, because she lost her chance to find love and live the life she wanted to live. It's pretty tragic. But Elaine still has that opportunity available to her. Why would Mrs. Robinson want to deny her daughter happiness by making her marry Carl in the first place?
BENJAMIN: Mrs. Robinson, if you don't mind my saying so, this conversation is getting a little strange.
Benjamin is being slowly lured into something that's making him very anxious. The way Mrs. Robinson slowly ropes him in suggests she has some experience in this. She's extremely sexual and totally nonchalant, almost amused, during the whole process.
BENJAMIN: For God's sake, Mrs. Robinson, here we are, you've got me into your house. You give me a drink. You put on music, now you start opening up your personal life to me and tell me your husband won't be home for hours.
MRS. ROBINSON: So?
BENJAMIN: Mrs. Robinson—you are trying to seduce me... Aren't you?
Benjamin's right, of course—she is trying to seduce him. The comedy comes from her continuing the pretense that she isn't even as she escalates the seduction and Ben gets increasingly anxious. She's perched on a high bar stool in a short dress and spreads her legs just enough to give Benjamin a view of her thighs. That's what unconsciously prompts him to say she's "opening up" her personal life to him.
MRS. ROBINSON: Benjamin. I want you to know that I'm available to you, and if you won't sleep with me this time...
BENJAMIN: Oh, my God.
MRS. ROBINSON: ...if you won't sleep with me this time I want you to know that you can call me up anytime you want and we'll make some kind of an arrangement.
Mrs. Robinson is surprisingly businesslike and matter-of-fact about a potentially explosive situation, while Benjamin is freaking out. She almost enjoys making him uncomfortable. Why do you think she's so businesslike about it? Is she drunk? Does she do this all the time?
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.
This is a pretty hilarious juxtaposition of Ben's awkwardness and need to please vs. the fact that he's about to sleep with his parents' close friend. Mrs. Robinson is playing on the fact that Ben's a nice guy and doesn't want to appear insulting.
ROOM CLERK: Are you here for an affair, sir?
[Terror and disbelief in Ben's eyes. He looks helplessly at the clerk.]
ROOM CLERK: The Singleman party, sir?
BENJAMIN: Oh—yes. The Singleman party.
In a classic comic misunderstanding, the room clerk accidentally delves right into the source of Ben's anxieties as he waits for Mrs. Robinson to show up. He clearly feels jumpy and guilty about what he's about to do. The scene shows us that this clandestine stuff isn't exactly business as usual for Ben.
MRS. ROBINSON: On your first time—
BENJAMIN: Who said it was my first time.
MRS. ROBINSON: That you're afraid—
BENJAMIN: Wait a minute.
MRS. ROBINSON: —of being inadequate. I mean just because you happen to be inadequate in one way—
BENJAMIN: Inadequate! …Don't move.
Mrs. Robinson hits Ben in a psychological soft spot, challenging his manhood and fears about sexual inadequacy. In the novel, it's clear that Ben has a fair amount of sexual experience. Was there a reason why Nichols chose to portray him as anxious and inexperienced? Is it more comical?
BEN: Now…do you think we could say a few words to each other first this time?
MRS. ROBINSON: If you want.
BEN: Good. I mean are we dead or something?
MRS. ROBINSON: Well I just don't think we have much to say to each other.
BEN: All we ever do is come up here and throw off the clothes and leap into bed together.
This is somewhat of a role reversal—the young man wants to talk; the older, sophisticated woman just wants to get naked. Mrs. Robinson may just want to avoid talking about her unhappy life, but Ben sees sex without a relationship as being "dead" and meaningless. Why do you think he's trying to make more out of it than it is? Doesn't he later tell Mr. Robinson that it wasn't any more personal to him than shaking hands?
BENJAMIN: You have not slept with your husband for five years?
MRS. ROBINSON: Now and then. He gets drunk a few times a year.
BENJAMIN: How many times a year?
MRS. ROBINSON: On New Year's Eve. Sometimes on his birthday.
BENJAMIN: Man, is this interesting.
Mrs. Robinson is clearly unfulfilled, but Ben can't even imagine such a scenario. Even if he's sexually experienced, he's still pretty naïve about what can happen in a marriage.
BEN: Oh no. You had to marry him because you got pregnant?
MRS. ROBINSON: Are you shocked?
BEN: Well I never thought of you and Mr. Robinson as the kind of people who...
It gets even more interesting for Ben. He shows his naïveté even more here. You know, old folks don't get it on. He can't imagine Mr. and Mrs. Robinson as impulsive, lustful young people. Not only that, they did it in the back of a Ford. This is the beginning of a conversation where we see some similarities between Ben and the young Mrs. Robinson.
BENJAMIN: Well you loved him once, I assume. When you first knew him.
MRS. ROBINSON: No.
MRS. ROBINSON: I never did, Benjamin. Now let's—
BENJAMIN: Well, wait a minute. You married him…why did you do that?
MRS. ROBINSON: See if you can guess.
We get to see that Mrs. Robinson is more than just some wacky cougar who likes to seduce younger men. She has sadder and more serious reasons for doing what she's doing: she married someone she didn't love because of an unplanned pregnancy. What's striking about this scene is that Benjamin, coming of age during the sexual revolution, doesn't immediately catch her drift. When he finally does, he doesn't see the tragic element of it; he thinks it's cool that Elaine "got started" in the back of a Ford.
MRS. BRADDOCK: Well when did you two talk this over?
BENJAMIN: We haven't.
MRS. BRADDOCK: You haven't?
MR. BRADDOCK: Ben, this whole idea sounds pretty half-baked.
BENJAMIN: No, it's not. It's completely baked.
Is this any more of a promising start to a marriage than getting a girl pregnant and "having to" get married?
MRS. BRADDOCK: But what makes you think she wants to marry you?
BENJAMIN: She doesn't. To be perfectly honest, she doesn't like me.
Elaine probably does like Ben's personality (at least, after he stopped acting like a jerk during the strip club scene). She only dislikes him because—you know—he had an affair with her mother (and is indirectly responsible for instigating her parents' divorce). Benjamin, who's all about honesty and real connection, is taking this step totally unilaterally. He's starting to look a little off his rocker.
BENJAMIN: Will you marry me? …You won't?
ELAINE: I don't know.
BENJAMIN: But you might?
ELAINE: I might.
BENJAMIN: Is that so? You might marry me?
Elaine's starting to crack, coming closer to admitting that she really does love Ben. In order to do it, she has to marry a guy who had an affair with her mother. It's not looking like the greatest idea in the world, in our humble opinion. There have to be other motivations at work here apart from affection for Ben, who she barely knows.
ELAINE: Why don't you drag me off if you want to marry me so much?
BENJAMIN: Why don't I just drag you off? All right, I will. Right after we get the blood tests...
Elaine's testing Ben's passion. How badly does he really want to marry her? When he crashes her wedding at the end, he confirms how extremely serious he really is about her.
ELAINE: Carl Smith. He's a medical student. We've known him for years.
BENJAMIN: Who, that guy at the zoo?
BENJAMIN: Why do you have to see him?
ELAINE: Well -- I said I might marry him.
BENJAMIN: You WHAT?
Elaine says she told Carl she might marry him; she tells Ben she might marry him. Elaine's caught between what her parents want for her and what she might want for herself. She's not really sure which way to go. Some guys would turn and run immediately in this situation, but Ben stays in pursuit. You get the impression that something else is going on with Elaine other than trying to decide who to marry.
BENJAMIN: How did he do it? Did he get down on his knees? He didn't get down on his knees, I hope.
ELAINE: No, Benjamin.
BENJAMIN: Well, what did he say? I'm curious.
ELAINE: He said he thought we'd make a pretty good team.
BENJAMIN: Oh, no. He said that?
Ben thinks Carl's "pretty good team" line is ridiculous because it's utterly devoid of passion. Carl isn't desperately in love, he just wants someone he can reasonably function with (at least, that's how Ben sees it). It confirms Ben's idea of the staleness and emptiness of his parents' idea of marriage.
BENJAMIN: Do any of you fellows know where Carl Smith is?
FRAT BROTHER #1: He took off in the middle of the night to get married.
FRAT BROTHER #2: Probably one step ahead of the shotgun.
The frat brother's joke makes Carl sound like some sort of degenerate. (In case you don't know, a shotgun wedding is a wedding in which the groom has already gotten the bride pregnant—and hence is forced to marry her, gunpoint being the exaggerated reality of the coercion.) They already called Carl "the make-out king," so Ben is pretty protective of Elaine at this point. This exchange reminds us of how Mrs. Robinson got married because she was pregnant with Elaine.
PILOT: Ladies and gentlemen, we are about to begin our descent into Los Angeles.
That just says it all. Returning home from college is a descent for Benjamin. He's going down, down, down into an environment that he can't relate to.
MR. BRADDOCK: The guests are all downstairs, Ben. They're all waiting to see you.
BENJAMIN: Look, Dad - could you explain to them that I have to be alone for a while?
MR. BRADDOCK: These are all our good friends, Ben. Most of them have known you since, well, practically since you were born.
The graduation party is a nightmare scenario for Ben. He knows he'll be asked about his future and he has no answers. The guests aren't meaning to be intrusive; as Mr. Braddock says, they're family friends who want to congratulate him and show some interest in his plans. But this is just too much for him to bear at the moment. No one is really speaking his language. Hearing without listening, as Paul Simon writes.
MR. CARLSON: Hey, there's our award winning scholar.
MRS. CARLSON: We're all very proud of you, Ben.
BENJAMIN: Thank you, Mrs. Carlson.
One reason Ben wants to hide in his room is that people have a view of him based on all his college accomplishments. He is an award-winning scholar, as well as a track star and editor of the college newspaper. That's a lot to live up to, but that stuff is meaningless to Ben right now. So he feels distant from people who value those accomplishments.
LADY 1: Ben…we're all so proud of you.
LADY 2: Proud, proud, proud, proud, proud.
LADY 3: What are you going to do now?
BENJAMIN: I was going to go upstairs for a minute –
LADY 3: No, I meant with your future.
LADY 2: With your life.
BENJAMIN: Well, that's a little hard to say…
More of the same. All Ben can think of is escape at this point. He can't relate to these people who want him to think about the future. They're expecting great things from him and he feels like he can 't deliver.
[Shot of Ben at the bottom of the pool in his scuba suit.]
Nichols shoots this seem as an ultimate example of isolation. Benjamin can see his parents looking at him but can't hear him. All the party guests are up above. The camera pulls back to show him looking like the little scuba diver at the bottom of the fish tank in his room. The whole scenario is so mortifying and off-putting to him that he calls Mrs. Robinson to begin their affair.
BENJAMIN: Now, you say the driveway's on your side of the house. So I guess you don't sleep in the same room.
MRS. ROBINSON: We don't.
BENJAMIN: So you don't…I mean I don't like to seem like I'm prying but I guess you don't sleep together or anything.
MRS. ROBINSON: No, we don't.
BENJAMIN: Well how long has this been going on?
MRS. ROBINSON: About five years.
Benjamin's not the only one who's feeling isolated and alienated.
[Shot of Ben reflected in the hotel room mirror watching TV, while Mrs. Robinson gets dressed and leaves the room.]
Eventually even the affair gets stale and leaves him feeling alienated and checked out. It's because he's not finding any meaning or connection with Mrs. Robinson. He knows this is not who he is. He feels alone even in bed with her.
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.
[Elaine reaches over and puts her hand on his.]
Finally, Benjamin breaks through his alienation because Elaine understands what he's been feeling about his lack of direction. This is such a powerful experience for him that he falls in love with her immediately and devotes the rest of the film to pursuing her.
An obvious fact is that Elaine's the first person in his age group he's had contact with since he returned home. He hasn't looked up old friends from the neighborhood or contacted his buddies from college. He only got in touch with Elaine because of constant hounding by his parents and Mr. Robinson. Was he afraid that his friends and classmates were successfully moving ahead with their plans and this would upset him? Was he putting on a persona in college and hanging with people he really had nothing in common with? Or did he have no friends in college at all?