Study Guide

The Graduate Identity


[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: be what?

BENJAMIN: ...different.

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?



BENJAMIN: But I thought you…I guess you kind of lost interest in it over the years, then.


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.


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?


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.