In The Graduate, Benjamin Braddock has just graduated from college, but he still hasn't developed an idea of what he wants to do in the world or who he really is. Up until now, his identity has been defined by his college experience: he was a stellar student, a track star, and editor of the college newspaper. But now that's over and he has nothing to replace it. With all the options available to a wealthy, bright college grad, he's overwhelmed. And that's what the film's about—how he tries to find an identity apart from his parents' expectations for him.
Pursuing the woman he loves is what drives Benjamin's identity formation.
Benjamin's impulsive running off with Elaine shows us that he's still running away from figuring out who he is.
Ben's relationship with Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate is not about love. They hardy talk during their trysts; the nature of their relationship seems to be purely sexual. On the other hand, he and Elaine bond over the conversations they have, sympathizing with each other over their doubts about the future and the world they're entering. Ben feels like they're soul-mates. Whether this is true love or not remains to be seen, since they don't really know each other that well. But compared to the other relationships in his life, it must seem like a zillion times more authentic and connected. For someone as paralyzed and remote as Benjamin, the connection with Elaine wakes him up for the first time in a long time.
In this film, Benjamin's love for Elaine is what finally gives him a direction in life.
Ben's infatuated with Elaine but doesn't love her; he hardly knows her.
The Graduate was a pretty provocative movie for its time, even though you can see more sex today on prime-time TV. The raciness is really in the seduction. Nichols said he deliberately left out much of the actual sex acts because he wanted to emphasize how little of a relationship there was between Benjamin and Mrs. Robinson. (Source)
In the film, sex is part of Benjamin's disastrous attempts to grow up and find some meaning in his life, but all it really does is make him realize how empty his life is. He tries to get Mrs. Robinson to talk to him before they have sex so he feels they have at least some kind of relationship. What a square! We see Mrs. Robinson play on Benjamin's sexual worries in order to seduce him—accusing him of being a virgin or concerned about his sexual adequacy.
Ben tries to dismiss what happened between him and Mrs. Robinson by telling Mr. Robinson that it was just "like shaking hands," but the affair has disastrous consequences for Mr. and Mrs. Robinson. Ben gets off more or less scot-free. He feels guilty, but he gets the relationship he wants in the end.
Sex is the only exciting action in the film.
Sex is depicted as depressing and meaningless.
We have at least one example of a bad marriage in The Graduate, and one potential example of a good one (not counting Benjamin's parents' marriage, which seems to be pretty good). The bad marriage is the Robinsons—obviously bad, because Mrs. Robinson cheats on Mr. Robinson and it ends in divorce. Evidently, this marriage happened because Mrs. Robinson got pregnant and felt she had no choice but to drop out of school, get married, and give up her artistic ambitions. She doesn't really love her husband, and looks for an affair as an escape from boredom.
Elaine's marriage to Carl is a sham, pushed on her by her parents, who are desperate to get her away from Ben. She goes along with it. As for Ben and Elaine, we don't know what really happens; maybe she gets an annulment and they marry. Is this a real relationship or just rebellion against their parents? Is that a basis for a marriage? In the final shot, we know the jury's still out on that one.
By wanting to marry Elaine, Ben shows he's just as conventional as his parents.
Marriage could be a dead end for women of Mrs. Robinson's age, but it was the only choice open to them.
Alienation is one of the themes of The Graduate that make this film so popular among young people. Feeling misunderstood and feeling like an outsider are universal experiencea on the road to figuring out where you belong. Benjamin Braddock doesn't feel like he belongs in his parents' world, but hasn't yet landed anywhere more compatible because he doesn't even know what that place would be. He's turned off by almost everything he sees.
Nichols coveys Benjamin's isolation more cinematically than through anything Ben says, so we'll describe a few camera shots and dig up a few quotes as well. And we can't forget that perfect musical expression of Benjamin's mindset: "The Sound of Silence." Paul Simon wrote it when he was 21 (source).
The adults in Benjamin's life are all pretty shallow and focused on career success rather than finding meaning in life. No wonder he's alienated.
The adults in Benjamin's life really care about him and reach out in their own way. The problem is with Ben.