Stories are about characters who have problems to solve. In the Mike Nichols film The Graduate (1967), Ben Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) has two main problems: He is socially isolated, and he has no plan for his future. He becomes an active protagonist in solving one problem yet is a passive protagonist in not solving the other.
The opening scene is symbolic of Ben’s life. He is standing on a moving walkway and staring blankly. He is moving, but not of his own power or volition. His life is at a standstill.
Ben is depressed about his life. When he arrives home from the airport, he retreats to his bedroom and doesn’t want to talk to anyone. His depression is a symptom of his two main problems, which he doesn’t know how to solve.
Ben’s depression also creates a vicious circle. When a person is depressed, it is harder for them to solve their problems.
As a college graduate, Ben should be seeking employment, or applying to graduate school. Mr. McGuire (Walter Brooke) suggests a career in “plastics”, yet Ben shows little interest. Although plastics is symbolic of a meaningless career, the world cannot function unless people do the jobs that are ordinary and mundane. Ben doesn’t want an ordinary job, but he doesn’t know what his dream job is.
Ben went to college with no idea what he would do once he graduated. A student all his life, he has been living in the ivory tower of academia, which insulated him from the real world.
Ben’s lack of vision for his life is symbolically shown to us in the birthday party scene. He receives a scuba diving suit from his parents, puts it on, and the camera shows us what he sees. His field of vision is narrow, and he is emotionally distressed. This is analogous to the distress he feels about his future. The scene ends with him sinking to the bottom of the pool. He is emotionally drowning, buried underwater like a dead man.
Ben is, by definition, an idle man: “not occupied or employed.” Idleness doesn’t simply mean unemployed. (A student or a mother raising children are not idle.) Ben is idle because he isn’t doing anything with his life. However, he is probably not lazy. In the backstory of the film, he was a diligent student who won awards and was successful in track and field.
Ben is idle because his parents are enabling him. Mr. Braddock (William Daniels) is frustrated by his son’s lack of a plan — lecturing him about “…getting off his ass” — yet he gives him no ultimatum. As an only child, Ben was likely spoiled by his parents. They paid for his education and give him a car as a graduation present. After graduation, they presumably give him spending money, so he can go out and have fun. (In a later scene, he also has money to rent a room at UC Berkeley.) Ben would not be idle if his parents didn’t allow him to be.
Ben is also idle due to his social isolation. Because he is socially awkward, he has no girlfriend or male friends to talk to. Talking about his problems would help him find solutions. If he had peer influences — friends who were working or applying for jobs — he might follow their example and do something with his life.
It is human nature to want to do something each day, even if you don’t want to work. Ben has nothing to do, and this opens the door to sexual temptation: an affair with Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft). When people have too much time on their hands, they don’t always use their time wisely.
Ben becomes an active protagonist when he phones Mrs. Robinson to have sex. The affair is an attempt to overcome his social isolation; however, it is not a solution. The loveless relationship is a distraction from the problem of having no plan for his life. He gains sexual experience with Mrs. Robinson, but his life still has no meaning or purpose.
When Ben goes on a date with Mrs. Robinson’s daughter, Elaine Robinson (Katherine Ross), his idleness is a concern to her. The first thing she asks him is what is he going to do. Later, when she learns that he had an affair with her mother, she breaks up with him. Ben has reaped what he has sown with his idle life, doing something socially unacceptable.
When Elaine rejects Ben, he finally finds a purpose for his life. He realizes that he loves her and wants to marry her. Although he actively pursues Elaine, he is still an idle man. When he follows her to UC Berkeley, he doesn’t look for a job. Elaine tells him not to leave Berkeley until he has a plan.
Elaine wants Ben to stay at Berkeley, so she can continue seeing him. However, one reason she won’t say yes to marrying him is because he has no plan for a career. How can they make a life together when Ben is financially dependent on his parents?
The ending of the film is ironic. Elaine runs away with Ben despite him having no plan. In the final scene, after she has left Carl (Brian Avery) at the church, they sit at the back of a bus. Elaine and Ben are laughing and filled with joy. However, soon after, they appear unsettled as the reality of their situation starts to sink in. Elaine must be wondering, “What kind of a future will I have with Ben?” Similarly, Ben must be thinking, “What will I do now?”
Ben solved his problem of social isolation by becoming an active protagonist. Against all odds, he won the heart of the woman he loves. However, he ends the film as a passive protagonist. He doesn’t solve the problem of having no plan for his future.